Our Food, Our World - Choices for a Healthy Environment

Editor's Note: We are eating more animals and animal products than ever before. Today, continuing with our Food Revolution series, John Robbins pushes aside industry propaganda to share startling facts on the implications of this trend for the world we live in.

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

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One of the major discoveries in history was that we live on a round planet. Up until only 350 years ago, most people believed that the Earth was flat.

Once we realized that the Earth is round, we began to see how the places on our planet are physically connected to each other. We saw that if we kept traveling in one direction, we would not fall off the edge of the Earth, but would instead go around in a circle and return to where we started. This was a crucial discovery for our ancestors. But we are learning something of even greater significance today.

Art Sussman has performed scientific research at Oxford University, Harvard Medical School, and the University of California at San Francisco. He describes the breakthrough in the simplest of terms:

“ Now we are learning something much more important than how the places on our planet are physically connected. We are discovering how Earth works as a whole system. Earth is not flat. Earth is much more than round. Earth is whole. . . .

“All of the planet’s physical features and living organisms are interconnected. They work together in important and meaningful ways. The clouds, oceans, mountains, volcanoes, plants, bacteria and animals all play important roles in determining how our planet works.”

In urban settings, we are surrounded almost entirely by other people and by objects. Under such conditions, we can forget our dependence on the rest of life for our well-being and indeed for our very survival. We can think that it is the economy that delivers our food, air, water, and energy and deals with our sewage and waste.

But in reality, of course, it is the Earth itself that provides these services and makes our economy possible. Increasingly, today, people are remembering that we are biological beings, as dependent on the biosphere as any other life form. We undermine our own survival if we pollute our air and water, if we destroy the rainforests and deplete our natural resources, and if our activities release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases faster than the Earth can reabsorb them.

As the awareness has grown that we are part of our fragile planet and inextricably dependent upon it, people have begun to take notice of how their lives impact the environment. People are becoming more conscious, for example, about energy efficiency. They are insulating their hot water heaters with “blankets” to save energy. Stores that sell refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, dryers, water heaters, and other home appliances are prominently displaying the machines’ energy efficiency ratings.

People are turning the heat down, or off, when rooms aren’t occupied or in use. They are saving energy by caulking and weather-stripping, and insulating the heating ducts in forced-air heating systems. And they are reducing air conditioning costs by closing the blinds or curtains on hot days and opening the windows at night.

As well, increasing numbers of people are saving energy and money by using energy-efficient lighting, such as compact fluorescents. And by doing simple things like turning off the lights when they leave rooms.

As environmental awareness grows, it takes many forms. You see people realizing that they can’t throw anything “away,” because there is no such place, when you come down to it, as “away.” It all ends up somewhere, be it a landfill, an incinerator, or the ocean. To save resources and reduce trash output, people are recycling their newspapers, glass, and aluminum cans. They’re cutting down on disposable diapers. Some are composting yard and kitchen wastes.

Every day, more of our newspapers are printed on recycled paper. Our air conditioners and freezers no longer use CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon chemicals) that harm the ozone layer. Carpool lanes are springing up everywhere. Cities are instituting and expanding curbside recycling programs. Sales of Earth-friendly household products, like low-phosphate detergents, are booming. The nation’s largest home builders and the nation’s largest home improvement retailers (Home Depot, Lowe’s) have vowed to stop using and to phase out sales of wood from old-growth trees.

Increasing numbers of people today are aware of the need to honor the Earth and live within its limits. Most of us are seeking to live more lightly on the Earth and to reduce, if we can, our “ecological footprint.” Eighty percent of Americans, in polls, say they are environmentalists. Virtually everyone understands that the environment is deteriorating under the impact of human activities.

And yet, most of us have remained unaware of the one thing that we could be doing on an individual basis that would be most helpful in slowing the deterioration and shifting us toward a more ecologically sustainable way of life. Few of us realize there is something we all could do that would have a tremendous impact on reducing pollution, conserving resources, and protecting our precious planet and the life it holds.

There is indeed one action, within the grasp of each and every one of us, that could help to turn the tide. And yet most of us don’t know what it is.

I am talking about what you eat.

Stewards of the Planet?

Traditionally, farm animals played a useful role in keeping agriculture on a sound ecological footing. They ate grass, crop wastes, and kitchen scraps that people could not eat, and turned them into food that people could eat. Their manure provided the soil with needed nutrients. And the animals pulled plows and provided other services that enhanced human life.

But all this has changed as traditional farming practices have increasingly given way to factory farms that process huge numbers of animals in gigantic industrial assembly lines. With the expansion and mechanization of animal farming, world meat production has quadrupled in the last 50 years.(1) There are now 20 billion livestock on Earth—more than triple the number of human beings.

Such a massive change could not have occurred without enormous implications for the environment. As the business of food production has increasingly been taken over by large-scale agribusiness, there have necessarily been profound ecological consequences.

Up until quite recently, most of the dairy farms in the United States were small operations, with the cows grazing on pastureland. In Wisconsin, which still calls itself “America’s Dairyland,” the rolling pastures were home to Holstein and Guernsey herds. But today, most of the small farms are gone, replaced by operations with thousands of cows each. One farmer said such operations are not agriculture, but are “60 acres of concrete and 10 acres of manure pits.”(2)

Highly industrialized farming has carried the day because it seems more efficient. And it is, but only if you don’t count some of the larger costs, such as the pollution caused by agrochemicals and the dislocation of rural cultures.

There is a trilogy of evil here. The very food production systems that are providing us with the foods that medical science is finding are harming our health—the very same factory farms and feedlots that are so painfully cruel to animals—are also, it turns out, undermining the life- support systems of our imperiled planet.

In recent years, impartial researchers and nonprofit environmental organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, EarthSave, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club have sought to alert the public and elected officials to the toll modern meat production is taking on the environment.

Today their voices are being joined, increasingly, by members of the animal industry itself, who see the price our fragile planet is paying for the growth of modern factory farms and feedlots. Peter R. Cheeke is a professor of animal agriculture at Oregon State University and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Animal Science and other industry journals. In 1999, he wrote,

“ Raising cattle in huge feedlots, consolidating dairy farms into confinement units with 1,000–10,000 cows, consolidating swine and poultry production into huge confinement units as the trend is now . . . [is] a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems.”(3)
Where’s Our Water Going?

Life on Earth began in water, and has always depended for its very existence on water. With water, life can flourish; deserts can be transformed into gardens, lush forests, or thriving metropolises like Tel Aviv or Los Angeles. Without water, we die.

Yet most of us are so used to having this precious resource at our fingertips that we have come to take it for granted. Sadly, we are fast approaching the time when we may be forced to learn the inestimable value of this natural treasure the hard way. Our supply of good water is disappearing at an alarming rate.

In 2000, the World Commission on Water predicted that the increase in water use in the future due to rising population will “impose intolerable stresses on the environment, leading not only to a loss of biodiversity, but also to a vicious circle in which the stresses on the ecosystem [will] no longer provide the services [necessary] for plants and people.”(4)

Everywhere you look today, particularly in the western United States, people are seeking to conserve water. You see people washing their cars less often. People are installing low-flow showerheads and sink fixtures, and low-flow toilets. You see people using drought-resistant landscaping. The vigilant turn off the water at the sink when brushing their teeth, except to rinse the brush, and when shaving, except to rinse the blade.

These measures are prudent and helpful, but all of them combined don’t save anywhere near the amount of water you would save by shifting toward a plant-based diet.

What We Know

Water required to produce 1 pound of U.S. beef, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: 441 gallons(5)

Water required to produce 1 pound of U.S. beef, according to Dr. Georg Borgstrom, Chairman of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University: 2,500 gallons(6)

Water required to produce 1 pound of California beef, according to the Water Education Foundation: 2,464 gallons(7)

Water required to produce 1 pound of California foods, according to Soil and Water specialists, University of California Agricultural Extension, working with livestock farm advisors:(8)

  • 1 pound of lettuce: 23 gallons
  • 1 pound of tomatoes: 23 gallons
  • 1 pound of potatoes: 24 gallons
  • 1 pound of wheat: 25 gallons
  • 1 pound of carrots: 33 gallons
  • 1 pound of apples: 49 gallons
  • 1 pound of chicken: 815 gallons
  • 1 pound of pork: 1,630 gallons
  • 1 pound of beef: 5,214 gallons
Here’s one way to look at it. Let’s say you take a shower every single day. And let’s say your showers average seven minutes long. At that rate, you’d be in the shower 49 minutes each week (seven times seven). Let’s round that off, for easier math, to 50 minutes per week.

Now, let’s say the flow rate through your shower head is 2 gallons per minute. At the rate of 2 gallons per minute, and 50 minutes per week, you’d be using 100 gallons of water per week in order to shower each day.

You can multiply that figure of 100 gallons times 52 (since there are 52 weeks in a year) to discover that you would use, at that rate, 5,200 gallons of water to shower every day for a year.

When you compare that figure, 5,200 gallons of water, to the amount of water the Water Education Foundation calculates is used in the production of every pound of California beef (2,464 gallons), you realize something extraordinary. In California today, you may save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for six entire months. Using the figures of the Soil and Water specialists at the University of California Agricultural Extension is even more dramatic. By their analysis, you’d save more water by not eating a pound of California beef than you would by not showering for an entire year.

“ In California, the single biggest consumer of water is not Los Angeles. It’s not the oil and chemicals or defense industries. Nor is it the fields of grapes and tomatoes. It’s irrigated pasture: grass grown in a near-desert climate for cows. . . . The West’s water crisis—and many of its environmental problems as well—can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.” - Marc Reisner, author, Cadillac Desert
Meat produced in different parts of the country requires different amounts of water. Meat produced in the Southeast takes much less water than meat produced in other regions; you don’t need to irrigate nearly as much thanks to more rain during the growing season in the Southeast. Arizona and Colorado meat, on the other hand, take even more water than California.

The reason that more water is used to produce a pound of beef than a pound of pork or chicken, by the way, is that the pork and poultry industries in the United States are generally concentrated in areas where grain fields need little or no irrigation, and because pigs and chickens are more efficient at converting feed to flesh than are cattle.

Of course, the cattlemen insist that meat production doesn’t use that much water. But it’s critically important that we not underestimate water use, in the same way that it’s crucial not to underestimate how much gasoline it will take to get to a destination if there’s no way to refuel en route.

In both cases, shortfalls don’t show up until the very end. You can go on pumping water out of wells or aquifers unsustainably until the day you run out. It’s like driving a car without a fuel gauge. You push down on the gas pedal and the car accelerates, leading you to conclude that you’ve got plenty of gas—until the moment when you suddenly run out. But it’s even more important that we don’t underestimate water usage. There are alternatives to oil, such as hydrogen, solar, wind, and other resources, but there aren’t alternatives to water. If we run out, we can’t grow food or maintain other essential life functions.

"Nearly half the water consumed in this country is used for livestock, mostly cattle.” - Audubon, 1999 (9)
Running On Empty

It took nature millions of years to form the great Ogallala aquifer that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. This is the largest body of fresh water on Earth, and it lies underneath some of the richest farmland in the world—the great American grain belt. It is one of the reasons the United States is by far the world’s largest producer of grain per capita, and has the world’s largest food supply.

The famous “amber waves of grain” are so heavily irrigated from the Ogallala that nearly one-third of all the ground water used for irrigation in the United States comes from this one enormous aquifer. But things are changing. The Ogallala is a fossil aquifer, which means the water in it is left from the melted glaciers of the last Ice Age. It’s not like a reservoir or river, which are replenished regularly from rainfall. When the water in the aquifer is gone, it’s gone.

Fifty years ago, the great Ogallala aquifer remained virtually inviolate, hardly touched by the amount of water being pumped out of her enormous reservoirs. But with the advent of factory farming and feedlot beef, the amount of water drawn from the Ogallala has risen dramatically. At the present time, more than 13 trillion gallons of water are taken from this enormous aquifer every year, with the vast majority used to produce beef. More water is withdrawn from the Ogallala aquifer every year for beef production than is used to grow all the fruits and vegetables in the entire country. America’s grain belt, often called “the bread basket of the world,” actually produces far more grain for factory farm and feedlot animal feed than bread for humans.

Ominously, the Ogallala’s water tables are dropping precipitously, and some wells are going dry. In northwest Texas, by the early 1990s, one-quarter of the Texas share of the aquifer had been depleted. By then, more than a third of the land in Texas that had been irrigated in the 1970s had lost its water, and had become parched and unable to grow food. Without water, these once fertile farmlands will be deserts forever.

If we continue pumping out the Ogallala at current rates, it’s only a matter of time before most of the wells in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico go dry, and portions of these states become scarcely habitable for human beings. This scenario may seem like bad science fiction, but it is being predicted by many leading environmentalists. And if it happens, says Ed Ayres, editor of WorldWatch, the consequences will be severe.

“ The United States will lose much, if not all, of its grain surplus. In so doing, it will also lose much of its ability to . . . (provide) security for its own people. . . .”(10)
And it’s not just the Ogallala. The same pattern is taking place all over the world. Aquifers, the vast storehouses of fresh water we have inherited from the ancient past and have come to depend on to feed ourselves, are being depleted at an alarming rate.
“Only within the last half-century have we acquired the ability to use powerful diesel and electric pumps to empty aquifers in a matter of decades. . . . Around the world, as more water is diverted to raising [cattle], pigs and chickens, instead of producing crops for direct consumption, millions of wells are going dry. India, China, North Africa, and the United States are all running freshwater deficits, pumping more from their aquifers than rain can replenish.” - Time magazine, 1999 (11)
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, however, has its own point of view. According to this organization,
“ Water used in cattle production is not ‘consumed’ or ‘used up.’ It’s quickly recycled as part of nature’s hydrological cycle. . . . For example, water put on cropland mostly evaporates or runs off and appears as rain or in stream water in another location in the hydrological cycle. An acre of corn [for cattle feed] puts 4,000 gallons of water back into the hydrological cycle every 24 hours.” (12)
It depends on what you mean by put back. The water used in cattle production remains in the greater planetary hydrological cycle, but most of it becomes unavailable to support human life. When water is taken from an aquifer (or from any other location where it’s accessible to human use) and used to irrigate land, it eventually evaporates and comes to fall as rain—most of it in the ocean (71 percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean) or somewhere else where it is no longer accessible for human use. Furthermore, irrigation water that runs off farmland and into waterways contributes to soil erosion and to the pollution of rivers and streams, making water downstream less usable. This is particularly likely if the land has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—practices extremely common in feed grain production in the United States.

More than 97 percent of the water in the planet’s hydrological cycle is salty. Saltwater is toxic for terrestrial organisms, which require unsalted water to sustain life. Of the water that is sufficiently free of salt to be able to drink, almost all is locked away in glaciers and ice sheets or is too deep underground to reach. Only about 0.0001 percent of fresh water is readily accessible.(13) It is incredibly important to conserve water.

“The amount of water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a (Naval) destroyer.” - Newsweek (14)
A cultural shift toward a plant-based diet would help plug the drain through which much of our water is being lost. It would enable us to conserve this most precious of natural resources. It would mean that our children would have more abundant sources of water—for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and for growing food.

If we are serious about wanting to leave our children, and their children, a habitable world, then we have to ask where our leverage lies, and where we can be most effective. There is no other single action that is as effective at saving water as eating a plant-based diet.

The Other End of the Cow, Pig, and Chicken

There are more chickens processed annually in the United States than there are people in the world—7.6 billion chickens versus 6 billion humans. There are more turkeys in the United States than there are Homo sapiens—300 million of the big birds versus 280 million of us. Plus there are now about 100 million hogs and 60 million beef cattle in the United States.(15) What do you think happens to the excrement from so many animals?

Properly handled, manure is not waste but a natural, biodegradable fertilizer. In years past, most of the manure from livestock returned to enrich the soil. But today, when huge numbers of animals are concentrated in feedlots and confinement buildings, there is no economically feasible way to return the animals’ wastes to the land. As a result, our agriculture is experiencing an increasing dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Deprived of manure and continually doused with chemicals, our nation’s soils are losing their texture and ability to retain topsoil. Topsoil is the rich soil layer without which food production becomes seriously endangered. The amount of topsoil we are losing from Iowa alone would fill 165,000 Mississippi River barges a year. Losing topsoil, notes Worldwatch Institute’s Ed Ayres, “has about the same effect on a terrestrial community as losing blood has on a person. Only so much can be lost.”(16)

The production of every quarter-pound hamburger in the United States causes the loss of five times the burger’s weight in topsoil. (17)

Unfortunately, instead of being returned to the soil and helping to rebuild topsoil, the wastes from today’s livestock often end up in our water.

“Mass production of meat has become a staggering source of pollution. Maybe cow pies were once a pastoral joke, but in recent years livestock waste has been implicated in massive fish kills and outbreaks of such diseases as pfiesteria, which causes memory loss, confusion and acute skin burning in people exposed to contaminated water. In the United States, livestock now produces 130 times as much waste as people do. . . . These mega-farms are proliferating, and in populous areas their waste is tainting drinking water.” - Time magazine, 1999 (18)
In 1997, the U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee issued a lengthy report on livestock waste in the country. In a synopsis of the report, the Scripps Howard news service wrote,
“Untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms . . . (livestock waste) goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in and wash their clothes with and drink. It’s poisoning rivers and killing fish and sickening people. . . . Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated. . . . Every place where the animal factories have located, neighbors have complained of falling sick.” (19)
Learning how profound these problems have become, I’ve at times felt horrified and disgusted. But when we know the cause, we can work to solve the problems and prevent more from occurring.

What We Know

  • Gallons of oil spilled by the Exxon-Valdez: 12 million
  • Gallons of putrefying hog urine and feces spilled into the New River in North Carolina on June 21, 1995, when a “lagoon” holding 8 acres of hog excrement burst: 25 million (20)
  • Fish killed as an immediate result: 10–14 million (21)
  • Fish whose breeding area was decimated by this disaster: Half of all mid-East Coast fish species (22)
  • Acres of coastal wetlands closed to shell fishing as a result: 364,000 (23)
  • Amount of waste produced by North Carolina’s 7 million factory-raised hogs (stored in open cesspools) compared to the amount produced by the state’s 6.5 million people: 4 to 1 (24)
  • Relative concentration of pathogens in hog waste compared to human sewage: 10 to 100 times greater (25)
As the pork industry has grown rapidly in North Carolina, so have problems with water pollution. The National Pork Producers’ Council assures us we can trust them to handle things. Others have a different view. . . .

Is That So?

“Pork producers are dedicated to conserving the environment. “ — National Pork Producers’ Council (26)

“The contamination of the nations’ waterways from [pork] manure run-off is extremely serious. Twenty tons of [pork and other] livestock manure are produced for every household in the country. We have strict laws governing the disposal of human waste, but the regulations are lax, or often nonexistent, for animal waste.” — Union of Concerned Scientists (27)

The scientific name for a toxic microbe that has caused widespread human illnesses and massive fish kills in East Coast waterways in recent years is pfiesteria piscicida. More commonly, it’s called “the cell from hell.” If you’re exposed, you may experience sores, severe headaches, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, kidney and liver dysfunction, memory loss, and/or severe cognitive impairment. (28) These things can happen to you not just from drinking water in which these organisms live, but from mere skin contact with such water.

More than 1 billion fish have been killed by pfiesteria in North Carolina waters in the last few years. (29)

Pfiesteria has been around for centuries, but only recently has it turned into a devastating menace. What had made the difference? The pollution of waterways due to animal waste. (30) When hog waste gets into waterways, it creates conditions in which pfiesteria thrives.

“North Carolina has been known for its natural beauty, mountains, and beaches. The hog industry is turning it into America’s toilet bowl.” - Don Webb, former hog producer (31)
When large amounts of animal manure pollute waterways, the result is severe oxygen depletion in these aquatic ecosystems. Fish suffocate when there is prolonged oxygen depletion, or starve when their prey (smaller fish) are suffocated. As a result of animal waste pollution, there is now, in the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, a “dead zone” of nearly 7,000 square miles that can no longer support most aquatic life. (32) And this kind of thing is happening everywhere. . .
“[When] 420,000 gallons of hog manure spilled into a creek only a small number of fish were killed—but only because an earlier spill had already wiped most of them out.” - Sierra Club (33)
All over the country, water pollution from factory farms and feedlots is causing enormous problems.
“ Streams today in Missouri are little more than open sewers. People are getting sick with respiratory problems. Even the flies are sick.” - Albert Midoux, former USDA food safety inspector (34)
The industries responsible, however, would like you to believe that the problem has been greatly exaggerated, and actually, all is well. According to Dale Van Voorst, spokesman for one of the largest poultry producers in the United States, “The modern poultry producer manages manure so that none of it enters the waters of the area. There may be occasional accidents, as there are in any industry, but animal agriculture operates in strict accordance with the Clean Water Act. No one is out there trying to pollute. Everyone who is supposed to obtain a discharge permit is doing so.” (35)

What We Know

  • Number of poultry operations (according to the General Accounting Office) that are of sufficient size to be required to obtain a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act: About 2,000 (36)
  • Number (according to the General Accounting Office) that have actually done so: 39 (37)
  • Number, of the 22 largest animal factories in Missouri required to have valid operating discharge permits that actually have them: 2 (38)
The volume of waste produced by factory farms is so enormous and so toxic that it is challenging to describe. The hog waste produced by a single Circle Four Farms hog plant in Milford, Utah, for example, is equal to the volume of human waste produced by the entire human population of the state of Utah. And ever since this Circle Four plant began to operate, health problems in the area have been increasing.
“Milford residents have 20 times more diarrheal illness than Utahns as a whole . . . The rate of respiratory illness in Milford is seven times higher than the state average . . . according to the Utah Department of Health.” - Salt Lake Tribune, 2000 (39)
Of course, Circle Four Farms insists it isn’t their fault:
“There isn’t any data pointing the finger at Circle Four, or anyone else for that matter.” - Circle Four Farms spokesman Brian Mauldwin (40)
Americans know their water is not pure. Each year, Americans spend $2 billion for bottled water and home tap-water treatments. That’s an amount more than half of Lebanon’s gross national product. (41)

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists tells us that the amount of water pollution generated in producing a pound of meat is a staggering 17 times greater than that generated in producing a pound of pasta. (42)

The Water You Drink

It is terribly sad to see our species polluting our water. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of clean water on Earth. Water blesses our planet and makes it appear beautifully blue from space. It is the presence of liquid water that clearly distinguishes Earth from all other known planets and moons. Water covers three-quarters of our planet’s surface. And water makes up three-quarters of our own bodies. Art Sussman reminds us,

“Think about one of our ancestors who lived in Africa a million years ago. Or think about a dinosaur that lived 70 million years ago. Or consider a buffalo that roamed the American Midwest millions of years before the arrival of humans. No matter which you choose to bring to mind, that organism drank water throughout its life. This water was present in every drink and in every grain, fish, or flesh that was consumed. The water molecules became part of that organism’s body, and then flowed back into the world as blood, sweat, urine, and exhaled water vapor.”
Noting that every drop of water contains an enormous number of water molecules (about 3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), he continues,
“Fill a glass with water. This glass that you hold in your hand today has more than ten million water molecules that passed through the body of the buffalo, more than ten million water molecules that passed through the dinosaur and more than ten million water molecules that passed through one of our African ancestors. The water that we drink connects us intimately with the living beings that inhabited the planet before us, that inhabit Earth today, and that will inhabit it in the future.”
But today, increasingly, the water we drink connects us to the excrement of animals housed in factory farms and feedlots. California dairies are a disturbing example.

The excrement produced each year by the dairy cows in the 50-square-mile area of California’s Chino Basin would make a pile with the dimensions of a football field and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it rains heavily, however, dairy manure in the Chino Basin is washed straight down into the Santa Ana River and into the aquifer that supplies half of Orange County’s drinking water. (43)

What We Know

  • Number one milk-producing area in the United States: California’s Central Valley
  • Amount of waste produced by the 1,600 dairies in California’s Central Valley: More than the entire human population of Texas (44)
  • Total number of water quality inspectors in California’s entire Central Valley: 4 (45)
  • Cities that rely on California’s Central Valley as an important source of drinking water: Los Angeles, San Diego, and most cities in between
  • Number of Californians whose drinking water is threatened by contamination from dairy manure: 20 million (65 percent of the state’s population) (46)
  • Pathogen, stemming from dairy manure, that infected Milwaukee’s drinking water in 1993, sickening 400,000 people and leading to the deaths of more than 100 people: Cryptosporidium (47)
  • Pathogen that Los Angeles metropolitan water district officials say is a constant threat to contaminate Los Angeles drinking water from Central Valley dairy waste: Cryptosporidium (48)
How is it, you may wonder, that the public is not more aware of the role played by animal agriculture in our water pollution problems? Part of the answer is that the industry often denies responsibility. . .

Is That So?

“ Essentially all livestock and poultry manure winds up as a natural fertilizer on the land . . . without polluting water supplies.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (49)

“ Dairies are the single largest source of water pollution. . . . Our volunteers frequently encounter massive discharges of dairy waste that literally cauterize waterways and kill fish. . . . We’re in the process of losing one of the most marvelous and diverse aquatic ecosystems in the world.” — Deltakeeper, an environmental group that monitors California’s waterways (50)

A cultural shift toward a plant-based diet would mean far fewer animals in factory farms and feedlots, far less manure produced, and far cleaner water. It would mean that our water would be healthier and far less likely to harbor dangerous pathogens from animal waste. It would be a major step toward restoring the life-giving waters of our planet.

The choices we make, individually and collectively, have a profound effect on the water that flows through our veins, through our rivers and streams, and that will flow through the bodies of all those yet to be born. Every time you choose to eat plant foods rather than the products of today’s factory farms and feedlots, you are helping to reduce water pollution. Each of us is ultimately responsible for the integrity and consequences of our actions.

A new direction for America’s food choices would mean that the water in our children’s lives might yet be clean and plentiful.

Wasting the West

Livestock today are raised in a variety of environments. In the United States and other industrialized countries, pigs and chickens are almost all housed and fed in factory farms. Cattle typically graze on rangeland for the first part of their lives, and then are moved to feedlots for their last three or four months, where they are fed grain and soybeans, supplemented, lest they get bored with the cuisine, with dried poultry waste, sewage sludge, and worse.

It is nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of cattle grazing on the western United States. Seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. Cattle, sheep, and other U.S. livestock graze roughly 525 million acres, nearly 2 acres for every person in the country. Just about the only land that isn’t grazed is in places that for one reason or another can’t be used by livestock—inaccessible areas, dense forests and brushlands, the driest deserts, sand dunes, extremely rocky areas, cliffs and mountaintops, cities and towns, roads and parking lots, airports, and golf courses. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed.

What has been the environmental consequence?

Is That So?

“ Cattle enrich our lives and enhance the planet. . . . [Cattle are] mother nature’s recycling machine. . . . Cows are . . . environmental protection machines.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (51)

“ Although cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use, the American public pays ranchers to do it.” — Ted Williams, environmental author (52)

U.S. cowboys have traditionally been portrayed as the embodiment of rugged individualism and the epitome of self-reliance. And yet most of the land on which this grazing takes place is publicly owned. It belongs to the people, and to future generations.

Currently, 70 percent of the land in western National Forests and 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management land are grazed by livestock for private profit. Is the public getting a fair deal?

In 1994, the U.S. government paid $105 million to manage the publicly owned land used by cattle ranchers for grazing livestock. Yet, the U.S. government received only $29 million in revenue from ranchers for use of this land. (53)

The same pattern is repeated on state lands. Of the 9.3 million acres in Arizona’s state public trust land, 94 percent are grazed by livestock. According to the Arizona Constitution, the Arizona Land Department is obligated to obtain the highest possible income from this land (while protecting it) for the benefit of the state’s public schools. Yet the total gross revenue received by the Arizona Land Department from livestock grazing in 1998 was only $2.2 million.(54) That is exactly 26 cents an acre, a figure not even remotely comparable to the amount ranchers pay to graze cattle on private land.

It isn’t any better in New Mexico. . .

What We Know

  • Amount paid by New Mexico Governor Bruce King in 1994 to graze his cattle on 17,372 acres of trust land: 65 cents/acre (55)
  • Amount paid by New Mexico’s 1994 candidate for land commissioner Stirling Spencer to graze his cattle on 20,000 acres of trust land: 59 cents/acre (56)
  • New Mexico trust land that is open to livestock grazing: 99 percent
  • Amount New Mexico’s livestock ranchers do not pay in property tax, sales tax, or other taxes due to special deductions and exemptions given to the cattle industry: Billions of dollars annually (57)
  • Number of states with higher taxes on the poor than New Mexico: 3 (58)
  • Number of states with a greater percentage of women living in poverty: 0 (59)
The cattlemen claim that grazing is the best possible use for the American West. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “When cattle are properly grazed, they benefit the land by ‘aerating’ the soil with their hooves, which means they loosen the soil when they walk on it. This allows more oxygen to enter the soil, helping grasses and plants grow better.” (60)

In reality, however, when 1,000-pound animals walk on the earth, they trample plants and compact the soil. This makes it harder for grasses and plants to grow. And since compacted soil does not absorb water as freely, heavy rain then courses off the surface, carrying away topsoil, scouring deep gullies, and damaging streambeds. (61)

Undaunted, the cattlemen insist they are benefactors to the land. . .

Is That So?

“ Open space exists largely because of . . . America’s cattle farmers and ranchers. . . . Cattlemen are the foundation for this country’s open space and its abundant wildlife.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

“ The impact of countless hooves and mouths over the years has done more to alter the type of vegetation and land forms of the West than all the water projects, strip mines, power plants, freeways, and subdivision development combined.”— Philip Fradkin, in Audubon (62)

The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”

In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”

This is an interesting choice of words. What “Wildlife Services” actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.

Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings.

Among the animals Wildlife Services agents unintentionally kill are domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.

All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is “Living with Wildlife,” intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually.

This is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of the cattlemen. This is their due, the cattlemen say, because they take such good care of the environment.

Is That So?

“ Ranchers are the ultimate environmentalists.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spokeswoman Julie Jo Quick, explaining why cattle should be encouraged throughout the American Southwest (63)

“ Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985 (64)

If we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable—and environmentally sustainable—use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. And much of it could simply be left alone, providing habitat for wildlife and gracing our world with wilderness.

A shift toward a plant-based lifestyle would mean that the vast prairies of the West could gradually return to health. It would mean life instead of extinction for many of the species that federal programs currently target and kill.

It would mean that our children might yet live to see a way of life in harmony with the natural systems of the Earth.

Editor's Note: Continue to Once Upon a Planet, Part I


1. Durning, Alan, and Brough, Holly, “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment,” Worldwatch Paper 103, July 1991, p. 11. 2. Kieckhefer, E. W., “Drumming Up Support to Save Farms,” United Press International, December 10, 2000. 3. Cheeke, Peter, Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture, 2nd ed. (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1999), p. 19. 4. “A Water Secure World: Vision for Water, Life, and the Environment,” reported in Mittelstaedt, Martin, “World Water Use to Soar to Crisis Levels, Study Says,” The Globe and Mail, March 14, 2000. 5. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production: Water Use,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, displayed on the Web site of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2000. 6. Borgstrom, Georg, “Impacts on Demand for and Quality of Land and Water,” Presentation to the 1981 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 7. “Water Inputs in California Food Production,” Water Education Foundation, Sacramento, CA. 8. Schulbach, Herb, et al., in Soil and Water 38 (Fall 1978). 9. Audubon, December 1999. 10. Ayres, Ed, God’s Last Offer (New York/London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999), pp. 102–3. 11. Ayres, Ed, “Will We Still Eat Meat? Maybe Not, If We Wake Up to What the Mass Production of Animal Flesh Is Doing to Our Health, and the Planet’s,” Time, November 8, 1999. 12. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production.” 13. Suzuki, David, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 1997), p. 66. 14. “The Browning of America,” Newsweek, February 22, 1981, p. 26. 15. Lang, John, “Environmentalists Rap Factory Farms for Manure Production,” Scripps Howard News Service, June 9, 1998. 16. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, p. 36. 17. Ryan, John, and Durning, Alan, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (Seattle: Northwest Environment Watch, 1997), p. 55. 18. Ayres, “Will We Still Eat Meat?” 19. Quoted in “The Environmental Consequences of Eating Meat,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, April 24, 1998. 20. Feedstuffs, July 3, 1995. 21. Williams, Ted, “Assembly Line Swine,” Audubon, March/April 1998, p. 27. See also “Environmental and Health Consequences of Animal Factories,” Natural Resources Defense Council report, 1998. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid. 24. Facts and Data, Waste Pollution and the Environment, GRACE Factory Farm Project, www.gracelinks.org/factoryfarm/facts, 2000. 25. “Environmental and Health Consequences of Animal Factories.” 26. “Most Commonly Asked Questions about Pork Production and the Environment,” National Pork Producers Council. 27. “Group’s Surprising Beef with Meat Industry: Study Ranks Production of Beef, Poultry and Pork as Second to Automobiles in Ecological Cost,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 1999; see also Brower, Michael, and Leon, Warren, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists (New York: Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, 1999). 28. Burkholder, J. M., et al., “Insidious Effects of Toxic Estuarine Dinoflagellate on Fish Survival and Human Health,” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 46 (1995):501–22; Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “Facts about Pfiesteria Piscicida in the Chesapeake Bay,” 1997. 29. Burkholder, “Insidious Effects of Toxic Estuarine Dinoflagellate”; Burkholder, J. M., “Pfiesteria Piscicida and Other Toxic Pfiesteria-Like Dinoflagellates,” North Carolina State University, 1997; Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “Facts about Pfiesteria Piscicida.” 30. Silverstein, Ken, “Meat Factories,” Sierra, www.sierraclub.org/sierra/199901/cafo; Burkholder, “Insidious Effects of Toxic Estuarine Dinoflagellate”; Burkholder, “Pfiesteria Piscicida and Other Toxic Pfiesteria-Like Dinoflagellates”; Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “Facts about Pfiesteria Piscicida.” 31. Quoted in Silverstein, “Meat Factories.” 32. Robinson, Ann, and Marks, Robbin, “Restoring the Big River: A Clean Water Act Blueprint for Mississippi,” Izaak Walton League, Minneapolis, MN, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, DC (February 1994), p. 13. See also Lovejoy, S. B., “Sources and Quantities of Nutrients Entering the Gulf of Mexico from Surface Waters of the U.S.,” EPA/800–R-92–002. 33. Silverstein, “Meat Factories.” 34. Quoted in Lang, “Environmentalists Rap Factory Farms.” 35. “Are Pork Operations Getting Blamed Again?” Poultry Inc. (September 1999), p. 38. 36. U.S. General Accounting Office, Briefing Report to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, U.S. Senate, “Animal Agriculture, Information on Waste Management and Water Quality Issues,” GAO/RCED 95–200BR, Washington, DC, 1995, pp. 58–61. 37. Ibid. 38. According to Ken Midkiff of Sierra’s Missouri chapter, quoted in Lang, “Environmentalists Rap Factory Farms.” 39. Woolf, Jim, “Have Hogs Caused Milford Maladies?” Salt Lake Tribune, January 26, 2000. 40. Ibid. 41. “The State of the Planet, Climap,” Blue, April/May 2000, p. 67. 42. “Group’s Surprising Beef with Meat Industry”; see also Brower and Leon, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. 43. Cone, Marla, “State Dairy Farms Try to Clean Up Their Act,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1998. 44. Diringer, Elliot, “In Central Valley, Defiant Dairies Foul the Water,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 1997. See also Mayell, Hillary, “Chickens and Pigs and Cows . . .,” Environmental News Network, August 28, 1998; and Silverstein, “Meat Factories.” 45. “How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from Livestock Waste,” ch. 4, Natural Resources Defense Council report, 1998, California. 46. Cone, “State Dairy Farms Try to Clean Up Their Act.” 47. Letson, David, and Gjollehon, Noel, “Confined Animal Production and the Manure Problem,” Choices (3rd Quarter 1996), p. 18. 48. “How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from Livestock Waste.” 49. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production.” 50. Quoted in “How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from Livestock Waste.” 51. “Wow That Cow—How Cattle Enrich Our Lives, and Enhance the Planet,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association; “This Earth Day, Celebrate Mother Nature’s Recycling Machine,” advertisement produced for the Beef Promotion and Research Board by the National Cattlemen’s Association. 52. Williams, Ted, “He’s Going to Have an Accident,” Audubon, March/April 1991, pp. 30–9. 53. “Corporations on the Dole,” WorldWatch, Januray/February 1996, p. 39. 54. Arizona State Land Department, 1998 annual report. 55. “Ranchers Benefit from State Land Give-Away,” in the Tax-Payer’s Guide to Welfare Ranching in the Southwest, New West Research and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, 2000 www.new-west-research.org/Taxpayers_ Guide/Welfare_Ranching. 56. Ibid. 57. Ibid. 58. “Who Pays: A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States,” Citizens for Tax Justice, 1996. 59. “The Status of Women in the States,” report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 1998. 60. “Wow That Cow.” 61. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “State of the Public Rangelands . . .,” Washington, DC, 1990. See also Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” pp. 20–4. 62. Quoted in Wuerthner, George, “The Price Is Wrong,” Sierra, September/ October 1990, p. 39. 63. Wilkinson, Todd, “In a Battle over Cattle, Both Sides Await Grazing Ruling,” Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2000. 64. Abbey, Edward, One Life at a Time Please (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), pp. 13–4.


If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Frederick Keeve (anonymous)

Fantastic article. I'm a vegetarian and glad to be one after reading this fascinating and thought-provoking information.

Written in January 2009

Locksmith Jacksonsmith (anonymous)

I get it that we all want to be healthy. More people should get that as well. I also try to keep food preparation healthy by not using microwave to heat up my food.

Written in August 2011

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