Animal Farming and the Environment

These are the reasons why animal farming is destructive for the environment:

1. Animal Farming is wasteful of land because it is not used to grow food directly for consumption by people.  Globally it is the main cause of hunger and famine.

  • Globally 83% of Agricultural land is used for animal agriculture, producing only 18% of food calories consumed.
  • 60% of agricultural land worldwide is used for beef production, producing only 2% of food calories consumed.
  • 1,103.4 million tonnes of animal feed were produced globally in 2018.  This could feed 5.6 billion people, basically eliminating hunger.
  • In 2017 Ireland fed enough food calories for 127 million people to its farm animals.  These animals produced enough calories to feed only 20.6 million people.

2. It is one of the main drivers of climate change globally.

  • According to Greenpeace: “Animal agriculture accounted for 12 – 17% of the EU’s GHG emissions in 2013. 
  • Agricultural emissions are dominated by methane (CH4), mainly attributable to cattle and sheep enteric fermentation, with the remainder attributable to manure management in liquid manure systems. 
  • Globally agriculture directly contributes about 15–23% of all GHG emissions. If we include all food system processes and food waste then the total contribution is 29%. 
  • Ireland is legally bound by the Paris Climate Agreement to a 40% reduction in EU-wide emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.

3. It is the leading cause of biodiversity loss as it degrades and eliminates ecosystems.

  • There was a 60% decline in populations of vertebrate (mammal, bird, fish and amphibian) species between 1970 and 2014. 
  • Between 1980 and 2009, the Irish farmland bird population decreased from 600 million to 300 million, a loss of 50%. 
  • 84 Irish species are Regionally Extinct.
  • According to the EPA State of the Irish Environment 2016 Report, only 7% of land based ecosystems are considered to be in a favourable ecological condition.
  • The most recent assessment of the status of EU protected habitats and species in Ireland in 2013 showed that 91% of the 58 habitats assessed have unfavourable conservation status: 50% were ‘Inadequate’ and 41% were ‘Bad’.  Many of the coastal habitats and lakes are assessed as ‘Inadequate’, with ongoing declines.  Over 70% of the number of habitats of EU interest are reported to be negatively impacted by agriculture.
  • Vast quantities of forest were originally cut down in order to create pasture for grazing.  Ireland now has only 11% forest cover.  The EU average for forestry is 34%.

4. It is a cause of water pollution.

  • The main cause of the pollution of Irish waters is nutrient enrichment.  The major source of organic nutrients comes from Ireland’s farm animal populations.
  • Ireland’s Farm Animals produce 50 times more waste than the human population.  This waste is spread untreated on our land polluting its streams, rivers, and lakes.
  • From sheep farming alone there are 2.3 million tonnes of animal waste entering the environment untreated every year.  There is no protection from sheep manure entering local mountain rivers and streams, which are often sensitive to increased nutrient enrichment. 
  • There are approximately 170,000 private wells in Ireland, of which at least 30% are estimated to be contaminated by E. Coli.  Many private wells are at risk of contamination from the landspreading of slurry, animals grazing near the wellhead, and septic tanks.  Ireland has the highest rate of VTEC (verotoxigenic E. coli) contamination in Europe.
  • Nitrogen pollution from fertiliser use costs the European Union up to €320 billion a year and over 80% of EU agricultural nitrogen emissions to water are linked to animal agriculture.
  • Over 50% of Irish estuaries, lakes and rivers fail to meet ‘Good Environmental Status’.

5. It contributes to air pollution.

  • Industrial livestock production contributes heavily to air pollution, with 98% of Ireland’s ammonia (NH3) emissions arising from activities in the agricultural sector. 
  • Factory farms also contribute to air pollution, which authorities consider the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, causing over 400,000 premature deaths per year.

6. It contributes to flooding.

  • Agricultural intensification, in particular in floodplains, can reduce the ability of land to absorb and slow floodwaters, thus exacerbating flooding downstream.  Both soil compaction and the removal of habitats such as wetlands, woodland, scrub and hedgerows reduces the ability of land to absorb or store water and speeds up overland flow into river channels.  On intensively managed land, soil compaction through sustained use of heavy machinery can reduce the absorptive capacity of soil and thus increase rates and speed of overland flow. 

7. It is responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation.

  • Rainforests are being cut down in order to create pasture for cattle grazing operations and to grow soy for animal feed.  90% of the planet’s soy crop is used for animal feed.
  • In 2017 the world lost more than one football pitch of forest every second, adding up to an area equivalent to the whole of Italy over the year.  The scale of forest destruction, much of it done illegally, poses a grave threat to tackling both climate change and the massive global decline in wildlife. 
  • Land cleared in the Amazon is used for growing soya and for beef farming, often in areas occupied by indigenous people and small farmers whose legal rights are regularly infringed upon by large scale inefficient and destructive soy and beef operations.  Human rights are violated as people are pushed off their land.

8. It is the leading cause of anti-microbial resistance.

  • 76% of antibiotics worldwide are given to animals. Diseases can spread easily between animals reared in intensive farms, due to the lack of space and close confinement. Their immune systems are also suppressed due to these unnatural conditions. Figures on intensive farms in Ireland can be found here.
  • 75-90% of the antibiotics fed to animals are excreted un-metabolised and enter the environment and water sources.  These antibiotics could then foster the emergence of microbial resistance in bacteria beyond those in an animal’s gut – including bacteria that may pose a greater risk to humans.
  • A 2019 UN Report states that “Drug-resistant diseases cause at least 700,000 deaths globally a year, including 230,000 deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a figure that could increase to 10 million deaths globally per year by 2050 if no action is taken.  This would be more than the number of people that currently die of cancer.

9. It is the source of a range of diseases that have been transferred from farmed animals to the human population and to wild populations of other species.

  • Intensive livestock factory farms, with their high densities of confined animals, have been shown to increase the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. COVID-19, SARS, Mers, HIV/AIDS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Measles and many other viruses endemic in the human population originated in animals and then jumped to humans. Figures on the numbers of intensive farms in Ireland can be found here.