Monday, December 15, 2014

70 Billion Deaths in 2014

Anyone who is concerned with our species damage to the life systems of our planet is faced with making many personal choices to limit their individual foot print. We must first become aware of what we are doing that is polluting our air and water, degrading our forests, destroying our soils, and causing the extinction of many life forms. Our use of all types of chemicals like pesticides and herbicides must be considered. Our use of fossil fuels is probably at the top of many people’s lists. Our consumerism which needs an endless supply of raw materials and creates immense amounts of waste needs to be on the list. Maybe the single most destructive of human activities is the practice of animal agriculture - something on which the environmental community has not placed enough emphasis.

There is a considerable amount of evidence that human consumption of meat, dairy, and fish is the single most destructive of all our activities. Animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming, water pollution and depletion, habitat destruction, and erosion of our topsoil. Our over consumption of fish is putting over 70% of all fish stocks under threat. 

Humans raise and kill 70 billion creatures for food each year which produce 89,000 pounds of excrement each second. This is 130 times more excrement than humans create. Anyway you think about it, this is a lot of ….. stuff. Much of it ends up polluting our streams causing dead zones in places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. While cow burps play their share in producing the powerful greenhouse gas methane, all of this waste makes its contribution. Especially egregious contributors to this waste problem are confined animal feeding operations (CAFO).

Swine in a CAFO - unable to turn around, lay down, or move for the duration of their lives.
Image courtesy of
Animal agriculture makes the single largest use of the earth’s land area and the destruction of its soils and forests. 70% to 90% of grains raised in this country goes to feed animals. We could produce all the food we need with plants on far less land. Over grazing has transformed entire areas of rangeland with an estimated 700 million acres of destruction. Desertification is a world-wide problem. Our precious top soil is being washed and blown away. All the crops being grown for animal feed greatly increase pesticide an herbicide use. Livestock occupies 30% of the earth’s land mass. Slash and burn destruction of the rainforest to raise cattle is the leading single cause of rainforest and species loss. 

Not only is animal agriculture directly responsible for polluting water, it is also putting a tremendous strain on clean water resources. While we in the eastern part of the United States may not be conscious of the problem, the Western United States consists of much arid and semi-arid land. Great deals of the cattle raised in this country are raised in this area. The Colorado River is so over used that it never makes it to the sea. The vast Ogallala Aquifer is rapidly being drained, mostly to grow feed for cattle. Vast quantities of water are needed to meet livestock’s direct needs, to grow crops to feed them, and to process and package. Each quarter pounder you eat requires at least 660 gallons of water.

The big environmental groups have been unwilling to take on the issue of animal agriculture directly. They skirt around the edges with the issue such as rainforest destruction for cattle, CAFO’s, over fishing, and antibiotic use, but they never go after the root cause of these problems: our unnecessary and unhealthy consumption of so much meat, fish, and dairy.

Why aren’t they putting the reduction of our consumption of animal products right up there with other environmental concerns? Why aren’t they suggesting that we should greatly reduce our consumption of animal products?  If adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is the single biggest step any of us can take to lighten our impact on the biosphere, why isn’t this front and center?  I suspect that they don’t want to alienate any of their members. Are they more concerned with the health of their groups than they are with the health of the planet?

The "cage free" label carries no standards or regulation and simply indicates that hens are not kept in battery cages- but are still raised in CAFOs which deny birds' natural behavoirs likes nesting, roosting, foraging, even flapping their wings. No grass, no insects, no sunshine. Many die from stress and disease.
Image courtesy of
I don’t know that such a conscious decision has been made, but they are committed to their organizations and they don’t want to lose any of their supporters. I don’t want to in anyway diminish what many of these groups do to protect the environment, but only propose that they must take on directly the problem of animal agriculture if we are going to solve a whole range of environmental problems. While the environmental community promotes many lifestyle changes such as using less energy and buying local, it must strongly add a great reduction of the consumption of animal products to the list. Using less doesn’t mean (for most of us) a lower quality of life. In fact lowering our individual consumption by of just about everything can improve the quality of life for all of us.

As a nation we have been very successful in exporting an over-consumption driven lifestyle. As consumption of consumer products grows throughout the developing world, there is an ever growing stress placed on the earth’s life systems. We are also exporting our “meat eating” lifestyle, an unsustainable development. It is time for us who are concerned with defending the planet lead by real example. Let us not ask others to do what we are not willing to do. Meatless Mondays are not nearly enough!

Written by Jack Miller - Sierra Club PA Chapter Vice Chair