Photo of a sunset

by Down to Earth

With the upcoming Earth Day celebration on April 22nd, it is fitting that we take a moment to reflect on how we’re treating our planet and what we can do about it. We’ve compiled a few thoughts mainly from the information gathered by the United Nations, which has been studying this issue for some time. 

Climate Change, which used to be referred to as Global warming, continues to be a “hot” topic for debate.  Is our planet actually heating up? Are humans responsible? What can you do about it?

“People are experiencing changing weather patterns, rising sea level, and more extreme weather events. The greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are driving climate change and continue to rise. They are now at their highest levels in history. Without action, the world’s average surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century and is likely to surpass 30 C this century [that’s 37.400 F!] —with some areas of the world expected to warm even more.”1

Scientists are not sure how long or how fast global warming will continue occur, or how different parts of the planet will be affected.  But a few things we do know.  The United Nations states, “The world has warmed before, but never this quickly, and it is due in large part to human activities. For instance, the changes in the Arctic between just six years ago and now are shocking.”2

Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by almost 50 percent since 1990.  In its 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” the United Nations said raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined.3

A UN news release about the report warns, “The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level.”4

The explanation in the news release is that, “When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year, the report notes. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons.

The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to produce feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

At the same time herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.

Proponents of the livestock industry say the United Nations’ report points to the need for efficiency improvements in animal diets, soil conservation methods, biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure, more efficient irrigation systems, etc.

But these remedies only address problems with the livestock industry itself.  The negative effects of raising animals for food are far reaching.

Forests are being bulldozed to make more room for factory farms and feed crops to feed farmed animals.  This destruction causes soil erosion and contributes to species extinction and habitat loss. Raising animals for food also requires massive amounts of food and raw materials: Farmed animals consume 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains that we grow.  And, one-third of all the raw materials and fossil fuels used in the U.S. go to raising animals for food. Ironically, cycling food through animals to feed humans is not the most efficient means to sustain the world’s population.

Whether it's unchecked air or water pollution, soil erosion, or the overuse of resources, raising animals for food is wreaking havoc on the Earth

There are many things that each of us can do as individuals to help increase our planet’s sustainability. To find out what you can do, check out the United Nation’s Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World . But the solution is more basic than scientists and policy makers know.

To have a real and lasting impact on our planet’s sustainability, the single most important thing an individual can do to reduce global warming is to adopt a vegetarian diet. 

In the spirit of honoring Mother Earth this Earth Day, we conclude with Down to Earth's Hawaiian slogan:

E Mālama I Ka `Āina, E Ola Pono

(Cherish the land and live in health and harmony)

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Footnotes: 

1 United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World, Goal #13: Take Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change,” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/climate-change-2/ (Accessed 3/23/17)
2 Ibid United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World, The Paris Agreement: Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/09/the-paris-agreemen... (Accessed 3/23/17)
3 United nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental Issues and Options [Executive Summary] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/climatechange/doc/FAO%20report%20executive... (Accessed 3/29/170
4 United Nations, UN News Centre, “Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns” http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?newsID=20772#.WNwGeW8rKUk (Accessed 3/29/17)