Earth Week 2011: Start With Your Next Meal

04/22/2011 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

As we enter Earth Week 2011, millions of people across the U.S. and the world are looking for ways to minimize their impact on the environment. It might surprise you to know that one of the best places you can start is with the food you eat. Did you know that at least 30 percent of our annual carbon footprint is made up of our daily food choices? Choosing the right food -- such as Animal Welfare Approved meat and dairy products -- is one of the most important, everyday activities that can reduce our individual environmental impact and help to improve the well-being of farm animals at the same time.

Industrial Farming: An Animal Welfare and Environmental Disaster

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the world's leading body for the assessment of climate change -- recognizes that modern agriculture contributes more than 20 percent of global man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the form of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Feedlot and confinement livestock production are widely acknowledged as being responsible -- directly and indirectly -- for the vast majority of agriculture's GHG emissions. Today, intensive factory farming systems dominate domestic U.S. meat production. Nearly all of the beef, poultry and pork consumed in the U.S. comes from intensive farming systems where thousands of cattle, tens of thousands of pigs, and hundreds of thousands of chickens are kept in closely confined farming systems, completely indoors, in appalling conditions where they are fed an intensive grain-based diet to maximize their weight gain in as short a time as possible. Cattle are forced to endure horrific heat or stand knee deep in mud contaminated with their own feces. The horrendous living conditions found on these farms and the associated welfare and disease issues are reason enough to avoid their products. But a recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) on the future of U.S. farming has also criticized the negative environmental consequences of industrialized agriculture. The authors cite the significant and well-known pollution problems associated with nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers, manure spills and pesticides which have infiltrated surface water and rivers, creating oxygen-starved zones in waterways. The report also exposes the shameful fact that industrial agriculture is the largest contributor of nitrous oxide and methane greenhouse gasses in the United States.

The Inefficiencies of Big Ag

In response to growing criticism about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with intensive livestock farming, proponents of industrial farming claim that these systems are actually far more "efficient" -- and therefore more "environmentally friendly" -- than pasture-based farming systems. Feeding an animal so it grows as fast as possible increases the efficiency of production, reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per pound of meat produced. Sounds plausible, right? Wrong. The solution lies in viewing all of the inputs in the production system and not little snapshot studies designed to make a sound bite.

When you look more closely at such reports you find that they don't take into account the massive energy and oil costs associated with growing and transporting the corn to the feedlot. Neither do they address the significant pollution costs of the manure produced. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist specializing in agriculture and energy, a typical intensively reared steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime because the corn and soya fed to intensively reared animals requires artificial fertilizer and other agrochemicals. If we further intensify livestock farming to meet demand for cheap meat, we'll also need to increase the production of grain required to feed them. Producing more grain will require more artificial fertilizers and more artificial fertilizers means increased oil consumption and increased greenhouse gas production. This trend of unsustainable consumption of natural resources is thought by some to be linked to the destruction of the Mayan culture.

The Miracle of Pasture: Carbon Sequestration

One might think the answer is simply to ban all meat production. But we can't lump all meat production together, especially now that scientists recognize the net positive effect that pasture-based farming systems can have on greenhouse gas emissions. This is achieved through a process called carbon sequestration.

As cattle and other ruminants graze pasture, they stimulate the grasses to grow and produce more leaves. As the grass grows it absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere and creates a mass of roots under the ground, effectively storing the CO2 in a much more stable form of carbon which can remain in the soil for centuries. Scientists have now established that grasslands are even more efficient than trees in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, researchers now think that raising cattle on pasture and restoring grasslands could play an important role in locking atmospheric CO2 in the soil, thereby slowing the global warming process. At Animal Welfare Approved, we believe that grass-based farming is a vital method for sequestering more atmospheric carbon and reducing our overall global emissions.

Agroecology CAN Feed the World

If anyone tells you that high-welfare, low input pastured-based farming won't "feed the world," tell them to think again. A new report from the United Nations says farmers can meet growing demand using ecologically sound agricultural methods. This UN report calls for a fundamental shift towards what it calls agroecology as a way to boost production, stating that scientific evidence demonstrates that low input agroecological methods of farming outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where it is needed most - especially in unfavorable environments. This method of farming is good for people and good for the environment, too.

The bottom line is this: intensive farming systems are polluting the ground, water and air, causing huge health and welfare problems for both animals and humans, and contributing significantly to climate change. We know that producing meat and dairy from true pasture-based systems not only improves the health and welfare of farm animals, but is far less likely to cause environmental pollution. We also now know that pasture-based farming has a potentially vital role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration. Finally, pasture-based meat and dairy products also offer real human health benefits in terms of higher levels of omega-3s, CLAs and vitamin E, as well as reducing the risk of E. coli infection.

So, as we enter Earth Week 2011, why not use this opportunity to reduce your consumption of unsustainable, low-welfare, intensively reared feedlot meat and dairy -- and choose high-welfare, pasture-based meat and dairy products instead? Pasture-based farming can bring real benefits to us all, not only through healthier products but by helping to protect the planet for future generations.