If you peruse the documentary section on Netflix, you’ll notice the documentary Cowspiracy, which claims that animal agriculture is the biggest threat to our planet. And it’s true, environmentally, we need to reduce our consumption of meat.
Methane: When animals wander around nature doing their thing, the waste they produce benefits the environment. When animals live in a forest environment (Silvopasture) they can contribute to soil fertility.
Instead, the animals we eat come from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s. This can mean 1000 cows or over 100,000 chickens crammed in a large shed. Instead of fertilizing the ground, their waste becomes a toxic waste, stored in lagoons that emit methane and poison our drinking water.
Cattle Feed: Growing the food to feed the animals we eat has negative impacts on the environment. If animals roam free on the open prairie, they turn inedible grasses into food. But for the animals we eat, even if it spent part of its life on the open range, it will end its life confined in a CAFO feedlot. A small amount of the food they eat is stuff that would otherwise have been wasted (leftover mash from a brewery, or rejected vegetables). But the vast majority is perfectly edible corn and soybeans.
Conventionally grown corn requires massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, produced by burning fossil fuels. In fact, producing 1 calorie of corn can use up to 12 calories of fossil fuels. When you consider that cows eat 10 pounds of grain for every 1 pound of meat we get back, you can see how the emissions add up. Farming food to turn around and feed it to animals we’ll eat does not make ecological sense.
Deforestation: The world’s livestock consumes enough food to feed the world’s human population. Growing all that extra food requires clearing a lot of extra land. When land is cleared for conventional agriculture, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Soil contains stored carbon in the form of organic matter. Different soils store differing amounts of carbon, but all soils store the most when they are in undisturbed equilibrium. When we cut down rainforests or plow new prairies, we unlock that stored carbon. This damages the soil, forcing farmers to either use synthetic fertilizers or clear a new tract of land to plant.
Meat’s role in our future diet: Okay, so you may be saying “Great, all we have to do is start eating free-range cattle and our problem is solved!” Unfortunately, to rely on meat raised with responsible methods, we’d need to cut our current global meat consumption by over 90 percent.
Meat will likely always have some role to play in our diets, but its role will have to shift from the star of the show to a supporting cast member. To ensure that everyone has access to the food they need, we need to rethink our relationship with meat.
Dave Gladson works in the marketing department at PLNU and teaches a Sustainability in Action class.