How Cattle Destroys Our Planet
Does cattle ruin our World?
Before I began my research, I avoided beef for health reasons. During my junior year of high school, I reformed my diet away from my family’s very beef-laden diet into a more heart-healthy, Mediterranean-style one. I must continually defend my choice to not eat beef, and even though it has been many years since I first made this decision, many of them often seem to “forget” when choosing a menu. Since I stopped eating beef, I have been more interested in other related issues, such as the hormones and antibiotics we give our cattle, as well as the link to this nation’s huge obesity problem. I met a friend while I was living in Italy named Susan who did not eat meat, primarily because of the impact it was having on agriculture, and the methods used in producing it. She told me briefly of her reasons, but never went into explicit detail with me; ever since then I have had a lingering curiosity to do my own research and come to my own conclusions.
My First Research
When I first began my research, I knew of many of the issues with antibiotics and hormones that we give our cattle, and did not agree with them. As biology major, I have learned about this trend in school. Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem; there are already many infections that while once easily treatable with antibiotics, are now deadly serious. Antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus infections, for example, can kill a person if doctors take too long to realize that it is not a normal strain of the bacteria. While I was aware that we gave our cattle antibiotics, I had no idea before I began this research that we give the exact same antibiotics to people that we are giving to cattle. Whose idea was this? I suspect that it was encouraged by pharmaceutical companies, but to anyone educated in biology, this is obviously a dangerous gamble. Why is it that doctors tell us to be especially careful when taking antibiotics, take the entire dose, don’t take them unless you really have a bacterial infection (not just a cold virus), ect; while the entire time, we are continually lacing the feed of animals with the very same antibiotics? Continual exposure to low levels of antibiotics is precisely how bacteria become resistant. I feel that we need to stop giving these life-saving antibiotics in low continuous doses to our farm animals or at the very least we need to have different antibiotics for animals and humans.
What is what we know “less” about?
While I could continue at length on this subject, instead I am going to focus on what I know less about: the effect cattle is having on our environment. I put all livestock producers into two categories: those who use sustainable agriculture practices, such as organic farmers, and those who are typically associated with “factory farms,” which are heavy in the use of chemicals as a means of increasing production at low cost. The organic farmers generally produce a higher quality product, which contains more beneficial nutrients and produces a better taste, but generally the small productions of these farms cause the price to be higher. The “factory farms” are mass-producers of agriculture and livestock; they are most interested in the bottom line and the quickest, most economic way to their end result. The use of fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics is a large part of their operations, and is often not handled in the most environmentally friendly way. Soil erosion is a problem in many areas; the rate at which we are harvesting crops is not allowing the land enough time to regenerate itself. Another huge issue with these producers is the enormous amounts of wastes these farms produce. This animal waste is still laden with these chemicals when they are disposed of, and current governmental regulations are not strict enough or enforced diligently enough for great harm to be avoided. Large spills of this waste have killed millions of fish, creating huge areas that have been turned into “dead-zones” where virtually all life has ended. These “dead zones” produced as a by-product of fertilizers and animal waste were brand new and alarming information to me. I knew that agriculture could have a large impact on our planet, but to kill millions of fish and marine life was not something that had occurred to me. It is becoming more clear to me through my research that society as a whole need to pay closer attention to agriculture methods. To ensure the safety of our planet’s scarce and precious resources, we need many minds of diverse disciplines tuned in to these issues. I will address these problems and some already-devised solutions that desperately need widespread implantation.
The awareness IS there
Most of us are aware of this planet’s rapidly increasing population; a common media viewpoint is that our advances in food production capabilities will be eventually out-stripped by the dramatic growth. In order to meet this rising demand, we must continually increase our production of crops; but at what expense to our land? The United States’ population is still increasing, as are the populations of most developing nations. Since the 1950s America has rapidly increased its ability to produce agriculture. Developments in fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation have provided dramatic increases in output per acre of land; however this industrialized agriculture causes more pollution and environmental damage than any other human activity
Every time we eat meat or meat products from these factory farms we are supporting the chemical-dependent agriculture that is poisoning land, air and water. In addition, we are jeopardizing our health and that of our children-even those people who feel no sympathy for the animal prisoners may be concerned to know that in addition to the hormones and antibiotics in the animals’ flesh, all the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used to grow the animals’ food also wind up in the animal products we consume. This is something that we should all think about. America has a love affair with beef; what effect is this huge demand having on our environment?
Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture helped me to further understand some of the issues in cattle production and what measures to take in order to solve some of the problems. Deforestation in rural areas and developing nations to make way for cattle pasture, which causes massive soil erosion; irrigation of crops and the massive quantities of water used (the primary production cost); problems with disposing of waste materials, and the pollution it can cause; and greenhouse gases related to cattle production, which is primarily a problem when forests are slashed and burned to make way for pasture.To minimize the impact of cattle production, we should be encouraging intensive agriculture (factory farming), including livestock production, output per unit of land could be maximized. This would allow retirement of surplus agricultural land into forests or native grasslands, increasing wildlife habitat, watersheds, and sequestering carbon dioxide in plant biomass to have a favorable effect on global warming. I think that this plan could work well, as long as those people involved in large-scale production are the same people required to make sure that additional land is preserved in its natural state. According to an article in National Geographic, in Brazil, land owners are required to keep a percentage of their land untouched, in an attempt to keep nature in balance. A good plan, but this is difficult to enforce. While these measures could be beneficial, concentrating cattle production in this way can have effects that are difficult to manage.
The waste, all this horrible waste!
Waste production on cattle farms can be enormous when the cattle are kept in close quarters, fed by grain instead of grass. In small scale farms, where cows, pigs, and hens graze and roam the fields, their waste provides natural fertilizer for the farm’s ecosystems. But a factory-style animal feeding operation, with hundreds and even thousands of animals crammed together in a small space, inevitably creates much more manure than the factory’s land can naturally absorb. This mass quantity of waste needs to be properly handled in order to minimize its impact on the environment. Storage and composing of this material is one way to convert some of the harmful substances into less polluting material.
Organic farms utilize this natural fertilizer by composting animal waste for their crops. Waste-treatment plants, similar to those used for our sewage treatment would also be effective; bacteria, enzymes, and certain plants in lagoon-type pools would convert waste into useful and less polluting substances. Plants such as water hyacinth have also been used in the treatment of sewage and animal wastes by growing the plants on waste water lagoons. They use the nitrogen and phosphorus to support an explosive growth of vegetation, thus purifying the water. They are then harvested at regular intervals and can be used for compost or animal feed.
This is another example of an organic-approved fertilizer method. I think that innovations such as this are a wonderful way to advance progress on multiple fronts. Simultaneously purifying waste and providing feed is simply ingenious. When the proper precautions are not taken with this issue, disastrous situations can result. There have been manure spills of mass quantity; such as in 1995 23 million gallons of waste spilled into the New River in North Carolina- twice the amount of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, later that year there was a spill of 35 million gallons that killed 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetland. Direct dumping of waste onto the land has also occurred by companies that disregard current laws and regulations. Before I started the research for this paper, the problems with disposal of waste disposal had not occurred to me; I now know that the consequences of mismanagement can have terrible effects. These disgusting mass lagoons of excrement and their occasional spills are an environmental liability that these intensive practices have created. The proper techniques for dealing with them have already been developed, we just need to make sure they are implemented and stringently enforced.
But even as fertilizer, it’s still waste!
The fertilizers we use to increase crop production do not get entirely “used up” by the crops; instead the excess nutrients seep into to the water table and make their way into our groundwater. These excess nutrients that make their way to lakes and rivers cause huge algae blooms (explosive growth cycles) that use up the oxygen supply in the water. When the oxygen is used up, the algae die, as do the fish and other oxygen breathing creatures which sink to the bottom creating a “dead zone” that cannot sustain life, (other than scavengers that don’t require oxygen). In the Gulf of Mexico there is a dead zone of hundreds of square miles where the Mississippi river feeds into it. This agricultural waste, (fertilizer, manure, and microorganisms,) also can and has on occasion made its way into our groundwater supplied wells that we drink from. In contrast, organic farming methods do not use man-made fertilizers, and this is not an issue. The organic land also produces more drought-resistant crops due to methods of cultivating. Through my research I have also learned that organic crops can have the same yields as non-organic crops when properly managed; in addition there is less soil erosion and less water is required because the land holds onto water better, (in part due to the rich mulch that is often used as fertilizer). All the more reason to embrace organic farming!
Water, Water, Water!
Water use by the crops grown for cattle is enormous. It takes quite a lot of soybeans and corn to raise beef. Current trends in industrialized agriculture are for maximizing crop production; currently in developing countries, production is at a surplus. In these nations it is most cost-effective to feed cattle grain and corn; there is more corn grown in the U.S. for cattle feed than for people. Beef, by far, consumes the most resources in its production; for one pound of grain fed beef, it takes approximately 45,000 gallons of water, (which includes the water used to grow the grain.) Agriculture is our most inefficient use of water, “consuming about 70% of the total water used by people; a million gallons are used in the production of a little more than 2 acres of corn, and it is not unusual for 70-80% of that to be lost by runoff, evaporation, or seeping into the ground before reaching crops,” particularly troubling to me is the pumping of water from our natural aquifers, we are pumping too much too fast. When lack of water for irrigation is a problem, or just too expensive, these underground geological formations filled with clean water are tapped, providing (so far) the plentiful water needed. If we were to do this at a rate in tune with nature, the water could replenish itself, as it has done for eons. However at the rate at which are using this water, they will eventually run dry, causing a terrible chain of events to occur. With the lowered water table, the roots of our crops will not be able to reach the water table, drying up and dying unless mass quantities of water are continually added; along coastal areas the sea water will creep in, the excess salt and minerals providing an inhospitable habitat to many things we are trying to grow.
Because groundwater often supplies rivers, wetlands, and lakes, over-pumping can dry out valuable wetlands, and dry out lakes and rivers when water tables drop too far. Over-pumping aquifers can cause land to sink. In Tucson, Arizona, for instance, land has sunk more than seven feet. Over pumping coastal aquifers can change the zone separating the ocean and fresh water, so that seawater seeps in and contaminates freshwater supplies in coastal cities. Many cities and towns around the world are battling the contamination of freshwater by seawater.
It is time to ACT !
After researching all of this, I feel much more passionate about this issue. We need to keep our use of these precious natural resources in tune with nature, and not withdraw water at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves. These aquifers have been around for eons, they deserve to be preserved; and if we allow them to run dry, not only will it have serious consequences, but the crops that were once supported by them will have no water supply and no hope.
Through my research, I have become more educated and interested in the issues surrounding cattle production and related agriculture methods. There are many biased sources out there, and many conclusions rest upon incorrect data. This slanted view of the truth and misinformation are troubling to me because it is difficult at first to realize you are reading inaccurate data. The general public often does not read critically all the information they are given, and also does not research the given facts. If there were more accurate, unbiased information out there the public would have a better, more comprehensive view of the truth; and be able to come to stronger conclusion about the current situation and what needs to happen. To a large extent, the techniques to raise cattle in a way that is not harmful to the environment already exist, but are not widely implemented. This is key in minimizing the harmful impacts that are ravaging our natural resources and environment. To minimize impact on our environment, cattle should be allowed to roam free, feeding on natural grasses and fertilizing the land with its waste. This doesn’t create the huge demand on our water; natural grasses are adapted to their environment and rely on rainfall to survive, additional water may be needed in the dryer seasons but nowhere near the quantities needed for soybeans and corn. I hope that in the near future these issues become more publicized in the media, so that more consumers will be aware of the problems. Publicity of these issues would also help consumers to realize that their food purchases have an impact on production methods.
As Frances Moore Lappe argues, “What we eat is within our control, yet the act ties us to the economic, political, and ecological order of our whole planet. Even apparently small change-consciously choosing a diet that is good both for our bodies and for the earth-can lead to a series o choices that transform our whole lives”. We vote with our dollars, and if we show producers that we will only pay for beef and agriculture produced in environmentally-friendly ways, they will be forced to change and meet our demand in order to keep making a profit. Furthermore, if the general public was more aware of these issues, we could have more of an impact on legislation that would benefit the environment. In the European Union for example, the public is much more aware of food growing methods and quite vocal with their opinions. Genetically-modified food must be clearly labeled in the EU in order to be legal, as most people living there are strongly opposed to it. This type of awareness of current issues is vital if we are going to have a say in how our food is produced. The expanding organic food movement in the United States is a good start. Organic food is naturally better for the environment. It utilizes sustainable agricultural methods, does not use man-made fertilizers, has higher drought-resistance, the crops are more blight resistant due to genetic diversity, and utilizes animal waste in a productive way. Organic crops also taste better because there are higher concentrations of nutrients in many of the crops. Organic farming today is closer to the way farming was in the days of old, with locally-minded people concerned with their community’s health and sustainability. If you want to make our environment better, buy grass-fed free-range beef and “Go Organic!”