Reducing methane alone won’t fix the devastating environmental impact of animal agriculture, here’s why

In a year, a cow will emit about 220 pounds of methane. A powerful greenhouse gas, it outnumbers methane for the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere 80 times The warming potential of carbon dioxide. So, simply put, with an estimated 1.5 billion cows in the world, this is a big problem. In fact, animal agriculture is one of the main drivers of rising global emissions.

Many solutions have been proposed to alleviate the methane problem of agriculture. In 2022, a methane-capture mask was awarded a Terra Carta Design Lab award and praised by King Charles. And recently, it was revealed that British cows could be given “methane blockers” to reduce animal agriculture emissions.

Right now, research is underway on how effective methane-suppressing products can be. But while they work to reduce methane, it’s important to remember that animal agriculture contributes to many environmental problems. A powerful gas, it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. This is why many experts advocate a whole food system conversionInstead of small fixes like masks and supplements.

In March 2023, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized that focusing on the transition of food systems towards plant-based agriculture could deliver one-third of the emissions reductions we need. But it can help tackle a huge number of problems facing the planet, including deforestation, water pollution and the threat of zoonotic diseases. And, of course, it could significantly reduce animal suffering – right now, billions of animals are kept in cramped, industrialized conditions so that humans can use their bodies for food.

Here are six reasons why the drop in methane isn’t enough to fix animal agriculture. We need to completely dismantle the system and look at plant-based foods. Not just for the planet, but for the future of human health.

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1 Deforestation

According to the WWF, in the time it takes to utter the word “deforestation,” a football pitch’s worth of natural forest is destroyed. This is a major problem for many reasons.

First, many of these forests are home to endangered and threatened species, including orangutans, rhinos, elephants, tigers, and jaguars. When their habitat is destroyed, these animals are not only left without food and shelter, they are also more vulnerable to human-wildlife conflicts.

Second, these forests are crucial for carbon sequestration. As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But when they are cut down or burned, all this carbon is released back into the atmosphere. WWF notes that deforestation and loss is responsible for about 10 percent of global warming.

There are several industries that cut down trees to create more space for profit-driven activities. Palm oil, soy (much of which is used for farm animal feed), and wood are three key examples. But one of the worst offenders is the beef industry. Indeed, in the Amazon rainforest, which now emits more carbon than it absorbs, most deforestation is caused by cattle ranching.

He said some progress has been made in this regard in recent years. A recent study found that some of the world’s largest slaughterhouses reduced livestock-driven deforestation in the Amazon by 15 percent between 2010 and 2018 because of their commitment to supermarket zero-deforestation policies.

But the fact remains that many Brazilian supply chains operating within the rainforest are complex and lack transparency. Ultimately, much of the deforestation that occurs across the Amazon is illegal and difficult to detect.

“Reducing deforestation by 15 percent is a huge amount,” said Professor Rachel Garrett, senior author of the study. “But this result shows that supply chain policies have significant limitations, and we need to pair them with more forward-looking approaches to help countries like Brazil improve their agricultural systems.”

2 Excessive use of resources

Ranchers cut and burn the rainforest because they need more space for their cattle. But land is far from the only resource that drives animal agriculture.

According to the Pacific Institute and National Geographic, it takes about 53 gallons of water to produce one egg. For one pound of chicken, that’s about 468 gallons, and one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons. In fact, animal agriculture accounts for between 20 and 33 percent of all freshwater use worldwide.

Animals also need a lot of food to sustain themselves. In 2020, an analysis found that, in addition to biofuel production, most European crop production goes to animal feed. According to Greenpeace, the analysis found that 62 percent of all grain crops are used to feed animals and only 23 percent are used to feed humans. On top of that, 88 percent of soy goes into animal feed, as well as 53 percent of pulses.

“[The] The imbalance in production and consumption is driven by a focus on crops for profit, not food for people,” Greenpeace noted in the analysis.

3 Water pollution

Fresh water use is not the only water-related problem with animal agriculture. This industry is also linked to the pollution of our waterways as runoff from factory farms ends up in rivers, lakes and streams.

Last year, research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that several UK rivers near livestock farms were full of antibiotic residues and superbugs. And intensive poultry farms along one of the UK’s most popular rivers, the Wye, have turned the waterway into a “wildlife death trap”, according to River Action UK.

In the United States, where farm manure ponds often spill into local waterways, the problem is also significant. In fact, last year, a lawsuit was filed against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to come up with emergency plans to limit water pollution from factory farms. “Given the scope of the health and environmental threats, competing priorities do not justify further delay,” the suit reads.


4 air pollution

There’s no getting away from it, animals produce waste. But all this urine and manure, which releases gases like ammonia, nitrous oxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air, is having a devastating effect not only on the planet but also on people.

In 2021, a study suggests that air pollution from agriculture causes about 18,000 deaths in the United States each year. Animal agriculture causes the majority of deaths associated with food production, and those who live near farms are most at risk.

“High exposure to ammonia has been associated with acute lower respiratory illness, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer,” reports World Animal Protection.

It adds: “To help tackle these issues, we need to end the rise of factory farming and support a transition to sustainable healthy food that is good for people, animals and the planet.”

5 Risk of zoonotic diseases

According to the World Health Organization, “about 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported worldwide are zoonoses.” And that means they spread from animals. Many come from wild animals, such as monkeys and bats, but factory-farmed animals also present a risk, research suggests.

“Scientists have been warning us for decades [zoonotic] Diseases from factory farms can very easily jump into the population,” said psychology professor Gordon Hodgson, who helped write a 2021 paper on why people in the UK struggle to accept the risks of factory farming diseases.

Hudson’s research was inspired by a 2020 poll, which found that only 15 percent of Americans understood that zoonotic diseases could come from factory farms. “It worries us,” he said. “Is it because of a lack of knowledge, or are people deliberately ignoring the possibility because they don’t like the effects of giving up meat?”


6 Antibiotic resistance

And finally, not only can factory farming potentially increase the risk of disease, but it can also hinder our efforts to treat disease.

This is because factory farmed animals are often subjected to less welfare practices and this means that many farmers are forced to deal with disease and infection by routinely feeding them antibiotics. According to World Animal Protection, about 75 percent of all antibiotics sold each year are marketed for use in farm animals, not humans.

But overuse of antibiotics can have devastating consequences. This is because bacteria can learn to resist drugs, making them less effective and leading to the evolution of superbugs that can evade treatment. This means that infections that we used to be able to treat easily, such as urinary tract infections, can become much more serious and even life-threatening.

“Shifting to higher welfare agricultural practices is critical to solving the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance,” World Animal Protection notes. “Like good government regulations that prevent factory farms from abusing antibiotics.”

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