The Linchpin To Going Green Is On Your Plate

You’ve replaced all the bulbs in your house with energy efficient bulbs, started biking and walking places, collected reusable cloth shopping bags, switched to a hybrid car, bought a share in a community garden, use natural soaps and detergents, and recycle down to your last biodegradable straw and spoon. You, like many others, know that going green is better for the environment, and it is.

But it’s not the whole story. You may have heard that changing your diet can improve the environment but dismissed the idea because you never heard the facts. This article gives you hard facts about how it’s actually possible to go green by shifting what’s on your plate. It all starts with factory farming and the industry’s methane emissions. 

Methane emissions? You’ve surely heard of carbon emissions, the front liner and resident bad guy. The dastardly gas that we all blame for making the ozone into swiss cheese. Endless news broadcasts and policy debates revolve around efficient cars and factory emissions. While I applaud the (sortof) effort that several governmental administrations have expended, there is a far bigger pollutant that policy makers have been ignoring. Move over, carbon, there’s a new villain in town, although it’s technically not new, and goes by the name of methane.

Quick science review: each harmful gas is measured by it’s global warming potential (GWP). It measures how much heat gases trap in the atmosphere. The potential of a gas depends on the time span in which its effects are considered. Carbon is the system’s baseline at 1. If we take a look at methane’s GWP over a 20 year span, its GWP is 72. Methane traps 72 times the heat that carbon traps. Methane accounts for just about half of Earth’s manmade warming, yet almost no attention is paid to this massive pollutant.Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all the transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.

Methane gases are produced in several ways, but animal agriculture is the number one contributor to its release into the atmosphere. 85% of methane emissions from animal agriculture are produced through the digestive processes of livestock. The other 15% comes from massive lagoons of untreated manure where factory farms very literally dump untreated feces and let it pollute the ground, air and surrounding water.

These lagoons are revolting and are standard with every factory farm. They are colossal in size.

Flooded lagoons post rainstorm.

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a captivating chapter on manure lagoons in his book Eating Animals. He cites that the government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that individual farms “can generate more raw waste than the populations of some U.S. cities.” In this chapter, Foer recalls an article written by Jeff Tietz published by Rolling Stone. The piece reveals that the manure of factory-farmed hogs includes but is not limited to: “ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorus, nitrates and heavy metals” (175).  Don’t forget about salmonella and streptococci (which causes strep throat). Mmm. These lagoons also include anything tossed from the factory farms themselves. This NC-17 rated list includes “stillborn piglets, afterbirths, dead piglets, vomit, blood, urine, antibiotic syringes, broken bottles of insecticide, hair, pus, and even [animal] body parts” (176). Body parts?!

Foer cites that these “lagoons can cover as much as 120,000 square feet–as much surface area as the largest casinos in Las Vegas–and can be as deep as 30 feet” (177). Football-field sized, easily. This is the untreated source from which corporations like Smithfield draw toxic manure, liquefy the whole mixture, and spray it over fields as fertilizer.

Imagine the affects on the air for people who live nearby, and what happens to the drinking water and surrounding bodies of water when even small amounts of rain fall on this putrid mess. 80% of all meat is factory farmed, meaning that these lagoons are not the exception, they are the rule. Take a look at this map and see for yourself. Every single one has a lagoon of manure. Every factory farm is polluting both people and the atmosphere with untold amounts of methane. The EPA has reported that animal agriculture is responsible for 75% of all water pollution in the U.S. An even more surprising fact? The EPA does not regulate air or water pollution from these factory farms despite reporting these numbers.

So, the majority of methane comes from factory farms’ animal waste and manure lagoons. What other effects does factory farming have around us?

A typical factory farm cattle feedlot

Mark Bittman, a prolific author on food issues and columnist for the New York Times, has written a concise yet comprehensive two-page introduction to the factory farming issue. The article, titled “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler,” also cites “deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease, [and] animal cruelty” as the hearty combination of effects factory farming heaps on our planet.

Why starvation? 30% of Earth’s arable land is either directly or indirectly dedicated to livestock production. Both land for cattle and land for grain fed to cattle come under this percentage. Considering that these crops could be going to feed some of the 800 million starving people in the world, it’s ethically problematic that it goes to factory farmed cattle instead. (Cattle that are biologically meant toeat grass anyway, not grain. Grain-fed cattle have one million times more E.coli in their system than grass-fed cattle.) Bittman also writes that it takes 2-5 times the amount of grain to produce the same number of calories through livestock than it does by eating the grain directly. We are wasting resources left and right.

I’ve introduced the other effects Bittman names, deforestation, pollution, and climate change, but in no way does this post even scratch the surface of the facts. If you’re interested in specifics, read through Bittman’s article. Although heart disease is a devastating effect of consuming FDA recommended amounts of animal protein, the subject merits a whole separate post, coming soon.

That leaves animal cruelty, which certainly calls for some consideration in this post. Animal lovers beware, it’s about to get personal.

Jonathan Foer makes a fascinating case for eating dogs. He asks why it is that we eat the meat that we eat. Why is eating dogs taboo? There is no biological basis for this taboo unlike, say, incest. Why it is that we have chosen cows, pigs and chickens as food and not dogs? If you take a look around the world, the species of a human’s animal companion is as arbitrary as the next. A online review of Foer’s argument, titled “Jonathan Safran Foer: Let Them Eat Dog,” draws these international comparisons:

The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses.

The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows.

The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs.

For the sake of the argument, let’s say yes, our choice of meat is truly random. That means that any of these animals could have been the prime candidates for being factory farmed in the U.S. Even dogs.

With this information in tow, perhaps you can take a new look at animal cruelty in factory farms. It’s hard to consider the conditions for animals that are unfamiliar to us. Most of us have never seen farm animals in person or have spent significant time around the animals we eat. Substitute any farm animal with animals that are more familiar to you, and carefully consider the conditions I summarize below, courtesy of PETA’s article “Factory Farming: Cruelty to Animals.” Animals on factory farms are:

  • Kept in small cages or jam-packed sheds or on filthy feedlots, often with so little space that they can’t even turn around or lie down comfortably
  • Deprived of exercise so that all their bodies’ energy goes toward producing flesh, eggs, or milk for human consumption
  • Fed drugs to fatten them faster and keep them alive in conditions that could otherwise kill them
  • Genetically altered to grow faster or to produce much more milk or eggs than they naturally would (many animals become crippled under their own weight and die just inches away from water and food)
There you have it. Factory farms pollute the earth’s air, land, water, and atmosphere, make us sick, contribute to starvation, and abuse animals for profit.
Going green without considering factory farming isn’t really going green at all. What can you do? In the larger scheme of things, Bittman advocates the need to urge the EPA to start regulating factory farms, fight for improved farming practices, eliminating grain subsidies and vastly improving waste management. If any of these solutions pique your interest, by all means I encourage you to pursue them. If you’re up for making make an easier, yet significant contribution, read on.

Veganism or vegetarianism is unrealistic for many people, but does significantly reduce your carbon and methane footprint. I propose, instead, that you reduce your meat intake overall. Meat, like oil, is something everyone could (and honestly should) cut back on. Two geophysicists from the University of Chicago calculated that if all Americans reduced their meat intake by just 20%, it would have a net environmental impact equal to all Americans switching from a standard sedan to a hybrid car. That’s pretty incredible. Eating meat four times a week instead of five? Piece of cake.
When you do buy meat, be conscious of buying meat that is not factory farmed. Do some due diligence to find certified humane meat. Considering only about 20% of meat is processed outside the factory farm system, this can be challenging but is important. Every purchase of factory farmed meat is a mandate for more production, so a little extra effort can go a long way.  
Think of it this way. The inconvenience of taking time to know where your meat came from is slight compared to inconvenience of the environmental damage caused by factory farmed meat. For a detailed guide on avoiding factory farmed foods, check out the Huffington Post article written by Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. 

Spread the wordIf more people learn about the effects of factory farms, we all stand a greater chance of making real changes to our environment. Let people know that going green isn’t really going green without taking factory farms into account. 

2 responses

  1. Pingback: The Linchpin To Going Green Is On Your Plate « advocatetaste

  2. “The Linchpin To Going Green Is On Your Plate” identifies a major problem the world will come to recognize. The question is “when?”

    A friend of mine whose career is headed into the world of sustainability, told me that he sees the world facing two problems not really in vogue yet. One problem is the need for seawalls, because of global warming causing rising seas, and the second problem is waste management.

    Samantha does an excellent job of defining the problem of lack of regulation for waste management on factory farms. The movie clip allows a variety of people to comment on the waste problem. What caught my attention is the fear factor that people and small company owners have for fighting large corporations. As a naive idealist, I want to know how any company can so pollute the global environment; but as a practical environmentalist, I understand the fear of reciprocity from large corporations and the realization that politicians and our government reacts to problems instead of pre-empting problems.

    I wonder if any readers of Samantha’s blogs would be willing to post her website on their facebook, twitter, linked-in and other social media sites?

    Samantha’s writing is worth everyone’s time and consideration.

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