The fact that the consumption of animal products has a harmful impact on the environment is not a new realization. In fact, an environmental assessment from 2019 found that “avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.”
Global warming and other environmental issues threaten our very survival; yet, when making daily food-related decisions, people don’t always consider the ecological consequences of their actions.
Avoiding animal products is not difficult, and it’s a simple way to minimize your ecological footprint on a daily basis. Now more than ever, people need to be making choices with climate change in mind; everything, from environmental to social justice issues, are impacted by the things that people choose to put in their grocery carts.
Here are some of the effects that come with the high demand for animal products:
Deforestation for farming contributes to climate change. The effect of less trees is multiplied when forests are burned—there are less trees to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and when vegetation burns, it releases more harmful gases into the atmosphere.
Deforestation is not the only way that the livestock industry creates air pollution. Raising cattle and freshwater fish-farming are examples in the industry that produce high amounts of methane. Methane contributes to climate change by trapping heat in the air, and it is even more harmful than excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The meat and dairy industry is responsible for a significant amount of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The meat and dairy industries also pollute the world’s water systems, and it isn’t just the obvious fish-farming that is responsible. All untreated animal waste contaminates our water systems. This runoff can also contain harmful bacteria and viruses, and spread them to new places. The scale of farming in the world right now is simply too large for natural systems to take care of animal waste in the usual, beneficial way.
Not only are water systems being polluted, but fresh water is also being used up; raising livestock requires a lot of water. Animals need water to drink, and just one cow needs copious amounts of water to stay healthy, and even more to produce milk. It isn’t just thirsty livestock that uses up water though; the crops grown to feed animals need a lot of water, and then the process of getting livestock from the farm to the market takes lots of water, too. Factory farms are also very dirty places—water is required to try keeping things more sanitary.
When animals overgraze land and the land doesn’t have time to recover, soil erosion becomes a big issue. With no plants to stop soil from being washed away by rain and blown away by wind, soil erosion speeds up. There are many effects of soil erosion, including flooding and clogged waterways.
Crops like corn, soy, and oats are easy and cheap to grow, and yield a high amount of energy; they are the usual choices for feeding livestock. The problem is that the vast majority of agricultural land is used to grow animal feed and is therefore growing the same crops in soil, year after year. This is called monoculture, and it is not a sustainable farming practice. Soil needs time to heal and regenerate, and rotating different plants is the healthiest method of farming. Monoculture depletes the soil of the specific nutrients that specific plants need, and harmful fertilizers and other hazardous chemicals are then needed to compensate for the worn-out soil.
Wildlife habitats destroyed
With the constant attitude of “more, more, more,” we are running out of space. When agricultural enterprises need to expand, they do so by taking over wild, natural areas and leave nowhere for the wildlife to go.
As you can see, there are a lot of detrimental effects of the meat and dairy industry and factory farming, and they are all connected—just like Earth’s natural water, air, and earth systems are connected—each one exacerbating the next. As the scale of the meat and dairy industry grows, so does the scale of the harm it creates.
It’s worth noting that animal products aren’t the only food products that have a negative impact on the environment; even a vegan or plant-based lifestyle can come up against some environmental pitfalls. When possible, choose food that has been grown locally. Avocados and other imported fruits are amazing, but consider the environmental impact of their farming and the carbon footprint of their journey to your home, and think of other options for daily staples. Check ingredient lists for palm oil—if there is a similar product without it, try that one. If you can, choose organic chocolate products that show the cacao has been sustainably farmed.
You can also reduce waste (and save money!) by meal planning. If you make a weekly meal plan, you’ll be able to integrate leftovers and extra ingredients into your meals, and you’ll be more likely to eat your food rather than throwing it away. If you know you’re prone to throwing away leftovers, make a point to put them in the freezer right away—you might not want more soup or stew the next day, but having a homemade meal waiting in the freezer will be appealing on your next busy evening.
Even though some plant-based products have an environmental impact, it is still much less than the impact of wide scale farming for animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. Choose plant-based first, and then tweak your choices as you learn more about the individual products that regularly make it into your grocery cart. There are always little ways in which each of us can work towards positive change.