By Claire Kinstle
When people bite into their bacon double cheeseburger from the local McDonalds, the last thing on their minds is where that food came from, let alone the environmental damages required to harvest and transport it to their table so they could enjoy it. Most people have no idea the environmental strain required to raise animals for their meat so humans can eat it. Bojana Bajzelj, a PhD student in the department of engineering at Cambridge University, and her colleagues brilliantly remark, “Over 35% of the Earth’s permanent ice-free land is used for food production and, both historically and at present, this has been the greatest driver of deforestation and associated biodiversity loss” (924). While this statistic may seem alarming to some, it is a very real fact. Countless acres of land are used every year for meat production. Along with the meat production comes a slew of other side effects. There are three interesting environmental impacts of the meat industry: impact on land, on water, and on air.
The meat industry has a variety of negative effects on the land it occupies and surrounds. Many of the meat industry’s largest providers have large amounts of animals on their farms. They raise and harvest thousands of animals at a time and turn out a profit in a few short months. With all these animals comes a lot of waste as a byproduct of their intended product of meat. Many farms use antibiotics and other additives in the food that they feed to the livestock to keep diseases from spreading and to decrease the time it takes for the animals to be ready for slaughter by accelerating their growth. These additives are digested by the animals and then released into the land through the animals’ waste, thereby polluting the earth and the water sources nearby. Dr. Y.Y. Liu, an assistant professor in the medical field at Harvard University, and colleague R.J. Haynes, insightfully acknowledge that “Many meat processing plants in rural areas routinely dispose of treated effluent by irrigating it into land surrounding the plant” (1-2). This means that the waste from the facilities is being dispersed directly into the land, leaching into the soil and filling it with pollutants. Farms raising livestock require space to keep the animals, their feed, and other farm equipment and machinery. These facilities take up many acres of land to house the livestock, especially if they’re raising larger animals, such as cattle and hogs. They occupy even more land when raising free range or grass-fed animals, because the animals roam in fields rather than being confined in barns or cages. Another thing that many people don’t consider is the land required to grow the food that the animals consume. Bryan Walsh, an environmental journalist for TIME magazine, solemnly states that “[…] the vast majority of that land- about 30% of the world’s total ice-free surface- is used not to raise grains, fruits and vegetables that are fed directly to human beings, but to support the chickens, pigs and cattle that we eventually eat.” Besides the thousands of acres of land used to grow food for human consumption, additional farmland is required to provide feed for the animals that are raised for slaughter. This results in even more deforestation and pollution. Storage and disposal of animal waste is another issue many companies face. Many farms, especially hog farms, use large reservoirs or “lagoons” in which they store animal waste (mainly feces, urine, and contaminated water) and will empty them out when they get full. Problems can arise when they get heavy rain because the lagoons can get flooded and overflow the waste onto the surrounding land, spewing pollution into the ground. The meat industry negatively effects the land it occupies in many ways, including runoff of antibiotics, using vast amounts of land for farming and for processing factories, and spraying waste on surrounding land.
The meat industry has a variety of negative effects on the water that surrounds it. There are many farms that raise the animals in barns, pens, or cages. The animals usually have little to no room to move around, and feces and urine are often drained out of the pens through slatted floors. Many farms have had issues when deciding how to dispose of the tons of waste created by the animals. If there are heavy rains or storms, waste lagoons are likely to leak or overflow because they aren’t contained or controlled besides the hole in the ground that the waste sits in. One example of this occurred at a hog farm in North Carolina. Michael Mallin, a research professor at UNC Wilmington Center for Marine Sciences, soberly reports on the nasty byproduct from one hog farm:
On June 22, 1995, the citizens of Onslow County in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain awoke to a remarkably unpleasant sight. During the previous evening a swine waste-holding lagoon had ruptured, sending approximately 25 million gallons (95 million liters) of concentrated feces and urine across a road and fields and into the New River, a coastal namesake of the far longer and older Appalachian river. During the following day the putrefying mass traveled approximately 22 miles down the river, where it slowed just upstream of the city of Jacksonville. Over the next few days, some of this waste load would work its way down into the New River Estuary. There its effects on marine life would linger for three months.
The leaking of the waste lagoons in 1995 resulted in an immense amount of pollution into the nearby river, killing thousands of fish and polluting the water for months after the original occurrence. This is just one example of the detrimental effect meat facilities can have on the water. Another effect of runoff from meat facilities is the runoff of nutrients from the animals into local rivers and ponds: “[…] the nutrient load caused phytoplankton blooms exceeding 300 pg/L (micrograms per liter, or parts per billion) of chlorophyll a (a measure of algal biomass). As a reference, the N.C. Division of Water Quality considers chlorophyll a concentrations exceeding 40 pg/L to indicate a nuisance algal bloom” (Mallin). Phytoplankton blooms are large growths that spread in water and can often choke other plants and fish that live in the water. The main cause of these blooms is when organic material and nutrients from farms and animals raised with additives is leached into the water supply. The meat industry negatively impacts the water around it in many ways, including runoff from farms, overflow of waste storage, and runoff of pesticides and antibiotics.
The meat industry has a variety of negative effects on the air around it. Greenhouse gas production is one of the most harmful impacts the meat industry has on the environment. Marthe H. Austgulen, a political scientist and researcher specializing in sustainable consumption at Oslo Metropolitan University, and her colleagues insightfully state, “Food production is associated with various environmental impacts and the production of meat is highlighted as a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions” (1). Vast amounts of different harmful environmental toxins are emitted into the environment every year from the livestock intended for human consumption. These gasses are a major part of the world’s global climate change dilemma, as they are trapped in the ozone layer. The bad news is that things are not improving. As the global population increases, so does the global demand for food, and the production of meat to feed the inhabitants of the planet: “[…] without demand restrictions, cropland would still need to expand by ~5%, pasture by ~15%, and GHG emissions would increase by ~42% compared with current levels, even with currently-attainable yields being achieved world-wide” (Bajzelj 926). This means that because of the world’s increasing population, if companies were to increase their meat production to meet the amount of people, the effects on the environment would be detrimental. The livestock farms also impact the health and well-being of the people who live near the facilities because of the pollutants they spread into the air. The Centers for Disease Control states, “The most typical pollutants found in air surrounding CAFOs are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter, all of which have varying human health risks” (“Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Effect on Communities” 5). CAFOs stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are the large, crowded, mass production animal facilities. These particulates which are emitted into the air come from all animal production facilities, though CAFOs are the worst offenders. These toxic substances in the air surrounding meat facilities can cause many side effects, including asthma, cardiac arrest, and decreased lung function. This pollution is not always directly sprayed into the air. It can also come from the animals’ feces. The CDC states that “The primary cause of emission through land application is the volatilization of ammonia when the manure is applied to land […] occur[s] in two phases: one immediately following land application and one that occurs later and over a longer period as substances in the soil break down” (“Understanding” 5). Meat facilities spew waste and pollution from all angles, whether it’s emitted or sprayed directly into the air, or seeps out of the ground. The meat industry negatively impacts the air around it in many ways, including greenhouse gas emissions from feces and pollution from factories.
Human beings have been exploiting the earth of all its resources for an extremely long time. The time to reverse these effects is running out. Many livestock farmers have no concern or compassion for the animals they exploit. Some farmers see only a dollar sign with four legs. If meat packing buildings were made entirely of glass in the middle of a crowded city where everyone could see what happens inside, most people wouldn’t touch a burger again. Humans are repeatedly shown the effects the meat industry has on the environment and most people ignore it. The planet is dying. Innocent animals are dying. Humans are willingly ingesting these hormones in the meat and turning a blind eye to the harm they’re causing their bodies and the world around them. These livestock plants are literally putting animal waste into the ground on purpose and polluting the earth. It is easy to overlook the impact of hog farms being flooded because of the lack of human compassion for these animals but this could be extremely dangerous if it gets into city drinking water, especially if people living near the farm drink from well water. It is no surprise that the risk of catching serious diseases is much higher for people living near livestock plants as the effects in the air and land around it are horrible. There must be a global change in the way things are going. The earth is doomed if humans continue to consume livestock at the rate they are now. Humans need to dig deep and ask themselves if consuming all this meat is really worth the loss of the planet we call home.
Austgulen, Marthe H., et al. “Consumer Readiness to Reduce Meat Consumption for the Purpose of Environmental Sustainability: Insights from Norway.” Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 9, Aug. 2018, pp.1-24. ProQuest Central, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su10093058.
Bajzelj, Bojana, et al. “Importance of Food-Demand Management for Climate Mitigation.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 4, no. 10, Oct. 2014, pp. 924-29. ProQuest Central, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2353.
Liu, Y., and R. J. Haynes. “Effect of Disposal of Effluent and Paunch from a Meat Processing Factory on Soil Chemical and Microbial Properties.” Water, Air and Soil Pollution, vol. 224, no. 9, Sep. 2013, pp. 1-14. ProQuest Central, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11270-013-1655-5.
Mallin, Michael A. “Impacts of Industrial Animal Production on Rivers and Estuaries.”American Scientist, vol. 88, no. 1, 2000. ProQuest Central, https://search.proquest.com/docview/215261309?accountid=15152
“Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Effect on Communities.” CDC, CDC https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf.
Walsh, Bryan. “The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production.” Time, Time, 16 Dec. 2013, http://science.time.com/2013/12/16/the-triple-whopper-environmental-impact-of-global-meat-production/.