Vegan for the Environment

Do you love spending time in the outdoors?  Do you consider yourself a nature-lover?  How about a conservationist?  You may be surprised to learn that raising animals for food is a one of the largest contributors to the destruction of our environment. We’re talking air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and even species extinction. Sound over the top and alarmist? I promise it’s all true.

Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2012 that “An abundance of science analyzing the impacts on the earth of livestock farming has concluded that humanity’s appetite for meat and dairy products is having serious environmental consequences. Livestock species contribute directly and indirectly to deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gases, global warming, desertification, erosion and human obesityi (emphasis added)

According to Worldwatch Institute: “…It has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.”ii (emphasis added.)

And according to Johns Hopkins University, industrial food animal production (IFAP) contributes to ecological harms that affect our land, air, and water. Raising animals for food also has implications for global climate change, as well as our capacity to feed a growing global population.iii

Water Use

It takes a lot of water to raise the nine billion land animals killed in the United States annuallyiv and we already use more water than any country in the world. In 2010, the USDA reported that 80-90% of U.S. water consumption went to agriculture (both plants and animals).v It’s estimated that humans consume 50% of all fresh water on Earth, and a full 29% of it is used only for meat and milk vii

As an example, the beef industry claims it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of beefviii, but many believe this estimate is much too low. states it takes 1,851 gallons of water, whereas Johns Hopkins estimates between 1,600 and 2,500 gallons per pound.ix x

Compare this to rice, one of the most water-intensive grains, which only requires about 300 gallons per pound, or peanuts, which only require 334 gallons: 82% less water than beef.xi Both rice and peanuts are great sources of protein. And although some nuts can be water-intensive, most people don’t consume nearly the amount of nuts that they would meat–even if they are eating a vegan diet.

According to Johns Hopkins, Growing crops for animal feed entails a highly inefficient use of water, and places a strain on diminishing freshwater reserves.xii

Water Pollution and Erosion

In addition to using a great deal of water, animal agriculture is also the single largest cause of water pollution.xiii Over one million tons of manure are used to fertilize corn crops alone, every single year. We also use 5.6 million tons of nitrogen in the form of chemical fertilizers. These heavy fertilizers, along with untreated animal feces, are washed into our country’s waterways. If we weren’t raising animals, we wouldn’t need to grow food to feed them, meaning we would not need nearly as much fertilizer. Compare nine billion (the approximate number of land animals slaughtered in the U.S. every year) to 323 million (the approximate number of people in the United States). That’s almost 28 animals for every person, not even considering fish and other sea creatures.

Speaking of water pollution, are you aware of the cesspools next to each intensive pig farm?xiv xv The lake you see below is full of around 25 million gallons of pig feces, urine, and the bodies of pigs and piglets who died before making it to slaughter. And when the cesspools get too full, the companies spray the untreated waste directly into the air out of huge sprinklers.xvi Watch the documentary Speciesism to learn more, and find out how this practice impacts the often low-income neighbors of these industrial farms.

Each of these industrial warehouses holds thousands of pigs who will never feel the grass, mud or the sun.

It’s largely the fault of our collective meat habit that we are hesitant letting our kids swim in some waters. This pollution doesn’t stay local; lakes, rivers, and even the oceans are polluted, and ecosystems decimated, due to the artificial breeding and maintenance of so many animals. There is even a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by animal agriculture.xvii Manure spills from swine operations have also been implicated in outbreaks of toxic microorganisms that resulted in massive fish kills.xviii xix

Climate Change and Air Pollution

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that agriculture is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide.xx  It estimates that in 2014, the United States agriculture industry was responsible for 9% of all U.S. GHGs.

However, it is difficult to determine the true impact of agriculture GHGs in the United States. The animal agriculture industry has been given a pass on reporting their emissions, despite being a known top contributor to air pollution. The industry is worth $186 billion dollars annually, and its lobbyists are abundant in Washington.

The Congressional Research Service writes in their 2014 report that “Agricultural operations often have been treated differently from other types of businesses under numerous federal and state laws. In the area of environmental policy, one observer noted that agriculture is ‘virtually unregulated by the expansive body of environmental law that has developed in the United States in the past 30 years.’ Some laws specifically exempt agriculture from regulatory provisions, and others are structured in such a way that farms are not subject to most, if not all, of the regulatory impact.”xxi (Emphasis added.)

dollar-1319598_960_720The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that “Globally, the [livestock] sector contributes 18 percent (7.1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although it accounts for only nine percent of global CO2, it generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide and 35 percent of methane, which have 296 times and 23 times the Global Warming Potential of CO2 respectively.” xxii (Emphasis added.)

The Brookings Institute reports “agriculture accounts for approximately 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 25 percent when including forestry and other land use. The major drivers of the problem are defor-estation, soil and nutrient management, and livestock emissions, so a “business as usual” (BAU) approach to boosting global food production would have substantial negative consequences for climate change.”xxiii

Science Daily reported in May 2016 that in order to meet the Paris Climate Agreement terms by the year 2030, one gigaton of non-CO2 emissions must be removed from the agriculture sector. With currently available technology, we are only able to cut these levels by 21-40%, certainly not enough for the needed impact.

“Countries want to take action on agriculture, but the options currently on offer won’t make the dent in emissions needed to meet the global targets agreed to in Paris. We need a much bigger menu of technical and policy solutions, with major investment to bring them to scale.” xxiv

Or we could just stop eating animals and their secretions.

According to an analysis published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “…The task of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius in global average temperature – considered by many scientists a tipping point for climate disaster – is a truly massive one. Only the vegan diet scenario, in which the entire world’s population eschews animal foods altogether, puts the planet on track to accomplish this.” xxv (Emphasis added.)

But air pollution is far from just a climate issue. Pollutants in the air (particularly methane) create ground-level ozone, resulting in those “code orange” and “code red” alert days we experience during the summer. According to the CDC, ground-level ozone can worsen the symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. It can also wheezing, respiratory irritation, and pain when breathing.xxvi

Land Use

According to the International Livestock Research Institute, 45% of the Earth’s land is currently being used to raise or feed livestock.xxvii In fact, 70% of agricultural land is currently being used to raise animals.xxviii

It is estimated that 90% of cropland in the United States suffers from erosion at a rate 13 times higher than is sustainable, largely due to overgrazing. Keep in mind it takes 500 years to replace a single inch of soil lost to erosion.xxix

Per Johns Hopkins University, using all of this land to raise animals to feed the public is inefficient at best: “The vast majority of calories and protein in feed crops are lost when they are converted to animal

Aside from the corn used for ethanol, the majority of alfalfa, soy, corn and oat crops grown in the United States are fed to farm animals, resulting in a huge net loss of available calories.xxxiv “Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products)…growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people.xxxv (Emphasis added).  Let me say that again – when we cycle calories through animals, we turn 88% of those calories into waste products that pollute our world.

If you are one of the majority of Americans who are concerned about the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), note that GMO corn makes up 95% of the grain fed to farm animals.xxxi xxxii In fact, as of 2006, 60% of corn crop yields in the United States and 47% of soybeans were fed to farm animals.xxxiii If humans simply ate vegetable and grain crops directly, we would need significantly fewer of them, likely making GMOs unnecessary in order to feed a growing world population.


But animal agriculture isn’t an issue only when it comes to soil erosion and available calories. In all, 91% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is due to animal agriculture.xxxvi Per Smithsonian Institute: “Seventy percent of Brazil’s deforested land is used as pasture, with feed crop cultivation occupying much of the remainder.”xxxvii

The deforestation of the Amazon results in habitat loss, one of the main causes of species extinction.xxxviii This, along with the climate-related issues discussed above, make animal agriculture one of the leading causes of the current mass extinction. The hopeful part of this is that it is possible to feed the entire world without cutting down more trees, but only if (you guessed it) we stop eating meat. In a study published in the journal Nature, scientists examined how we could feed an growing population of humans by 2050 without increasing our strain on the environment, including deforestation. To do so, they looked at the impact of several kinds of diets, including vegetarian and vegan ones. The vegan diet was the ONLY one that met every one of their requirements in every scenario, and the vegetarian diet scenarios met their requirements 94% of the time.xxxix


If the world lived vegan, we could feed our increasing world population of humans without ever cutting down another tree. We may even be able to regrow cleared forests.

Wild Animals and The USDA’s “Wildlife Services”

Most of us love wild animals and get excited when, for example, a deer wanders into our backyard, or we see hawks flying high. The US Department of Agriculture is tasked with removing “nuisance” wildlife and keeping the populations in invasive species low. While this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing on the surface, the reality is that in 2013 the USDA’s Wildlife Services killed over four million wild animals.

According to the Washington Post, “The more than 4 million animals shot, poisoned, snared or trapped by the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in fiscal year 2013 included 75,326 coyotes, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, 3,700 foxes, 12,186 prairie dogs, 973 red-tailed hawks, 419 black bears and at least three eagles, golden and bald.”xl (Emphasis added.)

The infographic below shows that the majority of complaints in 2013 were related to property, with agriculture being the second-largest category. Bear in mind that farm animals and pasture land are also both considered property.


Graphic Source: Washington Postxli

Final Thought

These are only some of the environmental consequences from to our demand for the taste of animal flesh and reproductive secretions. Although we are often taught the exact opposite, the belief that animal products are necessary for health is simply incorrect. Humans generally thrive on plant-based diets, with vegan lifestyles becoming more mainstream with each passing year.

Our lawmakers are not addressing these issuesxlii and if “business as usual” continues, they will not. Consumers demand cheap meat, dairy, and eggs to satisfy their tastes, often unaware of the intense strain it causes our environment. By making ourselves informed consumers, we have the power to effect real change for the environmental future of our planet. We only have to choose to eat something else.

Check out to learn how, and our Plant-Based Nutrition page for in-depth information on vegan nutrition.


References/For Further Reading