Why Our Most Environmentally Important Decisions Involve Food
An Environmental Article from All-Creatures.org


Lee Hall, Friends of Animals
April 2013

Our ecological footprint is far bigger than that of seven billion humans, because we also breed billions of farm animals. Our habit of using animals as part of agriculture leads to a fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions we emit worldwide — more emissions than our use of cars, buses, trains and aircraft (which together account for 13 percent).[1]

environment decisions food

environment decisions food

Why does so much warming gas come from animal agribusiness? Because meat and dairy processing plants are heavy carbon emitters. Plus, cows and other ruminant animals themselves emit methane gas when they digest plant protein — and methane is normally at least 20 times as potent an atmosphere-heater as carbon dioxide is.

environment decisions food

environment decisions food

Then there’s the runoff that oozes from animal farms. It’s full of waste matter and pollutants that seep into waterways, cause ever-expanding dead zones in bays and oceans, and endanger animals such as the orcas of Puget Sound.[2]

environment decisions food

People might tune out climate-change information because of a feeling of helplessness. But concerned individuals can feel empowered, because key solutions start in a most familiar place: the kitchen.

Local food — the least food miles from farm to plate, to use foodie lingo — is often promoted as the best answer to our ecological challenges. And indeed, eating locally produced food reduces the emissions quotient of our diets.[3] But getting our protein and other nutrients from plant-based meals is even more effective.

One person shifting one day each week to fully vegetarian meals is comparable to reducing one’s driving by 1,160 miles per year. So we can also say:

  • Animal agribusiness is tantamount per se to non-local food; and
  • To commit to a seven-days-a-week shift would save the equivalent of 8,120 miles driven annually.

As politically engaged individuals, we can also press our government to shift subsidies to the direct growing of crops for people — to food, not feed. Today, the government allocates enormous federal subsidies for farmers who, under the status quo, grow cheap crops as animal feed — leading to habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, and high pesticide use.

The subsidies for animal agribusiness perpetuate the mealtime habits of previous generations. A big part of changing the government’s priorities will involve voting with our grocery carts. As habits shift, economies will shift.

If we’d stop farming animals (for the trouble is all animal farming, not just animal farming that involves a factory) we’d instantly be involved in the one action that can free hundreds of millions of acres from rows of feed crops. Land use would be strikingly more efficient if we feed ourselves, rather than feed animals in order to eat them. Grazing land could be retired from use; natural habitat could be restored. Free-roaming horses and burros could once again flourish in the West, along with prairie dogs and wolves. And vast releases of methane, chemicals and farm waste could be avoided.

This is environmentalism in action, and many people are making it an everyday habit. They have pledged allegiance to our one-of-a-kind biosphere — to the future of life on our planet.

Have you taken this pledge? If so, on behalf of Friends of Animals, thank you! If not, will you do so this year? And if you do, we’d love to hear from you, and to acknowledge your commitment in our Letters section.


  1. These figures, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have been countered by some researchers as conservative estimates; but as they have received wide scientific acceptance, I use them here.
  2. See Frontline: “Poisoned Waters,” written and directed by Rick Young and Hedrick Smith; produced by Marc Shaffer for WGBH Boston (particularly Hedrick Smith’s interviews with NOAA Wildlife Biologist Brad Hanson, environmental consultant Rick Dove, and Bay author and reporter Tom Horton). Available: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/poisonedwaters/view/
  3. Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food Mile s and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” – 42 Environmental Science Technology, at 3508-13 (2008).

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