Impact of Animal Agriculture on the Environment
Animal agriculture’s devastating impacts on climate change and our environment have been well-documented by scientists around the world.
Food production has increasingly intensified so that companies can profit from an unsustainable global demand for animal products — the raising and killing of billions of animals each year come at an unbearable price for our planet.
The farming of animals plays an outsized role in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation, and water and air pollution.
As a result, experts, including those at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have repeatedly urged a shift towards a diet rich in plant-based foods over animal products to help address the impacts of our food system.
But despite the large environmental footprint of animal farming operations, there is little oversight of the industry’s impacts in the United States.
Please continue reading to learn more about animal agriculture’s toll on the environment and ways you can make a difference.
- Animal agriculture contributes 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
- The industry, primarily the farming of cattle, causes around 40% of human-related emissions of methane, a GHG over 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
- Animal agriculture contributes 65% of human-caused emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 10-15 times more potent than methane.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has emphasized the importance of reducing food system emissions if we are to curb climate impacts.
- Per gram of protein, beef produces 20 times more GHG emissions than plants such as beans.
- Foods producing high methane emissions are expected to contribute 80% of food-related global warming by 2100.
- Discussed below, animal agriculture’s role in deforestation is a concerning source of emissions itself. The United Nations reports deforestation's emissions would rank third among all nations if it were a country — behind only China and the U.S.
- Forests have been an important carbon sink, absorbing around 30% of industry emissions — storing more carbon than they emit. But forest loss, largely for agriculture, threatens their ability to absorb harmful gases from our atmosphere.
- The United Nations attributes 90% of deforestation to agricultural expansion.
- Beef, soy, and palm oil (crops largely grown to feed farmed animals) together cause 60% of tropical deforestation.
- Three-quarters of deforestation in South America is due to livestock grazing.
- Beef production alone contributes 41% of all deforestation, and cattle ranching is responsible for the majority of Amazon rainforest destruction, fueled by an ever-rising international demand for beef. In 2022, the Washington Post reported, “If the Amazon is to die, it will be beef that kills it. And America will be an accomplice.”
- JBS, the world’s largest producer of animal meat, has been named the producer responsible for the most deforestation — at 100,711 hectares. Of that, 74,701 hectares may have been cleared illegally, according to the Soy & Cattle Deforestation Tracker.
- Research shows that a worldwide shift towards plant-based diets would free up 75% of land used for agriculture.
Land & Water Usage
- The raising of livestock takes up 80% of the world’s agricultural land, and yet, it only produces 20% of calories.
- Research suggests repurposing some of the land used for animal agriculture would benefit climate solutions.
- Agriculture as a whole takes up half of Earth’s habitable land, having significantly intensified over the past 1,000 years as demand for meat and livestock feed has grown.
- Industrial animal farming causes 85% of U.S. soil erosion, leaving lands infertile.
- Livestock feed production accounts for an estimated 41% of agriculture’s total water usage, as crops are grown to fatten animals for slaughter rather than the nutritious plants being fed directly to humans.
- Meanwhile, approximately 2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, per the United Nations.
- Even as the western U.S. faces severe drought, 70% of the Colorado River’s water is used to irrigate feed crops for farmed animals.
- S. animal agriculture uses 36-74 trillion gallons of water annually.
- It requires 1,850 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, compared to 256 gallons for the same amount of soy. For pork and chicken production, the usage is 720 and 520 gallons, respectively.
- Multiple air pollutants are released by animal agriculture operations, including hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that may disproportionately impact children.
- Multiple studies of areas surrounding large-scale animal farms — often home to low-income communities and people of color — have found higher rates of asthma and reduced lung function as well as more asthma attacks.
- Ammonia pollution from farms can subject surrounding communities to strong odors, and exposure to high concentrations (like those experienced by farm workers), can lead to irritation — or even failure — of the respiratory system.
- An alarming 2021 study blamed animal-based foods for 80% of the 15,900 U.S. air quality-related deaths tied to food production each year.
- Air pollution from animal agriculture has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers for those who live near intensive farms.
- Despite these impacts, the EPA does not yet have an established method to measure air pollution from industrial farms.
- Nutrient runoff from manure, often stored in large lagoons, can introduce nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways, causing toxic algae growth and ocean dead zones.
- Research has shown that cattle, pig, and chicken farming accounts for up 74-88% of nutrients and parasites called oocysts found in rivers.
- Other harmful pollution can seep from farms, such as ammonia, heavy metals, antibiotics, and hormones.
- Major meat producers including JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods have been accused for and, at times, penalized for Clean Water Act violations.
- Analysis of EPA data reveals that 98 large-scale meat plants dumped 250,000 gallons of wastewater daily into U.S. waterways from January 2016-June 2018, facing little enforcement.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization has written, “The livestock sector is growing and intensifying faster than crop production in almost all countries. The associated waste, including manure, has serious implications for water quality.”