Volunteer with MN350's Communications Team
NOTE: This is the first part of a three-part blog on the industrial farming of animals and its implications for the impact of eating meat on the environment. Part 1 provides history and background, Part 2 explores the ethical problem that eating meat poses today, and Part 3 offers solutions.
“Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
— Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (1956–2018)
I grew up in the 1950s in a small town in southeast Georgia. The dinners my mother prepared every evening always included meat — usually ground beef, chicken, or inexpensive cuts of pork, since we didn’t have a lot of money. My dad delighted at the rare occasions when my mom would cook a cheap steak that she would get on sale. We usually also ate bacon at breakfast and cold cut sandwiches for lunch, which made us like most people in America and the West in having a farm animal on our plates for just about every meal.
For most of my adult life, I continued to eat meat without thinking anything about it. But 12 years ago, at the age of 62, I became a vegetarian after reading Peter Singer’s seminal book, Animal Liberation. In it, he details the abusive treatment of farm animals as they are raised and processed to be brought to our tables. I had become one of the approximately one in 10 Americans a recent Gallup poll estimated to be vegetarian (5%) or vegan (3%). This small number explains why, for all the buzz about pea protein and lab-grown burgers, Americans ate more meat in 2018 than ever before, translating into 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry per average consumer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Of the 10% who choose to ignore Anthony Bourdain’s disdain and not eat meat, some do so for their health, others to prevent animal cruelty, a few to save money, and a small but growing number because of the impact on the environment. Most of the remaining 90% of Americans usually don’t give eating meat a thought, and those that do will mostly tell you that humans have always eaten meat because it tastes good, it’s a necessary source of protein, or because everybody they know eats it and a meal wouldn’t be complete without it.
Human history supports these beliefs, as hunter-gatherers relied on game to feed their families and the small number of people in their clans. A dramatic shift happened with the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred around 10,000 BC, as the need to feed the rapidly expanding villages and towns resulted in the farming of larger number of crops and animals. With what has been called the Second Agricultural Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, farms and the numbers of animals raised for food grew exponentially. The Industrial Revolution ushered in significant advances in farming practices, medicine, and modern conveniences that accelerated after WWII. These advances were key factors in dramatically increasing the human population, mostly in the now-teeming cities.
The steaks my father enjoyed in the 1950s, as well as the Sunday roasted-chicken dinners and breakfast bacon we ate, likely came from animals raised on the small to mid-sized farms where dozens of animals grazed and interacted freely not that far from where we lived. That began to change dramatically in the 1960s when the current geologic age, the Anthropocene, is said to have begun. (Others date it to the first Agricultural Revolution). The Anthropocene is characterized by the significant altering of fundamental earth processes by expanding human populations, reaching 6 billion at the start of the 21st century—a 300% increase just since 1927.
The commensurate development and expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs—defined as over 1,000 animal units confined for over 45 days annually), designed to meet the exponential growth in demand for meat, had a devastating impact on the natural world. The methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide released by millions of farm animals and the vast pools of waste they produced have contributed significantly to the dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 50 years.
In his 2019 book, We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer tells us that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N., livestock alone are a leading cause of climate change, responsible for approximately 7,516 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, or 14.5% of annual global emissions. He notes that, when researchers at the Worldwatch Institute accounted for emissions that the FAO overlooked (e.g., CO2 forests won’t absorb because they were cleared to feed industrially raised farm animals, and CO2 exhaled by farmed animals), they estimated that livestock are responsible for 32,564 million tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions per year — more than all cars, planes, buildings, power plants, and industry combined. The average American meat eater contributes 19.8 metric tons per year, which Foer speculates could be reduced by as much as 1.3 tons if we simply abstained from animal products at breakfast and lunch (more about this in Part 3).
Besides their impact on the environment, these animals don’t fare well on the huge operations that define industrial farming: Instead of grazing and bonding in pastures, millions of them are either isolated from each other in individual under-sized cages (pigs) or packed together in long sheds (turkeys and chickens) or on feedlots (cattle and sheep) with little room to move. There, they are force-fed fattening grains and antibiotics and slaughtered early at their peak weight in assembly-line fashion, ending their lives in fear and traumatic shock. By their sacrifice, they contribute 95% of the meat people eat, with small to mid-sized farms providing most of the rest, many of which use regenerative agricultural (cover crops keeping CO2 in the ground) and organic (natural feed, no antibiotics) methods and allow their animals more opportunities to eat and interact naturally.
Just accounting for cattle raised for beef globally, humans use 59% of all the land capable of supporting crops to grow food and one-third of all the fresh water for their livestock. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that factory farming has contributed significantly to the rapidly accelerating extinction rate of wildlife. A landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) finds that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
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These are the facts, and they have been publicly available in some form at least since climate scientist James Hansen presented his seminal research report on climate change to the U.S. Senate in 1988. His findings have been subsequently confirmed by multiple reputable studies, some of which began to be regularly reported in major media beginning the late ’90s. Two recent multidisciplinary studies made world headlines: The IPPC 2018 report by the world’s leading climate scientists to the U.N.  warned that we have 12 years to keep temperatures between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius to limit climate change catastrophe, and a more recent report by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations published in the journal Bioscience  calls our current state a climate emergency. Besides the usual recommendations of using energy more efficiently, stabilizing global populations, ending the destruction of nature and restoring forests, and shifting economic goals away from GDP growth, this report added what has in recent years become acknowledged as one of the essential, easily doable actions that we as consumers can take to lower emissions: Eat mostly plants and less meat and reduce food waste.
And yet just having the facts more readily available hasn’t produced anywhere near the significant changes in the behaviors needed to mitigate climate catastrophe on the timeline we’ve been given, including any substantial increase in the numbers of people eating less or no meat. Based on what I’ve laid out here, by enough of us collectively making this simple change in our daily lives, we can produce a measurable decrease in the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
However, it would appear that both personal and cultural ignorance of the issues—i.e., ignoring the reality of climate change and its causes, specifically raising animals on industrial farms to meet the demand for meat—is at the heart of the matter. If that’s true, I suggest that knowing what we know and continuing to eat meat at current levels is an ethical problem that can only be solved by a major personal and cultural shift in perspective about what it means to be human, which is the subject of Part 2.
 Gallup News, August 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/238328/snapshot-few-americans-vegetarian-vegan.aspx
 Global Agriculture March 2018, https://www.globalagriculture.org/whats-new
 Jonathan Safran Foer, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, New York (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2019)
 ipbes: Science and Policy for People and Nature, https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
 Summary for Policymakers of IPPC Special Report of Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Approved by Governments, https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments
 Bioscience: https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088
Sid Farrar is a writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team.