As we progressed as a species we moved from hunting wild animals to keep ‘livestock’; animals raised in controlled conditions for the sole purpose of consumption. This has lead to 2 billion people now eating a primarily meat-based diet. This figure is rising year on year as more countries develop and more people want to have access to meat.
But meat is expensive to produce, large grazing animals such as cows for example, naturally require large amounts of land. So to bring the cost of meat production down, humans decided to start treating these animals more like machines, throwing welfare out the window and placing huge numbers within small pens which have come to be known as ‘factory farms’. These factories don’t have the lush green grass for the animals to graze upon but instead are often barren and brown with the animals instead fed on soy and corn.
Aside from the obvious ethical issues around keeping wildlife in these sorts of conditions the environmental costs are cast and wide ranging too and in this article I will go over 8 ways factory farming is negatively affecting out environment.
1) Methane Pollution
As you are probably aware our climate is changing rapidly due to the human contribution to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by a number of gases we emit from certain processes that form a layer in the earth’s atmosphere trapping in heat and causing a warming of the earth’s surface.
Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse not spoken about as frequently as carbon dioxide (CO2) however, methane over a one hundred year period is around 30x better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide making it even more dangerous over the short term.
Methane on factory farms forms in a couple of different ways. The first source of this gas comes mainly directly from cows. These animals are ruminants and therefore have a unique digestive system, where microorganisms in the gut break food down in the absence of oxygen, producing methane as a result of this process. This gas is then expelled by the cows, mostly in the form of burps but also farts.
Methane is also emitted from the manure of these animals, which on factory farms is stored in huge slurry lagoons. The manure sits in these tanks in order to separate out the solids from the liquids and this can take up to 150 days. All that time microorganisms are breaking it down and releasing methane into the atmosphere.
2) Ammonia Pollution
These huge slurry lagoons that I just mentioned don’t just release methane, but also produce high amounts of ammonia gas (NH3) which comes from urine and faeces.
On it’s own ammonia is relatively harmless, unless in extremely high concentrations. The issue comes from when ammonia combines with other particles in the atmosphere such as PM2.5. PM 2.5 are microscopic solid particles from various sources which have becomes suspended in the air. They could be from our cars, from power plants or from natural sources such as volcanic eruptions.
The combined particles of PM2.5 and ammonia drift and eventually settle on vegetation or in waterbodies and this can cause damage to plant and animal life in these areas. Even at very low concentrations, aquatic life starts to become affected by ammonia.
3) Land Use Change
When looking at factory farms we must not simply consider the environmental impact caused by the land the factory sits on but the entire life-cycle of the process.
Although many factory farms are situated in areas which are not lush and green, they must obtain there food from somewhere. Latest estimates suggest 67% of the soy beans and 40% of the grain we produce globally is fed to livestock.
Of course, these crops require lots of land to produce and the most fertile (and often cheapest) land available for growing crops such as soy is in tropical regions. The problem for the growers is that these things known as rainforests tend to get in the way of this. So the simplest solution is to chop all the trees down, leading to huge amounts of deforestation in regions such as the Amazon.
Recent data from Brazil suggests 220,000 square kilometres of forest have been destroyed between 2006 and 2017 with an estimated 10% of that for soy bean production.
This deforestation has several environmental impacts. Firstly a loss of biodiversity caused by the loss of habitat, when plants and animals either die quickly or are pushed into smaller areas of habitat where they can’t compete for resources.
Secondly, although the soy crops absorb some carbon dioxide, this pales in comparison to the ability of the trees they replace. Studies suggest the Amazon rainforest absorbs 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. So for every tree that is cut down, that is more of the gas remaining in the atmosphere, trapping in heat. This impact is a double whammy because the existing trees are burnt, releasing all the stored carbon.
Thirdly, deforestation affects the water cycle in tropical areas. With less trees to take up water from the soil and release it back into the atmosphere it means less rain in these areas. This is ironic as it actually makes growing crops like soy much more difficult as the conditions turn dry.
Finally, deforestation leads to the erosion of soils. With no large trees holding the soil in place with their root systems, or replenishing the top soil with leaf litter the soils are easily washed away. This leads to flooding and pollution of rivers.
4) Water Pollution
Just the animals reared for consumption produce over 100 times the amount of waste of the entire human population. So imagine the amount of waste that is produced in a factory farm facility!
Water is used to clean the buildings of excrement and other waste. With approximately 150 gallons of water required per cow per day.
This water is then obviously contaminated with bacteria as well as the hormones and antibiotics that are given to the animals to make them grow quicker. The contaminated water can’t be returned straight to the water supply without treatment and so is stored in huge slurry lagoons. However, no process is perfect and if you multiply this over the world the number of incidents of these lagoons leaking and therefore the contaminated water getting into our water supply is relatively high.
Once in the water supply this leads to the deaths of fish and other life in rivers and streams.
5) Fossil Fuel Input
The factory farming industry is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels (namely oil) throughout the entire process.
Fossil fuels are initially used to produce the fertilisers, pesticides and machinery simply to produce and then transport the feed to the livestock.
The name factory is more appropriate than farm for the way these operations are run, and that means far less people doing the work and far more machines instead. This is anything from flushing machines which was away animal waste, to automatic milking machines, to the machines used to process meat in the abattoir. All these machines require fossil fuels either directly through the use of petroleum or indirectly through a need for electricity.
Then there is the vast amounts of fuel required to cool or heat buildings. Chickens are packed into warehouses where fans or air conditioning must be used constantly to keep them cool and in colder areas of the world, heating must be left on to prevent animals from freezing to death in the winter. Those are some hefty electricity bills.
Finally you have the transportation at the end of the process to package and take the meat from the factories to the supermarkets. In America the majority of meat production takes place in mid-western states, but people from all 51 states want a piece of this meat and so it must be transported hundreds of miles to eventually reach the dinner table.
Buying non-local meat from one of these farms can increase the overall carbon emissions of the meat by up to 17 times! This is vastly worse if the meat is transported by truck rather than train with trucks being 10 times less efficient.
6) Freshwater Use
Approximately one-quarter of our freshwater is used in the production of meat and dairy. Again, this freshwater is used throughout the full production cycle from producing the feed, to hydrate the animals, clean the facilities and even in the slaughter process.
Perhaps surprisingly the majority of freshwater used on a factory farm is used to produce the feed. Grain fed animals use 43 times more rainwater and 61 times more groundwater than grass fed animals for this reason.
Freshwater is a scarce resource on the planet making up only 1% of all water. According to the World Resources Institute, 36 countries currently experience extremely high levels of freshwater stress.
To compensate for a lack of freshwater from rain we turn to extracting it from the ground. This process requires energy to undertake and every time freshwater is used energy is required once again to extract, transport and filter the water. All of this means more carbon dioxide emissions.
Other environmental impacts of our freshwater use have lead to droughts and therefore the indirect destruction of habitats and the loss of biodiversity too.
7) Damage to Marine Ecosystems
Factory farming isn’t just limited to the land. We also like to factory farm our fish too. This is mostly done by raising fish in artificial enclosures, which are basically a series of large floating nets in the sea.
Because fish factory farms are often integrated right into living ecosystems, this means that waste products directly enter the surrounding waters. This includes faeces, uneaten food and even antibiotics that are used to keep the fish healthy.
The faeces is produced in much higher concentrations than the marine ecosystem can handle. A salmon farm of 200,000 salmon discharges more waste than an entire city containing 60,000 humans. This of cause leads to the damage and death of life on the sea floor.
Oxygen levels in the water are depleted due to the large number of fish in a small area, leaving less available dissolved oxygen for other marine life. Whilst the nitrogen and phosphorus from uneaten food has led to nutrient enrichment and algal blooms which are toxic to marine life.
There have also been cases of the accidental introduction of invasive plant and animal species too, brought in as part of the feed for the fish.
8) Air Quality
The impacts mentioned up to this point mostly have an indirect affect on human health, whether that is through the destruction of ecosystems or climate change. However, factory farming has even been known to have direct effects on human health.
In 2018 it was reported that residents in a Maryland town were suffering from health effects caused by toxic air. The source of this toxic air was a nearby poultry farm. Illnesses included asthma, pulmonary obstructive disease and even lung cancer.
The toxic air is caused by the huge quantities of chickens packed into a small space which kick up dust. This dust is not clean and is a mixture of waste, soil and feed which once airborne can drift on the wind to nearby communities.
Keeping animals in these ‘factory’ conditions was always going to have consequences for the environment. They are natural organisms and not efficiently designed machines even though we treat them like this. That means that the by-products produced are vast and there is no way to get around this. Cows will always need to defecate and something has to happen to that waste.
But the most shocking statistics for the environment always seem to be around the inefficiency of the process of producing food this way. The vast amount of calories from soy or grain that are required to produce even less calories of meat are quite staggering. The global demand for meat does not seem to be slowing down but with the impacts now so clear, do we still have the excuse of ignorance?
1) Cultured Meat
Regular readers of the blog will know it focuses on finding solutions to environmental problems. So apart from eating less meat are there any other ways to get around the issues of factory farming?
Well one solution could be creating the meat in a more efficient way. Getting past the need to rear a huge animal for years which regularly burps and poos.
This solution is ‘cultured-meat’. This used to be referred to as lab-grown meat and it is the process of growing real meat from cells. The end product is still the same (they are still perfecting the taste) but the process of getting there is completely different. No longer do you have the need for huge factories of inefficient animals creating waste and requiring food. Instead you produce the meat in a ‘brewery’ with a much lower environmental impact.
In podcast episode 11, I interviewed someone from cultured meat startup ‘SuperMeat’. Click below to listen to the full episode and find out more about this new technology.
Mootral is a feed supplement that has been developed to give to livestock to dramatically reduce the amount of methane they produce.
The swiss company that invented the product claim that the product can reduce methane emissions by 30%.
This is not the overall solution of course but in desperate times where we must reduce climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, technology such as Mootral provides a helping hand as we transition away from intensive animal agriculture.