Last month, fast food chain Chipotle temporarily scaled back some of its pork sales when they learned one of their suppliers practiced what it considered unethical animal treatment. The issue highlighted a sad reality of the industrialized world, which is our long-standing practice of obtaining a significant amount of our calories from an unsustainable animal supply chain.
It’s an inconvenient, but indisputably true fact that animal agriculture is one of the leading sources of emissions, trailing behind only the burning of fossil fuels and transportation. Not only does the factory farming industry contribute 18% of our global carbon footprint, it pollutes our ground, rivers and ocean water with fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.
Eventually, it will simply no longer be possible for humans to consume as much meat as the average first world citizen does now, which is why the United Nations has already begun to warn of the necessity of adopting a vegan lifestyle. In the meantime, the animal agriculture industry continues to devastate our environment and add to a legacy of barbaric animal treatment.
Grazing animals, like cows, requires a lot of land. For example, cows originally evolved to feed on grass. According to the New York Times, cows need about ten acres of grass to survive. Letting all of America’s cows graze on grass would take up more than half of the land area of the country.
Now, we don’t actually feed our cows grass. Current agricultural practices gives cows significantly less land than they are accustomed to by feeding them with corn products. So while the cows don’t wander around on expanses of grassland, they consume a lot of corn. That corn also needs land to grow. It takes a lot of corn to raise a cow worthy of slaughter.
On the other hand, if people ate the corn directly, the land use to produce the same amount of calories would be much less. This is true for just about any farm animal. It is always more land-efficient to eat the plants that feed the animals rather than the animals themselves.
The above argument implies something else about raising animals. They don’t just consume an inordinate, unsustainable amount of land. There is a lot of water, carbon, and fertilizer that goes into raising food for animals. The water that goes into raising corn for cows could instead go to crops like wheat and rice that could feed people directly.
There is also a whole layer of infrastructure for raising animals and transporting their food, as well as the meat. All of this infrastructure takes up land, burns fossil fuels, and consumes metals. It is a matter of agricultural math. An acre of wheat can feed a certain number of people at a certain cost in water and fertilizer–to feed the equivalent number of people with meat, it takes exponentially more land, more water, and more agricultural equipment.
The world’s resources continue to shrink and we are reaching a breaking point. Considerations like food production efficiency will soon become more important than end consumers’ culinary preferences. With the population of Africa increasing rapidly and the economic growth of China and India continuing to add to the world’s middle class, consumer demand for meat and a variety of food products will also increase. Unfortunately, it might not be feasible to satisfy that demand.
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