I heard recently about a new documentary called Cowspiracy (see cowspiracy.org for some specifics on it.) And what caught my ear (I haven’t seen it yet), other than some of the facts we’ve long known about how damaging factory farms can be to the environment and our health, was a list of hazards presented by these rapidly-growing operations. So I went to the website mentioned above and found a list of “facts” that I’ll simply present here. You can draw your own conclusions.
Before doing that, though, I want to refer to another book I’ve read recently, Animal Wise, by Virginia Morell (Crown 2013) just to give everyone an idea of what’s at stake in our usual attitude toward animals. Briefly, what Morell has given us is proof, from several areas of study including neuroscience, about a variety of animals from ants to dogs to elephants, that animals do indeed have minds. The traditional modern denial of this refers to fish that we catch on a hook: ‘Oh, they don’t feel anything because their brains are too small and simple to register any sense of what pain means.’ Well think again, anglers. As a researcher named Braithwaite, after meticulous testing, says: “Fish have the cognitive capacity to experience emotions, and are self-aware, and conscious.” As to their brains, what Morell shows us about archerfish (and you can see stunning films of this on Youtube), is that these amazing fish have the neurological capacity to aim at insects, even through the distortions of water, and hit their targets with water squirted from their mouths like, well, archers. The lesson: to calculate distortion, movement, and trajectory, these fish have to have some heretofore unsuspected mental power. Morell provides us with similar research on ‘thinking’ in ants, speech in parrots, empathy in almost all animals, long-term memory and grieving in elephants, and almost superhuman synchrony in dolphins. In short, when we slaughter animals for our daily dinner (always doing it out of our sight, and hence out of our minds), we are not killing dumb, senseless mechanical robots; we are killing sentient beings built on the same template, and with the same basic material that builds us.
That said, we now turn to the aforementioned facts about the damage done by large-scale animal farming. The damage is done by the use of water—both to feed the animals, dispose of their waste, and grow the feed they consume—and by the emission of greenhouse gases (global warming) like CO2 and methane into our atmosphere. To wit: 1) Animal Agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. When one adds the byproducts of animal agriculture, we get this: 2) Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. And when it comes to water use, animal agriculture makes the savings we think we’re making by low-flush toilets and not watering our lawns appear downright paltry: 3) Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually; and 4) Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. To get a bit more specific and low to the ground, think about that hamburger you eat. Well here’s the fact: While Californians, on average, use 1500 gallons of water per person per day (half of which is associated with meat and dairy products), 5) 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef! (Actually the amount varies from 442 to 8000 gallons; 2500 is a median estimate from Dr. George Borgstrom, Chair of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University.)
Of course, one might think that milk products are not so wasteful. But one would be wrong. 6) 1,000 gallons/liters of water are required to produce 1 gallon/liter of milk. So if you have a big Mac and a glass of milk, you’re consuming what took a couple of hundred gallons of water to produce. Here's the overall comparison: 7) 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes; 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture. And when you’re talking worldwide, 8) Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20% -33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
Then there’s the waste produced by these immense concentrations of animals in factory farms. (This emphasis on factory farms is important, because in traditional agriculture, farms were mixed operations whose products fed each other: farmers had a few cows, pigs, and/or chickens and used the waste as fertilizer to grow their crops, including the feed they gave to their animals.) 9) Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US. This doesn’t include the animals raised outside of USDA jurisdiction or in backyards, or the billions of fish raised in aquaculture settings in the US. And to give you an idea of how much this really is, 10) A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. To put it another way, 11) 130 times more animal waste than human waste is produced in the US – 1.4 billion tons from the meat industry annually; 5 tons of animal waste produced for every person.
I could go on, but the mind fairly reels. Suffice it to say that all this waste produces immense quantities of greenhouse gases, not to mention the rivers of pollution it carries to our aquifers, our streams, our lakes, and our oceans, thus reducing the fresh water available for things like, say, drinking. And the worst part is that the planetary lands devoted to animal agriculture—to grazing cattle or dairy cows, to raising the water-intensive crops like alfalfa and corn and soy that feeds these animals—are the leading cause of rainforest destruction now imperiling our world. They are also the leading cause of habitat destruction for the irreplaceable species that are going extinct both in these rainforests and elsewhere. One final fact to hammer this point home: 12) 10,000 years ago 99% of biomass (i.e. zoomass) was wild animals; today, humans and the animals that we raise as food make up 98% of the zoomass.
The conclusion ought to be obvious. All of these animals—both the ones we are driving into extinction and the ones we raise to feed us—are our relatives, our cousins, our evolutionary forebears. We are literally impossible without them. When we destroy them, we destroy ourselves. Surely the big-brained ape must be able to think up a better way.