Animals have been raised for food for thousands of years. However, the large scale demand and production of beef, pork, and poultry have become a tremendous environmental burden. The average American eats about 250 pounds of meat each year. Factory farms, as the name implies, have industrialized livestock to meet the growing need. These farms have adopted industrial standards rather than traditional farming practices for rearing their animals. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) factory farm guidelines, cattle farms can have up to 1,000 head of cattle; the largest hog farm can have 2,500 pigs; and one chicken farm can house 125,000 chickens. The current meat market is dominated by these large corporate farms: 80 percent of the cattle industry is owned by four companies— IBP, Monfort (owned by ConAgra), Excel (owned by Cargill), and Farmland National; 63 percent of the pork industry is hogged by Smithfield, IBP, Excel, Monfort, and Farmland.
An immense amount of feed, water, energy, and resources are needed to raise such large quantities of livestock. Over 66 percent of the grain produced in the US does not end up on the table, but rather as feed for livestock, and half of the continental US, approximately 270 million acres, is used for livestock.  Regarding water, the average American's meat-rich diet requires two times the water of a vegetarian diet of equal nutrition. The Food Revolution estimates the amount of water that goes into the production of one pound of meat: 1 pound of chicken takes 815 gallons of water: 1 pound of pork takes 1,630 gallons of water; and 1 pound of beef takes 2,500 gallons of water. After the animals are reared and meet the production line, the meat must still travel an average of 1,500 miles before reaching the table, utilizing more fossil fuels.
Livestock contribute to 18 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted each year, which includes 9 percent of total global CO2 emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The 291 billion tons of wet manure that is produced annually releases 30 million tons of methane. The pollution cost of producing one steak is equivalent to driving a car 25 miles.
Local vs. meatless
A study by Carnegie Mellon University scientists has concluded that eating less meat will reduce carbon emissions even more than purchasing food locally. The study found that transporting food is responsible for only 4 percent of food-associated greenhouse gas emissions, while production contributes 83 percent; researchers say that means that buying all local food is like driving 1,000 fewer miles in your car annually, but cutting dairy and meat one day a week is equivalent to keeping your car off the road for 1,000 miles every year, and a whopping 8,000 miles if you cut meat and dairy out of your diet altogether. In fact, researchers say that delivery to the consumer accounts for only 1 percent of total red meat-associated emissions.
Why is meat-eating more problematic than driving a car or purchasing far-flung food? The production of meat and dairy products creates a high amount of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, from fertilizers, manure management, and animal digestion. Methane, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide, is produced both during digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure. Nitrous oxide results from the nitrification and denitrification of nitrogen in livestock (most commonly of cattle) manure and urine. Stats like these have led to questions like: "Can going vegan do more to slow global climate change than shopping my local farmer's market?"
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) "Organic" label ensures that foods are 95 percent free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. However the missing 5 percent still allows livestock to eat feed that may have been grown with pesticides or include ground animal parts. The chemicals and potential pathogens may be passed on to the ultimate human consumer. Factory farm products can earn the USDA "Organic" label meaning that organic meat may still contribute to detrimental environmental and health consequences and negative animal welfare drawbacks.
The USDA label "Free-range" is made meaningless by the weak standards that the agency has set. The agency has defined terms for poultry and eggs, but nothing has been specified for beef. The terms set for poultry requires non-confinement to a feed lot but does set standards for what the animal is fed. The label "Natural" is defined by the USDA as a product that does not contain artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, which has no application to meat products. Therefore this label is purely used at the discretion of the manufacturer.
Related health issues
Diseases such as Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform can be spread through animal waste. Concentrations of these disease can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste. There are 40 different diseases that can be transfered from animal to human through manure. Meat can be contaminated with this diseases either through the processing plant or run-off. During processing, meat can become tainted with bacteria by manure that may be left on the animal's coat. To combat this, companies have begun irradiating meat, which comes with its own health risks. The 291 billion pounds of wet manure that is produced each year and stored in huge lagoons can easily seep into the ground and contaminate drinking water reserves.
Mad cow disease
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), made its first public appearance in England in 1997. BSE causes brain degeneration, loss of physical coordination and eventually death. Eating meat from an infected cow can cause the human equivalent variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD) that has the same effects in humans as its bovine counterpart. Though there is no cure for vCJD there are methods to prevention. Cows are infected by eating feed that contains parts from other infected animals. The USDA and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have implemented regulations and testing to prevent the spread of BSE and vCJD, but both loopholes and other unrecognized transmittable diseases exist. The only assured method of avoiding vCJD is consume meat that you know has not eaten feed that contains other animal products, such as livestock from pasture-based farms.
Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the US are used on livestock and not humans. In livestock antibiotics are not only used to treat illness, but to promote growth as well. Often livestock receive regular doses of antibiotics. This overuse of antibiotics creates highly resistant strains of bacteria that can be spread to humans from direct contact or released into the environment through manure. The FDA estimates that 5,000 people per year have prolonged illnesses attributed to the use of antibiotics in certain poultry.
- factory farm: Also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) or animal feeding operations, these farms have 1,000 livestock animals or more and raise the animals for short cycles. Animals are often kept in enclosures, fed unnatural diets and housed in feedlots. Animals are placed in feedlots shortly before they are sent to slaughter and fed large amounts of grain in a short period, so that they will rapidly gain additional weight before they are put to market.
- Farm Sanctuary Working to end cruelty to farm animals
- Eat Wild Information about grass-fed food site
- USDA Organic Brochure
- Union of Concerned Scientists
- Sustainable Table
- Kneidel, S. and Kneidel, S.K.: "Veggie Revolution", page 41, Fulcrum Publishing, 2005
- US Environmental Protection Agency - National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES): Glossary
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- Kneidel, S. and Kneidel, S.K.: "Veggie Revolution", page 40, Fulcrum Publishing, 2005
- Nutrition Action Healthletter - Eating Green: page 2
- Worldwatch Institute - The Good Stuff?
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- Nutrition Action Healthletter - Eating Green: page 3
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- Carnegie Mellon - Headlines: Researchers Report Dietary Choice Has Greater Impact on Climate Change Than Food Miles
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Where does methane come from: Livestock enteric fermentation & Livestock manure management
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Where does nitrous oxide come from: Livestock manure management
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- Kneidel, S. and Kneidel, S.K.: "Veggie Revolution", page 104, Fulcrum Publishing, 2005
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- Kneidel, S. and Kneidel, S.K.: "Veggie Revolution", page 90, Fulcrum Publishing, 2005
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- Sierra Club - Abuse of Antibiotics at Factory Farms Threatens the Effectiveness of Drugs Used to Treat Disease in Humans
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- Sustainable Table - The Issues: Antibiotics
- Center for Science in the Public Interest - Human-use antibiotics are used to treat animal disease
- Centers for Disease Control - Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs)