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Environmental Destruction

“[T]hose who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed people elsewhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the clearing of forests.…

“[W]hen nonvegetarians say that ‘human problems come first’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.”

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1990

The following findings were compiled from the executive summary of Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,* a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:

Waste lagoon at GA hog farm
Hog farm waste lagoons in Georgia (above) and North Carolina (below). Click images for larger views; courtesy of USDA.
Waste lagoon at NC hog farm

Climate change: With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting icecaps and glaciers, shifting ocean currents and weather patterns, climate change is the most serious challenge facing the human race. The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent.… Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. [See also A Truly Inconvenient Truth.]

Water: The livestock sector is a key player in increasing water use, accounting for over 8 percent of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feedcrops. It is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, “dead” zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others. The major sources of pollution are from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feedcrops, and sediments from eroded pastures.

Runoff at MD dairy
Manure runoff from a dairy farm in Maryland (click image for larger view; courtesy of USDA NRCS).

Land degradation: Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring – 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.

Biodiversity: Indeed, the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.

*Note: The term “livestock” refers to all farmed animals, including pigs, birds raised for meat, egg-laying hens, and dairy cows.

For more information, see the media release and full report.

“The way that we breed animals for food is a threat to the planet. It pollutes our environment while consuming huge amounts of water, grain, petroleum, pesticides and drugs. The results are disastrous.”

David Brubaker, PhD, Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins University
Environmental News Network, 9/20/99

According to the EPA’s “Animal Waste: What’s the Problem?”:

Algae bloom
Above: Algae bloom from runoff. Below: Runoff of waste.
Waste runoff

[T]he growing scale and concentration of AFOs [animal feeding operations] has contributed to negative environmental and human health impacts. Pollution associated with AFOs degrades the quality of waters, threatens drinking water sources, and may harm air quality.

By definition, AFOs produce large amounts of waste in small areas. For example, a single dairy cow produces approximately 120 pounds of wet manure per day. Estimates equate the waste produced per day by one dairy cow to that of 20–40 humans per day.…

Manure, and wastewater containing manure, can severely harm river and stream ecosystems. Manure contains ammonia which is highly toxic to fish at low levels. Increased amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from AFOs can cause algal blooms which block waterways and deplete oxygen as they decompose. This can kill fish and other aquatic organisms, devastating the entire aquatic food chain.

Dairy cow

“A single dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure per day, which is equivalent to the waste produced by 20–40 people. That means California’s 1.4 million dairy cows produce as much waste as 28–56 million people.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Notes from Underground, Fall 2001

In 2002, after collecting thousands of records from state and federal regulatory agencies, Sierra Club researchers compiled a report and database called The RapSheet on Animal Factories, documenting “crimes, violations or other operational malfeasance at more than 630 industrial meat factories in 44 states.”

Manure lagoon

The two-and-a-half-year investigation revealed that “environmental violations by the meat industry add up to a rap sheet longer than War and Peace.” Among other findings, the RapSheet documents:

  • Government files show that approximately 50 corporations, or their managers, racked up a total of more than 60 misdemeanor or felony indictments, charges, convictions or pleas. Criminal fines total nearly $50 million. The criminal counts included animal cruelty, bribery, destroying records, fraud, distributing contaminated meat and pollution.

  • Millions of gallons of liquefied feces and urine seeped into the environment from collapsed, leaking or overflowing storage lagoons, and flowed into rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater. Hundreds of manure spills have killed millions of fish.

Despite lax federal and state law enforcement, these companies were assessed tens of millions of dollars in fines, penalties and court judgments. More than 20% of the 220 companies profiled in detail have been hit with criminal charges or convictions.


Intensive pig farms have made the air so unbearable in some rural communities that some residents must wear masks while outdoors 29 and made some people sick. Poultry and pig waste has contributed to the growth of pathogenic organisms in waterways, which have poisoned humans and killed millions of fish.30 From 1995 to 1997, more than forty animal waste spills killed 10.6 million fish.31

See also: “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler” from the New York Times, regarding environmental destruction and resource allocation; “Eating as if the Climate Mattered” provides more links. For more general environmental information, see this report by Lacey Gaechter of the University of Colorado.

Update, May 2008: The prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production just concluded its 2.5-year study of American animal agriculture with unanimous findings from its 15 members. The Commission was chaired by former Kansas governor John Carlin and included, among others, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, former Dean of the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Michael Blackwell, and more.

The panel concluded that factory farms pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and animal welfare. It also issued a series of recommendations, including a phase-out of battery cages, gestation crates, veal crates, foie gras, and tail docking of dairy cows, along with inclusion of poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

The Washington Post story is titled, “Report Targets Cost of Factory Farming.” USA Today’s story begins, “The way America produces meat, milk and eggs is unsustainable, creates significant risks to public health from antibiotic resistance and disease, damages the environment and unnecessarily harms animals, a report released Tuesday says.” The Wall Street Journal’s coverage focuses both on the problems caused by factory farming, and the Commission’s conclusion that the “agriculture industry is exerting ‘significant influence’ on academic research.” And the Des Moines Register’s piece highlights the fact that the Commission is accusing “some livestock interests of trying to disrupt a wide-ranging study of the industry by threatening to yank financing for scientists and universities.”

See also: The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations.


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