April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Founded by former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the original Earth Day put environmental protection on the national radar, leading to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Forty years later, Earth Day has gone global. One billion people are expected to participate in Earth Day celebrations this month, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Tokyo, Japan.
That’s all well and good. But planting trees and cleaning up rivers won’t mean much in the long run if we continue to trash the planet with our meat habit. To truly “go green,” we must start with what’s on our plates.
Raising and killing animals for food wastes so many resources and causes so much destruction, it’s hard to know where to begin.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 30 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land is now involved—either directly or indirectly—in livestock production. As the world’s appetite for meat increases, countries around the globe are bulldozing huge swaths of land in order to make more room for animals and the crops that feed them.
Then there’s the energy required to operate factory farms, feedlots, slaughterhouses and trucks that transport animals and the amount of water that is squandered on animal agriculture (it takes more than 4,000 gallons of water per day to produce food for a single meat-eater compared to 300 gallons needed for a vegan). And don’t forget the edible crops that are used to feed animals instead of hungry, malnourished people.
What else do we get from all the grain, fossil fuels and water that go into making meat and milk? More waste—in the form of tons and tons of feces.
Pound for pound, a pig produces four times as much waste as a human does. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, factory farms generate about 300 million tons of manure every year—more than double the amount produced by the entire human population in the U.S.
No federal guidelines regulate how factory farms treat, store and dispose of the trillions of pounds of animal excrement that they produce each year. This waste—untreated, unsanitary and bubbling with chemicals—may be left to decompose in huge lagoons or sprayed over crop fields. Both of these disposal methods result in run-off that contaminates the soil and water and kills fish and other wildlife. There are numerous reports that humans who live near factory farms have been made sick by the pollution—many suffer from respiratory ailments, neurological problems and more.
Today’s meat factories also spew out greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change. A 2006 United Nations report revealed that the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gasses than all the cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships in the world combined. The report attributed 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions to farmed animals, but new research indicates that the figure actually could be much higher. In “Livestock and Climate Change,” the Worldwatch Institute estimates that raising animals for food really produces 51 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions.
It’s time to face facts: Most people stop being environmentalists when they sit down to eat. Every time we consume meat, eggs or dairy foods, we contribute to ecological devastation and the wasteful misuse of resources on a global scale.
If we are ever to halt climate change and conserve land, water and other resources, not to mention reduce animal suffering, we must celebrate Earth Day every day—at every meal.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the author of several books, including One Can Make a Difference and PETA’s Practical Guide to Animal Rights. She can be reached c/o PETA at 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; PETA.org.