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Animal Agriculture and Our Land

By Andrea Alban-Davies

Pullquote: It all comes down to <what> we decide to eat.

As the global population explodes, and promises to reach dizzying numbers in the decades ahead, the issue of land use becomes increasingly pressing. Not only do we have to find places for an ever-increasing number of people to live and build the infrastructure to support them, but we also have to meet their basic needs — clean air, clean fresh water, and food, principal among them. In order to meet the last of these, we need arable land. 

How we use our land has far reaching effects, not only due to the impact of the activities that we undertake on that land, but also to the uses that we forgo. Every acre of land that is used to produce food is an acre that cannot be wooded or grassland. So, while the overwhelming majority of us would likely appreciate seeing more forests and otherwise naturalized tracts of land, we accept that we have to forgo those in order to feed more people.  

But what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if there were far more efficient and sustainable ways of meeting the nutritional needs of every person on the planet? Ways that would let us stop burning down rainforests, and still feed everyone? Ways that could restore millions of acres of forests – thereby adding beauty and peace (and carbon sinks, climate change buffers, and wildlife sanctuaries) – to our country and the rest of the world?  

The truth is that it doesn’t have to be a “what if” — it’s all already possible. We have the answer; we know that we can feed tomorrow’s population on far less land than we use to feed even today’s. It all comes down to <what> we decide to eat. How can what we put on our plates so drastically influence how many natural landscapes and wildlife corridors we can support? Well, because not all foods are created equal when it comes to land requirements. Producing meat, dairy, and eggs to feed one person requires a huge amount of land; plant foods much, much less so.

Industry calculations show that providing for the average American’s diet high in animal products requires <18 times> the land that it does to provide for an all plant-based diet. Substitute in 100% grass-fed “organic” meat, and you’re looking at multiple times more land.

At first, I found it easy to dismiss this concept with the argument that human populations are clustered in and around large cities, leaving large tracts of land available to farm and graze; but the more I learned, the harder it got to rely on this logic. The truth is that, in many areas of the world, there isn’t enough arable land left to meet our current food needs; in those areas, people cut down old-growth forests to create arable land. Worldwide, approximately 5 million acres of rainforest are destroyed <every year> to graze livestock and grow crops to feed them.

By way of example, take the Amazon, the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks. When we hear mind-boggling statistics regarding the rate of daily destruction in that particular rainforest, we are talking almost exclusively about the devastation wrought by animal agriculture. Two hundred million acres of the Amazon have been destroyed during the last 40 years, with over 90% of the destruction attributable to the livestock industry. It’s important to keep in mind that most of the countries engaging in – or at least permitting – these practices aren’t doing so to meet local demand for animal agriculture products. Instead, they are producing food for export to satisfy market demand in wealthy, first-world countries like ours.  

For as long as I can remember, there have been campaigns to save the Amazon. And while many of these campaigns have succeeded in slowing the rampant rate of deforestation, the destruction continues. Donating to some of the hard-working non-profit organizations is a wonderful way to get involved; however, if we’re serious about saving the Amazon, the way to do it is dramatically reduce demand for the principle driver of the desecration.

Perhaps the Amazon feels far away, and not particularly relevant as you sit reading this in Rye, New York, so let’s bring it back home. Seventy percent of the arable land in the U.S. is used to grow food to feed animals (not humans). How is this possible? Well, consider this: it takes 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Or take soy, the ultimate protein crop. In the U.S., over 70% of our soybean crop is grown to feed-grade standards for livestock. Key to understanding the land intensity of animal vs. plant products is the fact that only 5%-7% of the total protein consumed by a feedlot cow or steer is returned for human consumption as meat; thus, one expert calls cows a “protein factory in reverse.” That’s why we need over 50% of the land in the continental U.S. to support the animal agriculture juggernaut, land that could otherwise be forests, meadows, and grasslands. What’s more, ranchers are grazing their cattle on our undeveloped federal land, arguably at a fraction of the going rate, destroying existing grasslands and advocating for the rounding up or outright killing of the wildlife residing therein.

If I had met a family on a 100% plant-based diet a year ago that told me they were eschewing animal products because they were nature lovers invested in preserving the natural wonders here at home and the world over, I probably would have thought that they sounded a bit extreme. But the truth is, that for the conservationists among us, the first, easiest, and most impactful step we can take is as we stroll the aisles of the grocery store. Don’t take my word for it, read up on land-use statistics and the recent history of our rainforests. They tell the story better than any one of us can.

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