Factory farming is killing the planet, and it's only getting worse. If you're an environmentalist, it's time to rethink your diet.
Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for June? Go vegetarian.
It’s a pretty common scenario, especially now that it’s barbecue season: You’re at party on a breezy Saturday in the park and all your liberal friends are chit-chatting about the woes of the world. One mentions that she’s really happy with her new hybrid car, which helps us reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Another says he can’t believe his nephew’s school is still using Styrofoam lunch trays. “You can’t even compost that stuff,” he moans. Just as the woman knitting something for her Etsy store begins talking about how stupid climate-change deniers are, she’s interrupted by the grill master, who alerts the group that the burgers and chicken kebabs are done. As everyone digs in, factory farms plug along, quickly and methodically killing cows, chickens, and pigs while slowly killing the soil, water, and air around them.
In June 2010, Achim Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environment Program, made it very explicit. The only thing other than fossil fuels that has such a dangerously disproportionate impact on the safety of the earth is "agriculture, especially the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products." Worried about the way factory farming depletes land and guzzles water, Steiner had convened the International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management to assess the world's most pervasive climate enemies. The panel's findings, that industrial agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater production, 38 percent of land use, and 19 percent of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions, led it to one conclusion: "A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change." In other words, everyone's got to start eating a lot less meat.
"It’s pretty much from soup to nuts," says David Cassuto, an environmental law professor at Pace University and the director of that school's Brazil-American Institute for Law and Environment. "Every aspect of the environment is being impacted in a significant way by industrial agriculture." Cassuto, a vegan himself, calls factory farms "massive polluters." But "federal pollution laws only cover pollution from point sources," he says. "Factory farms tend not to be defined as point sources, so the pollutants they put into the groundwater as well as that which runs into the surface water are significant and also, for the most part, unregulated."
Little regulation has yielded lots of production. Four years ago, global meat production was estimated to be about 275 million tons annually. And as the developing world gets wealthier, its demand for meat is rising. By 2050, estimates say that annual meat production will be near 465 million tons. With much of the culinary world in the throes of the "locavore" movement, in which all meat is proximal and sustainably produced, the belief seems to be that factory farms will eventually be unnecessary. Sourcing locally, yuppies tell themselves, is the way we can have our bacon and eat it too. But Cassuto says simple math destroys that notion. "It’s just not possible to produce the amount of meat and dairy being demanded," he says. "It’s an idea and an ideal that one can produce sustainably—and I'm using that word in quotes—raised meat in the quantity necessary to feed the planet’s demand."
Cassuto says you can eat at as many "local" restaurants as you'd like; there's no way to come up with 465 million tons of meat without industrial agriculture, which has already wrought irreversible damage on the world. If our meat consumption now is unsustainable—and most impartial experts say it is—in a few decades it's going to be an unmitigated disaster.
"The current paradigm is so insidious that if people did want to try and feed the world with [local meat], I say let’s go there," says Cassuto. "Because it would require a drastically, drastically, drastically reduced amount of meat consumption."
None of this is to say, of course, that the world would be free of climate woe were everyone to go vegan tomorrow. In fact, one 2007 study out of Cornell says that a diet with a little bit of meat actually uses less land than purely vegetarian diets. However, the general consensus is that people need to make drastic cuts in their meat consumption if meat agriculture is ever to be authentically sustainable. "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about [climate change] reductions in a short period of time, [eating less meat] clearly is the most attractive opportunity," says Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there."
Asked if anyone can be taken seriously about climate change if they're not a vegetarian or nearly a vegetarian, Cassuto hesitates at first. "I think that nobody is consistent," he says. "There are people of good faith who are doing the best they can in every area, but nobody’s perfect. But I would say this: The single most effective thing one can do on an individual level to combat climate change is to drastically decrease or eliminate one’s consumption of industrial animal products. There's no way around the statistics on that. Part of doing the best you can is taking a look at the implications of what you do, and this is one of those that you can't ignore."
photo via AP/Alexandre Meneghini