An Overview of Animal Agriculture’s Effect on the Environment

     Society is currently plagued by the effects that the human race has had on the environment, ranging from air pollution to ocean dead zones. Many causes of these issues have been targeted, but only a fraction of time has been spent investigating the increasing influence of animal agriculture. This practice reaches across the globe as animals are grown for beef, milk, eggs, and other products. While thousands rely on animal agriculture for food, growing concern from the scientific community is arising around the business and its correlation with the environment. As this connection strengthens, demands for a solution and further research are rising, too. Studies have shown animal agriculture to be a prominent factor in causing global warming, deforestation, and ocean dead zones.

     One of the greatest areas of disquiet has been among the relationship between animal agriculture and greenhouse gases. Gases released by animal agriculture have contributed to the pollutants being added to the atmosphere and the overall resulting greenhouse effect. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of the release of methane, as well as carbon dioxide. Multiple studies agree that animal agriculture is the cause of 18 percent of emissions. Leo Wahl, however, notes that, “[This percentage] does not account for livestock respiration, which emits 8,769 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Secondly, it does not take into account the photosynthesis-enacting plants that are destroyed to clear land solely for livestock. Lastly, it does not take into account the fact that methane gas, of which livestock emit nearly as much as natural gas mining, and nitrous oxide, for which animal agriculture is responsible for 65%, warm the atmosphere much more harshly than carbon dioxide in a 20-year period.” The latter sentence also brings up the point that while animal agriculture is involved in releasing the greenhouse gas of carbon dioxide, other harmful gases are being emitted by animal agriculture as well. Many of the gases are also more powerful than carbon dioxide and can create the same effect in smaller quantities. These gases have traits that result in their ability to trap heat to be enhanced. Animal agriculture contributes to 15 percent of methane release (Takahashi), and the aforementioned nitrous oxide has joined it, creating a harmful tandem of gases. The culmination of these effects adds into global warming, a generally well covered subject. Yet many of these gases remain relatively uncited and hidden under the shield of the fossil fuel industry. While fossil fuels’ extent into global warming is strong, animal agriculture has just as big of a role in many of the factoring gases, if not larger. As animal agriculture continues to gain power, global warming will follow with the effects.

     A second influence of animal agriculture is comes upon deforestation. Deforestation is contributing to climate change also, as carbon dioxide is a leading factor in global warming. Through photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is converted to oxygen, and this gives air to animals and humans alike. The loss of these trees indicates less carbon dioxide can be monitored. In addition, the forests also provide essential habitats for hundreds of species in the wild. Animal agriculture is contributing to this branch of the issue in that the fields created are often turned into grazing grounds. “With regard to deforestation, the World Bank has found that animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 90% of the razing of the Brazilian Amazon” (Hyner). The Amazon rainforest is the largest rainforest on the planet, but dozens of acres of it are being removed for agricultural work each day. This issue is concerning to environmentalists and scientists as deforestation has a splash effect on the environment around it. As the rainforests fall, more agricultural fields can take place, replacing a haven for the environment with a factor that can further damage it. “Our household data drawn from villages across the region show that as the amount of land devoted to crop cultivation has fallen, the amount of land devoted to pastureland has increased” (Busch and Geoghegan). Deforestation is another detrimental issue connected to animal agriculture due to the simple fact that many acres of land are required to harbor the livestock. Since this is the case, animal agriculture has spread with the actions of deforestation.

     Another issue connected to animal agriculture is the ocean dead zones that result in the waters around it. The waste produced by cows is known for being a fertilizer, and bacteria grow around it in the process of decomposition. This waste, however, can grow harmful types of bacteria and contribute to the rise of ocean dead zones. Dead zones are areas in the ocean in which there is no oxygen due to bacteria intaking the majority of it. This kills all organisms relying on oxygen within the radius. As all fish and most marine organisms need oxygen to survive, the dead zones become filled with the dead organisms, hence their name. In Florida and California, areas with agriculture have been shown be a possible cause of their infamous red tides. Much mystery surrounds how red tides have been created, but areas with agriculture have seen connections between the two issues. The agricultural waste spawns algae as a result of its runoff into water. “As the algal mass sinks, it is consumed by bacteria, which use up most of the oxygen in the water as they multiply. The result is an oxygen-depleted dead zone at the bottom of the sea where few creatures can survive” (Shwartz). Many of these dead zones appear in areas where agriculture has strong influence, and they are not always in the oceans alone. Agricultural waste sometimes enters local waters such as rivers or lakes, and these can, too, experience loss of oxygen and have a similar effect. Aside from where the dead zones occur, it has been clear to scientists that they pose danger to the marine wildlife within. A Stanford University study utilized a satellite to report on the effects of agricultural fertilization. “The lead author of the study, Ph.D. candidate J. Michael Beman, analyzed five years of satellite data. ‘There were roughly four irrigation events per year, and right after each one, you’d see a bloom appear within a matter of days,’ Beman says” (“Agriculture a Threat to Ocean Life?”). This shows that the effort to grow plants in connection with animal agriculture has a pair of dangers against the environment. Both fertilizers and waste from agriculture can cause these dead zones. This further adds to the potential damage of animal agriculture around the globe.

     As these three main effects of animal agriculture have spread to the air, trees, and water, the attention of the scientists has been gradually gained over time. The aforementioned studies mainly resulted as awareness being brought to the issue. Advocates of humane treatment of animals, environmentalists, and several of the scientists involved are calling for greater focus on animal agriculture’s role with the environment. Critics of the studies say that there is a lack of evidence to support the correlation between the statistics, and that they have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, animal agriculture remains a topic of great concern to many. Research continues to point to it as being a leading factor in deforestation and global warming. Several solutions have been proposed to address the issue, and many are in the progress of gaining support. As the issue evolves, scientists around the globe will continue to monitor it and the public will learn and act as research supports or denies the current statistics.

Works Cited

“Agriculture a Threat to Ocean Life?” LINCCWeb Catalog Search, Stanford University.

Busch, Christopher, and Jacqueline Geoghegan. “Labor scarcity as an underlying cause of the increasing prevalence of deforestation due to cattle pasture development in the southern Yucatán region.” LINCCWeb Catalog Search, Regional Environmental Change. Vol. 10, Issue 3, p. 191-203. 13p.

Hyner, Christopher. “A Leading Cause of Everything: One Industry That Is Destroying Our Planet and Our Ability to Thrive on It.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vermont Law School.

“New report reveals the environmental and social impact of the livestock revolution.” Stanford University, Stanford Report, 16 Mar. 2010.

Shwartz, Mark. “Ocean ecosystems plagued by agricultural runoff.” Stanford University, Stanford Report, 10 Mar. 2005.

Takahashi, Junichi. “Some prophylactic options to mitigate methane emission from animal agriculture in Japan.” GREENR Catalog Search, Asian-Australian Journal of Animal Sciences, 1 Feb. 2011.

Wahl, Leo. “Environmental Impact of Animal Agriculture.” The Apollos, Paul Smith’s College, 3 Nov. 2016.

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