We recently came across the ground-breaking environmental documentary, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, in which filmaker Kip Anderson details the impact that animal agriculture is having on our environment. According to the documentary, animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, and is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry. It also states that it is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss and topsoil erosion (see http://www.cowspiracy.com/about). The impact of this film on our team was tremendous. Driven by our passion for environmental change and sustainability, we have felt compelled to dig deeper into the claims made, and find out for ourselves whether or not the impact of livestock and their byproducts is in fact as severe as they claim.
It is claimed that agriculture is a leading driver of climate change, contributing more to global greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust of all the world’s vehicles. Sadly, this claim has proven to be very true. Animal agriculture – that is, the breeding, rearing and caring for farm animals – make up 14.5% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. This intensive livestock production and farming is said to now be the biggest threat to the loss of ecosystems and environmental degradation. Some environmental impacts of intensive animal farming include:
- Deforestation for animal feed production
- Unsustainable pressure on land for production of high-protein/high-energy animal feed
- Pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer manufacture and use for feed production
- Unsustainable use of water for feed-crops, including groundwater extraction
- Pollution of soil, water and air by nitrogen and phosphorus from fertiliser used for feed-crops and manure
- Land degradation (reduced fertility, soil compaction, increased salinity, desertification)
- Loss of biodiversity
- Species becoming extinct due to livestock-related habitat destruction (especially feed-cropping)
The impact of this mass-breeding on human health and well-being is also significant. Studies show that the harmful pesticides used to control organisms and pests make their way into consumers bodies not only through the meat we eat, but also through the discharge of animal waste into rivers and lakes, and into the air. Intensive animal farming has made the evolution and spread of harmful diseases easier.
The film suggests that a drastic change in lifestyle is required if we are to stop or reduce the harm being done to our environment through animal agriculture. A vegan lifestyle – that is, not consuming, using or purchasing any animal based products – is said to be the best way to combat the devastation. Researchers in the film state that plant-based food production is responsible for significantly less pollution and uses significantly less land and water than animal farming, and the plant-only nature of such a lifestyle is the only way to go.
A drastic claim? Indeed. And one that has received a variety of responses. But one that also begs us to question the impact of our daily living habits on our planet. Not everyone will support and believe that a vegan diet is the only way to go, but it is worth thinking about making small changes in the way we purchase and consume our food. While an extreme conversion may not be possible (or very appealing), implementing new habits such as ‘Meat Free Mondays’, or ‘Tofu Tuesdays’ will reduce the demand for and production of animal agriculture, which will in turn slow down the land degradation we are facing. Whether we agree with the film or not, it is very clear that our planet is suffering, and if generations to come are to enjoy this gorgeous place we call home, we need to make responsible and sustainable choices today that will impact the world for years to come.