Humans are currently facing one of the biggest global problems we’ve ever confronted: environmental degradation. We’ve sucked up more resources than the earth can sustain, and it’s beginning to show symptoms of a stressed ecosystem as a result. Species are accelerating their rate of extinction. Our atmosphere is succumbing to climate change, getting hotter by the day. Major storms and natural disasters incident rates are increasing.

Everything is falling apart, yes. But that should not stop us from trying to do our best to tread as lightly as possible on our home planet. Following the vegetarian diet is an effective way of actively conserving resources, three times a day.

The issues with raising livestock are not just issues of ethics and inhumane treatment (although these are of paramount importance), but of its measurable environmental effects that are happening all around us. The list of issues it creates are extensive, but it’s worth noting exactly how livestock effects our planet, so we can better understand the issues surrounding meat production.

Livestock and Climate Change

Raising meat is an incredibly energy intensive process, built largely on the back of fossil fuels. The transport of cattle is just the tip of the iceberg in meat production.

For the most part, livestock is no longer raised on open pasture, where they can actually benefit eco-systems and stimulate natural growth. They are fed grain – largely corn, soy, and alfalfa. These crops are sprayed with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, made from fossil fuel. The crop is then shipped to farms, using fossil fuels. The cattle is raised on it, and is then transported using fossil fuels – often thousands of miles. More generally, for every calorie of beef that is put on the plate, 10 calories of fossil fuels are used – and this is a conservative estimate. Livestock creates significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, which are 21 times and 296 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, respectively. Livestock alone produces 37% of all methane gas released into the atmosphere.

All this adds up: a 2006 UN initiative estimates that livestock production is responsible for 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. With greenhouse gases already at supremely high, unnatural levels, the issue of livestock production needs to be addressed.

Livestock and Water Pollution

Livestock needs water to grow – and lots of it. 1 pound of meat requires 2,400 gallons of water to produce, PETA suggests. 1 pound of wheat, on the other hand, requires 25 gallons. Nearly half the water consumed in the US goes to livestock.

Consumption aside, livestock also holds our waterways and aquifers in ransom, as their manure runoff causes huge amounts of pollution. In smaller, more manageable quantities, having manure on a diversified farm is a valuable commodity – an organic, highly nutrient byproduct that can be used to add fertility to the land and grow crops. With 20% of all terrestrial biolife on earth being composed of livestock, we are clearly dealing with manure on an unmanageable level. Also consider that meat production is becoming more and more centralized, with fewer meat producers controlling more animals. This means that the manure, as well, becomes more centralized, and is more prone to be mismanaged.

In 2001, the EPA issued an emergency in Oklahoma, after drinking water was found to have dangerously high levels of nitrates from a nearby hog farm. Excessively high levels of nitrates in humans is toxic, and pose all sorts of problems to our health. The Centers for Disease Control find a direct connection between high nitrate levels in drinking water to spontaneous abortions. It’s also been shown to be a factor in “blue-baby syndrome”, which can kill infants. All in all, over 40 diseases can be contracted from manure, much of this occurs in our water supply.

There are huge cesspools of open-air lagoons that house much of the waste from livestock production, and these are largely responsible for water pollution. It can seep through the ground and pollute aquifers, or overflow and pollute streams and rivers. In 1995, a hog waste lagoon broke and spilled 25 million gallons of waste into the New River. This resulted in the death of 10 million fish, and ruined thousands of acres of shellfish area. There are 1,000’s of overflows that occur in the United States each year, each having its own effect on its immediate surroundings. These can have farther reaching effects beyond this, though. The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of this. Millions of gallons of nitrogen-rich animal waste runoff flows down the Mississippi river every year, and pools in the calm water of the Gulf of Mexico. Algae blooms form, and choke the water of its oxygen, and the water is not able to house any sort of life. In 2010, the “dead zone” was 7,500 square miles.

Livestock and Soil

Soil erosion is a serious issue facing American farmers today, and around the world. 90% of American soil is currently undergoing unsustainable levels of soil erosion. Mismanaged land that is used to graze cattle is partly responsible for this. The huge swaths of land that go to grow the grains for livestock feed is an even greater culprit, as grain production is not top-soil friendly. This is a serious issue, as healthy, fertile top soil takes thousands of years to form properly, and is essential to a secure and reliable food system.

Millions of acres of land is being deforested in South America to meet our demand for meat. Roughly 70% of the Amazon has been flattened for this purpose. Indeed, some of the land has been used to grow soy beans, but the number of acres used for it shy in comparison to meat production. Also, this soy is largely grown to feed livestock in Brazil and around the world, so the root still lies in livestock.

What You Can Do

The most immediate, positive impact you can have on the environment is by abstaining from meat and going vegetarian – vegan, even. By opting out of the market, you will be decreasing the demand, and supply soon follows. By helping lower the amount of meat produced in the world, we can concentrate on growing more efficient food crops, such as our staple grains and legumes, which put much less stress on our environment.