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Cutting back on carbon: animal agriculture and global warming

Posted Jul. 6, 2009 / Posted by: Becca Connors

In an era of green living we often overlook one of the simplest ways to fight global warming – critically examining the food we eat. An ideal low-carbon diet consists of plant-based foods that are locally and organically grown. Meat consumption, particularly from animals raised on factory farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, is a major contributor to a person’s carbon footprint.  

The waste created from these concentrated facilities produce an overwhelming amount of methane. In addition, unlike smaller farms, these industrial facilities bring feed and water to the animals rather than grazing them, and require extensive energy use to operate the many automated mechanized systems, from waterers and feeders to manure scrapers and egg removal belts to heaters, coolers, and ventilators.

Most animals on factory farms are fed diets primarily made from grains, including corn and soybeans. Corn and soybean farming are highly destructive to the environment, requiring large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, which pollute our air and water, and relying on petroleum in production. Then the feed is transported to the factory farms, adding another element to the greenhouse gas portfolio of the animals that eat it.

Perhaps most startling is not what goes into feeding the animals, but what comes out – methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and other air and water pollutants that stem from manure. At many factory farms, manure sits in pools, emitting air pollutants and leaching toxins into ground water. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, confined farm animals generate approximately 500 million tons of manure annually, amounting to about three times as much waste as humans produce in the United States.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the animal agriculture sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than the global pollution share contributed by the transportation sector. 

Currently, greenhouse gases and other pollution from factory farms are not regulated, and the vast majority of meat, eggs, and milk produced in the U.S. today are from these factory farms. This summer, Friends of the Earth and the Humane Society of the United States have joined forces to get this pollution under control. 

So while we can’t help you cut down on carbs, we can help cut your carbon footprint: opt for a veggie burger or for local and pasture-raised meat instead of meat from factory farms. Check out www.eatwild.com for a list of pasture-raised animal farms in your state and www.humanesociety.org/recipes for great meatless recipes. 

Written by Kate McMahon of Friends of the Earth and Jessica Culpepper of The Humane Society of the United States for the 2009 Summer Friends of the Earth Newsmagazine. Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary

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