Sustainable Food: Confronting Some Realities


Video by Alexis S, Applied Learning Global Development Studies student

by Joshua O
Applied Learning Global Development Studies

Over the weekend, I watched Food, Inc. – a 2008 documentary that depicted the supply chains of our food and highlighted the lucrative yet destructive world of animal agriculture. Actually, let me rephrase that: over the weekend, I attempted to watch Food, Inc. I watched half of the documentary and couldn’t watched for any longer. Not to mention, during these 45 minutes, I had my hands covering my eyes for the majority of the time, as the gruesome and horrific information entered my memory.

I was stunned.

Fortunately, though, I managed to gather enough courage to watch Cowspiracy – another documentary released in 2014 that illustrated the animal agriculture industry. I was shocked. The meat industry that produces the very meat that lies on my dinner table every night has been hiding detrimental facts from the average consumer – people like you and me.

Did you know that, according to some estimates, animal agriculture – our current industrialized method of raising livestock in “assembly lines” – produces 18% to 51% of global greenhouse gases, compared to the 13% emitted from the transportation sector? Did you know that one McDonald’s Quarter Pounder burger requires approximately 660 gallons of water to produce, 1 pound of commercial beef requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce, a dozen eggs takes 477 gallons of water to produce, and 1 gallon of milk takes upwards of 1000 gallons of water to produce? Did you know that raising livestock in our current industrialized way consumes 1/3 of all global freshwater, occupies 45% of Earth’s inhabitable land, causes about 91% of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforests, and is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean “dead zones,” and habitat destruction?

I bet you didn’t.

We have all been fed lies. Growing up, I have always believed that the burning of fossil fuels and the use of combustion-based transportation were the most detrimental human actions for our environment. However, they aren't. To provide some context and insight into the world of animal agriculture, let’s first talk about monoculture farms.

A monoculture farm is an agricultural practice where a piece of land is used primarily to grow one type of crop. Some examples include monocultures that grow wheat, corn, and soybeans. It is important to understand that monocultures are extremely detrimental to the environment. First, these farms require massive amounts of land, which often leads to deforestation and the clear-cutting of forests. Furthermore, growing a single type of crop on acres and acres of land completely destroys the ecosystem. Have you ever heard of a thriving ecosystem where there is only one crop that thrives and dominates? The simple answer is no.... Surprisingly, the yield from the majority of soybean and wheat monocultures don’t end up on the supermarket shelf. Instead, they end up as food for the billions of animals in factory farms. 

Not only that, but the water these animals require is unparalleled. For reference, the entire human population drinks 5.1 billion gallons of water and consumes 21 billion pounds of food every single day. Seems like a lot, right? Not really: the world’s 70 billion farm animals drink more than 45 billion gallons of water and eat an astonishing 135 billion pounds of food per day.

This precious food and valuable freshwater is going into the mouths of animals which we – the people in the privileged echelons of society – slaughter to eat. If we were to significantly reorganize the animal agriculture industry so that less animals are grown and demanded by humans and actually turn the feed that we are feeding animals into food for humans, we would be able to feed every single human being on Earth an adequate diet. Poverty and malnutrition – two of the most prevalent and heartbreaking crises that humanity currently faces – can be abolished.

Furthermore, going back to the fact that animal agriculture produces anywhere from 18% to 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of it stems from the raising of cows to produce beef. One of the most harmful bi-products of raising cattle is the emission of methane from the process of enteric fermentation – the digestive process of an animal. Through this process, methane is released by the cows through burps and farts. To understand why this is such an enormous problem, methane is the second-most emitted greenhouse gas after CO2 (16%) and methane traps more heat than CO2 in the atmosphere. In essence, this means that methane is equally harming, if not more, than CO2 and the raising of cattle is one of the biggest contributors of methane emissions.

Understanding the negative implications of animal agriculture begs the question: “what can we do to alleviate the stress imposed onto Earth’s fragile processes and finite resources by the animal agriculture industry?” The most logical answer to this question is the idea of adopting a vegan diet. The positive effects of a vegan diet are unmatched. According to the Cowspiracy documentary, “to feed a person on an all plant-based vegan diet requires just 1/6 of an acre of land. To feed a person on a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy requires three times as much land. To feed an average US citizen’s high-consumption meat, dairy, and eggs diet requires 18 times as much land.” Not only that, but a vegan diet only produces half of the CO2 emissions, uses 1/11 the amount of fossil fuels, 1/13 amount of water, and 1/18 the amount of land compared to a meat-based diet. Furthermore, a vegan’s diet saves 1100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forests, 20 pounds of CO2 emissions, and 1 animal’s life every single day.

Of course, I know that practicing veganism is an extremely tough task that requires self-discipline. I would find it challenging, personally, to switch to a completely vegan diet tomorrow. But there are still a plethora of ways that omnivores, such as you and me, can help address the problem. For example, adding more plant-based alternatives to our meals, such as Beyond Meat or Z-Rou, or substituting meat in general with protein-packed foods such as beans and tofu, are lifestyle choices we can all adopt. Alternatively, the idea of “Meatless Mondays” is another way for omnivores to create positive change and reduce our personal contributions to climate change.

At the end of the day, the problem of animal agriculture is one that is too massive for any one individual to change. However, by implementing small changes, not only will you play a role in being an active global citizen, but you will influence others to follow in your footsteps. If we really want to change our planet for the better, for both the environment and humanity, every single one of us needs to collectively play our part.

Time is running out; we need to address this problem sooner rather than later.

Thumbnail photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash.