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A Chicken in Every Pot?
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Sierra Club’s True Cost of Food Campaign

Despite the assurance of “Big Agribusiness” that our food is the most affordable in history, the Sierra Club’s True Cost of Food campaign exposes the hidden costs to our planet of our meat-rich, pesticide-laden, and transportation-heavy diet.

At the end of 2006, the United Nations released a report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. This report on the environment and livestock (beef cattle, dairy cattle, chickens, pigs, and other animals domesticated for food uses) had a stunning conclusion: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” It turns out that raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and not least of all, global warming. The following are findings from the UN Report:

Air Damage

Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalents. By comparison, all transportation emits 13.5% of the CO2. In addition to CO2, environmentally toxic gases produced by livestock include nitrous oxide, methane, and ammonia generated from the animals’ intestines: belching, flatus, and manure. The report says “The impact is so severe that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”  Livestock: Produces 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Accounts for 37 percent of all human-induced methane (which is 23 times as warming as CO2). Generates 64 percent of the ammonia, which contributes to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.

Diversity Damage

Livestock’s very presence in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to loss of other plants and animals; livestock is identified as a culprit in 15 out of 24 important ecosystems that are assessed as in decline. The loss of species is estimated to be running 50 to 500 times higher than background rates found in the fossil record.

Water Damage

The livestock business is among the most critical users of the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources; in addition, contributing to water pollution, excessive growth of organisms, depletion of oxygen, and the degeneration of coral reefs, among other things.

The major water-polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers, and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.

In the United States livestock is responsible for 55 percent of the erosion and sediment, 37 percent of the pesticide use, 50 percent of the antibiotic use, and a third of the load of nitrogen and phosphorus put into freshwater sources.

Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed.

Land Damage

The total area occupied by grazing livestock is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to producing feed crops for these animals amounts to 33 percent of the total arable land.

Clearing forests to create new pastures is a major source of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former rainforests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. The forests are the major sinks for removing the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere: they are the lungs of the Earth.

Individual Choices

Three times a day we can help the planet by shifting our food choices towards more:

• Plant-based
• Organic
• Locally-grown

This is nothing doctrinaire, simply the more you make these choices the better. How much better, you ask? The Club’s True Cost of Food campaign wants you to know that your individual food choices definitely make a difference in planetary health, either positive or negative.

What’s on your plate?

Sierra Club Sustainable Consumption: 
True Cost of Food Campaign:

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