350NYC – Food and Sustainability
The heart of the matter: Greenhouse gasses
The emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is the main cause of climate change. Greenhouse gasses (GHG), most notably carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, function to trap heat in the atmosphere. While a small amount of greenhouse gasses occur naturally, the amount of emissions have risen significantly throughout the 20th century, leading to an accelerated rate of global warming and subsequent changes in climate, weather patterns and sea levels.
While cars tend to be the most publicly cited source of emissions, greenhouse gasses come from multiple sources. According to the EPA (1), the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses in the United States comes from the energy industry which, including electricity production, contributes nearly half of emissions.
The meat of the problem
However, the agricultural industry is also a significant contributor. Globally, the agricultural sector contributes about 14% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a widely cited report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2). Other independent research, such as a report published by World Watch (3) that incorporated additional sources and methods of calculation, suggests that agriculture may contribute more than 50% of GHG emissions. Regardless, it is certain that, without intervention, livestock-induced GHG emission will continue to rise – potentially by another 30% by 2050 (4). It is impossible to tackle climate change without considering the impact of our current food system on the environment.
Most agriculture-related changes in natural systems come from livestock – cows, pigs and chickens – as well as the addition of synthetic fertilizers to the corn and soy crops grown for their feed. Current industrial agricultural practices have detrimental consequences, such as land degradation and water contamination. Further, public health considerations, such as the use of antibiotics in animal feed, has potential dire consequences on both animal and human health. It is estimated that approximately 80% of all antibiotics in the US are administered to livestock (5).
These are an interconnected set of issues – planet, animal and human health – and need to be understood and tackled at a systemic level. 350NYC is actively trying to raise awareness around this complex system to empower individuals to make informed choices around their diets as well as motivate consumers to initiate policy advocacy work to make broad changes to our existing, flawed food system.
It’s a compelling question to consider how we came where our diets are driving damage to the environment on par with industrial pollution and the transportation sector. The root of the problem lies in the industrialization of the agricultural sector, without subsequent, substantial regulation. While federal, state, and industry-level changes are necessary, individual consumers can raise awareness to drive systemic changes necessary to improve the global food industry and make better-informed choices to protect their health.
So how exactly does animal agriculture impact the environment?
Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the world today. Most of the destruction in the Amazon in Brazil has been to clear up lands for livestock or palm oil production. As demand for meat increases, this trend will only get accelerated. Rainforests absorb CO2 with their green cover; loss of these trees will release unprecedented amounts of GHG into the atmosphere, accelerating the climate change problem.
In addition to deforestation, animal agriculture also destroys land. Urine and feces from livestock are rich in nitrogenous compounds. These compounds not only make land unusable for vegetation, but are also sources of potent GHGs. http://www.agriculture.de/acms1/conf6/ws4lives.htm
The altered composition of soil also has an impact on groundwater pollution. Runoff carrying these pollutants derived from animal agriculture travels into rivers, lakes and streams leading to an increase in human (farm workers and consumers) and animal health problems. Furthermore, these pollutants can cause explosive algal blooms that destroy fish and other life. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/the-gross-way-water-pollution-from-livestock-effects-you/
To compound the problem, animal agriculture is a water-intensive industry. According to Water Footprint Network:
1 pound of…
Volume of water required
In addition to the release of GHGs through loss of forest cover and nitrogenous compounds, animal agriculture also contributes to high levels of methane in the atmosphere through cow farts and manure. Methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short term, and an increase in livestock population due to increased demand will only accelerate these emissions. Get more information here: https://www.edf.org/methane-other-important-greenhouse-gas
In addition to meat’s impact on the environment, it is important to elaborate on the impact it has on human and animal health. Animals raised for human consumption are pumped with antibiotics and steroids. These chemicals inevitably make their way into the human biological systems altering our ability to resist and fight newer diseases. Furthermore, workers at animal farms are exposed to toxic air (again, laden with nitrogenous compounds) and have to work day in and out around animal urine and feces. Furthermore, animals are treated inhumanely, raising serious moral and ethical concerns about the way our food is produced.
Ok, that’s a lot to take in. What do I do about it?
- Zero in on a focus and do more research!
The agricultural sector is huge, and its problems are numerous and multi-faceted. Take some time to consider which part of the industry concerns you the most, and focus on it. Are trees and forests your passion? Dig into the impact of deforestation for purposes of growing livestock feed. Are you a passionate boater or swimmer? Learn more about agricultural run-off and its impact on water systems. Are you interested in organic methods of growing? Do some research to compare industrial and organic growing practices. Start small and don’t get overwhelmed!
- Think more critically about your daily food choices.
You can start with dinner tonight. Evaluate your existing food habits and see where you can reduce or completely eliminate foods that impact the environment. For some, elimination of animal products from one’s diet works better; while for others, a reducetarian approach is more conducive. See what works for you. To start, identify one food source that has a significant environmental impact (e.g. beef) find a substitute (e.g. Beyond Meat burger patties). Indulge in these substitutes more often than before. And be consistent – it takes 21 days to solidify a new habit.
- Get active and push for policies.
There are many organizations today that are fighting for better food policy at the national level. Get involved via Change.org or reaching out directly to those organizations. For example, the Dairy Pride Act was introduced with the backing of the traditional dairy industry as a means of preventing plant-based milks and cheeses from being called ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’. This is, it seems, a reaction to declining consumption of milk and its products that come directly from animals versus the explosive consumption of plant-based milks and their by-products. You can get involved in this conversation and make sure that decisions are taken for the benefit of consumers and not for corporations.
The industry is getting creative. There are companies like Memphis Meats that are producing cultured meat in a lab – it is the same as ‘real’ meat, but without the environmental impact, without the health implications and without the moral problems associated with tradition production practices. These companies believe that people today consume meat not because of how it’s produced, but despite how it’s produced. There are also companies like Impossible Foods that are making plant-based burger patties with a plant-based compound called heme that mimics the myoglobin in animals’ blood to give it the distinct meaty taste. The strategy for all these companies is to use market mechanisms to bring equivalent options to consumers and enable them to make better food choices. While more research and studies are likely necessary as technology improves, it’s certainly worth keeping up with.
- Check out what NPR had to say about it: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/11/514544431/saving-the-planet-one-burger-at-a-time-this-juicy-patty-is-meat-free
- Local marketing campaigns
You can get involved in joining or starting local food campaigns to raise awareness regarding the impact of our food choices on the environment. We have seen that people are not averse to changing their habits as long as they have the right information to enable those choices. Help us spread the word!
- GrowNYC is a great resource to start thinking locally: https://www.grownyc.org
- Act locally, but think globally:
While making individual choices to reduce meat consumption or to consume locally can have a positive impact on the individual level, it’s important to keep in mind that individuals are part of a globalized food system. At the heart of the global system is the question: How can we create a more sustainable food system that ensures safe and affordable food sources for all?
Ellen Silbergeld, professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, has written a fantastic book called Chickenizing Farms and Food that opens windows onto the global industrialized food system, and how it impacts us all, from conscious meat consumer to vegetarian and vegan.
- Check it out here: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/chickenizing-farms-and-food
Looking for other sources of inspiration?