Rapid climate change is an invisible ghost haunting the planet due to our excessive lifestyle and thirst for progress. It was not until the late 20th century that people began to see the mistakes made in the past that are now leading to worldwide consequences.
Heightened awareness has brought with it the concept of the “carbon footprint,” the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a person or group. Entire nations are looking for reasonable solutions to tame the extreme changes while providing economic stability to their citizens. Some solutions that have received the greatest attention are renewable energies, such as solar, wind and geothermal. Other solutions revolve around making lifestyle changes like riding bikes more than driving or switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent.
One solution that is often overlooked, but can be the easiest to make in daily life is to consume less meat and dairy products. Agricultural practices are constantly evolving with practitioners looking for new ways to efficiently produce more. But today’s standard, known as factory farming, has been deemed the biggest source of carbon emissions and is highly inefficient.
“Factory farming is at a much larger scale than other conventional, sustainable farming,” said Michelle Rafacz, assistant professor of biology at Columbia College Chicago and an adjunct scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for epidemiology and endocrinology. “If you think about the chemicals and processes that go into harvesting and transporting crops, it’s also going to contribute to the carbon footprint, especially if you don’t choose local food. Then when you think of factory farming in terms of animals, tons of space is taken up, and lots of food is needed for feed.”
According to the Humane Society International’s study of factory farming and ranching in Brazil, the damage we see in global climate change stem from two main components at the local level: farm animal waste and deforestation.
Animal waste management
The study cites research from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, stating that “[the] livestock sector…is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead‘ zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, [the] emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others.”
Kaare Melby, a campaign coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association, said that chemicals found in our crops and injected into livestock produce detrimental effects on all levels of the food chain. He cited the rapid onset of the blue-green algae in Lake Erie in August and September. Eutrophication, growth in aquatic plant life, occurred uncontrollably in the lake as the algae released toxins, causing the water to become undrinkable by humans and wildlife. Melby said both natural and synthetic fertilizers from waste run-off tend to set off this chain of reproduction in aquatic species.
“You can attribute many problems to the animal waste that directly affects climate change,” Rafacz said.
Another issue is the bacteria that dwell in livestock waste. According to the World Health Organization, “[a] growing body of evidence establishes a link between the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals and the emergence of resistance among common pathogens.”
Factory farm animals are placed in are very cramped and confined places with insufficient room to defecate. Companies feed them antibiotics to fight off the bacteria that thrive in animal feces, but the animals cannot completely digest the medication. “We’re adding low-dose antibiotics which kill off the weaker bacteria and leaves the stronger bacteria that’s more resistant to the effects of the antibiotics,” Melby said. “They’re becoming super bacteria.”
The HSI noted that the waste eventually gets rerouted to “lagoons” or “pits” because the ratio of land to the amount of feces produced is too small. Run-off of the bacteria and chemicals becomes a problem when these manure pits become flooded from rainwater. “When you concentrate animals in a really small space, you see problems,” Melby said. “Sort of like cities, where you concentrate a lot of people, you’ll have a problem of waste and waste management. That’s part of the reason why the drinking water was contaminated.”
Making room for farms
Currently, modern agricultural practices have made their biggest carbon footprint in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. According to the HSI, deforestation has been taking place in the Amazon since the 1970s to leave room for cattle ranching. About 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now used for growing grains and sustaining Brazil’s largest herd of cattle.
“It takes a ton of grain to feed these animals, a ton of food for their body weight, and then you throw into the mix the idea of all the land and space that factory farming takes up and that limits where there can be natural areas,” Rafacz said.
According to a 2006 report from the FAO, “even if the proximate cause of deforestation was mainly ranching, it is likely that soy cultivation is a major underlying cause.” Soybean production has gained a lot of popularity since the early 2000s because it was an excellent source of protein for cattle feed.
Melby and Rafacz said that soy and other grains are not ideal food sources for livestock because they are more comfortable eating grasses. The abundance of soy production in South America resembles the popularity of corn in North America as a feed for farm animals. Sacrificing diverse forests and vegetation increases carbon emissions because trees naturally “act as net carbon sinks, releasing less carbon than they store.”
“Deforestation contributes to environmental degradation, including loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and water pollution. In Brazil, Amazon deforestation emits more CO2 than any other source,” according to the HSI.
Factory farming and improper agricultural practices often seem too widespread and hard to manage to the average person. The devastating effects or deforestation and animal waste is a global issue, but as the problems start locally, so can the solutions.
“The Humane Society of the United States advocates compassionate eating – or the three Rs: ‘reducing’ or ‘replacing’ consumption of animal products, and ‘refining’ our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards,” said Anna West, a factory farming media consultant at HSUS.
West said that just by reducing one’s meat and dairy intake can offset the demand and force companies to stop mass producing and altering global landscapes. The HSUS challenges corporations and government officials to make a change on a larger scale.
Factory farming also tends to invade the realm of ethics for many consumers, said Rafacz. Many vegetarians and vegans tend to be animal lovers, so they unintentionally help reduce the global carbon footprint as well.
Rafacz said another useful tool are websites like myfootprint.org, which features a quiz that categorizes an individual’s carbon footprint and helps find specific solutions.
For the average person who is not willing to completely sacrifice meat and dairy, Melby suggests taking a day off from meat each week, or to be more conscious of where one’s food comes from. Either meatless Mondays or “factory farm-free Fridays” will help reduce carbon footprints significantly, one person at a time.
Melby said to look for labeling that reads “USDA approved” in grocery store produce, meat and dairy that are not produced on factory farms. And for those worried about costs when buying "organic" or non-factory farmed products, it may be a good idea to try gardening to grow your own food.
Above all else, he said, “The most important thing is to find a local farmer, go to the farm and see how they’re producing stuff. See the connection of where the food is coming from because that’s going to help the local economy, and that’s going to make sure your food system is secure.”