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The Dangers of an Animal-Based Diet

The following is a summary of Earthsave's video Our Food Our World.

In 1985 North Americans were consuming only half the grains and potatoes they were consuming at the turn of the century. But they were consuming 33% more dairy products, 50% more beef, and 280% more poultry. This has resulted in a diet with a third more fat, a fifth less carbohydrates, and levels of protein far exceeding official recommendations.

The increased demand for meat (and to a lesser extent dairy produce) in the developed world has led to a vast reallocation of resources, the degradation of global ecosystems, and disruption and displacement of indigenous cultures worldwide. The impact on the health of the human consumers has been devastating.

These problems arise from our personal dietary habits - our demand for meat and dairy produce. So by changing our diets we can play an important role in helping to heal the earth and create a sustainable world for our children.

Resource Utilisation


Livestock production has enormous and far-reaching impacts on the biosphere, because food from animals is far less efficiently produced than food from plants. For example, much of what we feed to livestock is turned into inedible byproducts or simply fuels metabolic processes. Because of this basic inefficiency, growing grain to produce meat to feed millions of westerners needs vast amounts of land, water and energy. In the US, over a third of all raw materials (including fossil fuels) consumed for all purposes goes to production of livestock.


Raising livestock on this scale requires the use of vast areas of land if the animals are reared extensively - ie. allowed to graze. And this, particularly in large parts of Africa, has led to extensive desertification. Currently half the earth's land mass is grazed.

At the same time, in many Third World countries the peasants have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to abandon their subsistence holdings, to become wage workers on new estates where luxury crops like coffee and cocoa are grown for export.

However, it is in the developed world, and particularly North America, that we see most clearly the dire results of the huge appetite for meat and dairy products. In the US, 64% of cropland produces feed for animals, while only 2% grows fruit and vegetables.

Grain consumption

During this century the shift in diet among Western Nations from plant foods to animal foods has led to a parallel shift in world agriculture from food grains to feed grains. The consumption of grain by animals is increasing twice as fast as its consumption by people. Throughout the eighties, livestock consumed 70% of total US grain production and 50% of the world's grain harvest.

Energy Consumption

Growing feed crops is a highly energy-intensive process. Farmers must pump water, plough, cultivate and fertilise the fields, then harvest and transport the crops. Running the factory farms and feed lots that turn these energy-intensive crops into beef, pork, poultry, dairy products and eggs requires even more energy. Almost half the total energy expended in American agriculture is devoted to livestock production. To produce 1 calorie of protein from beef, 78 calories of fossil fuel are expended; but only 2 calories are needed to produce 1 calorie of protein from soya beans.

Water consumption

Growing feed and fodder for livestock requires prodigious amounts of water, resulting in the straining of resources in water-scarce areas. Water tables, like the huge Oglalla aquifer under the Great Plains states of the US, are fast being depleted. In the West, shortages are forcing industrial, commercial and residential sectors to limit their use of water. Rarely are consumers told that restriction on domestic activities like watering lawns and washing cars are due in part to the amount of water being siphoned off to raise grain-fed cattle and other livestock. In the US, livestock production uses more than half of all water consumed for all purposes. In California 23 gallons of water are needed to produce one edible pound of tomato or lettuce; but to produce the same quantity of beef takes a staggering 5,214 gallons.

Government subsidies

Livestock production greatly expands agricultural commerce. To encourage this, public funds and favours are widely given to livestock and feed producers in the forms of guaranteed minimum prices, government storage of surpluses, import levies and product insurance. Yet health guidelines now advise citizens to eat fewer animal products and more fruits and vegetables.

Popuation issues

The growing consumption of meat, poultry and dairy products has created an explosion in livestock populations worldwide. In fact, livestock now outnumbers humans by almost three to one. In the last 40 years, the number of cattle has doubled and the fowl population has trebled.

Distribution of food resources and world hunger

There is sufficient land, energy and water to feed well over twice the world's human population. Yet half the world's grain harvest is fed to livestock while millions of humans go hungry. In 1984, when thousands of Ethiopians were dying weekly from famine, their rulers continued growing and shipping millions of dollars worth of livestock grains to the UK and other European nations.

It has been estimated that if Americans reduced their intake of meat by 10%, the land, water and energy that would be released from growing animal feed could provide food for 100 million people.

Environmental Aspects

Soil erosion and desertification

The overutilisation of land for growing grain to feed animals has led to continuing loss of topsoil. The very basis of food production on earth is eroding away. Competitive pressures often force farmers to choose lower-cost production methods that leave soil exposed, or to put fragile lands that are easily ruined into intensive production.

Overuse of arid and semi-arid land to produce animal feed has led to widespread desertification in many countries. Regions most affected are cattle-producing areas like the western half of the US, Central and South America, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa. Desertification has induced the greatest mass migration in human history. By the turn of the century over half the world's population will live in urban areas.


In Central America cattle ranching has destroyed more rainforest than any other activity. Moreover, 90% of the new cattle ranches in the Amazon area go out of business within 8 years, their soil base depleted from overgrazing.

Global warming

World livestock production is a significant factor in the emission of two of the four global warming gases - carbon dioxide and methane. Millions of tons of fossil fuels and millions of acres of tropical forests are burned each year for cattle and livestock production, releasing CO2. Cattle emit large quantities of methane (CH4), each animal producing a pound of gas for every two pounds of meat it yields.

Water pollution

Wastes from factory farms, feedlots and dairies quickly flood local markets for fertilisers, and stockpiles of animal waste build up. The nitrogen from these wastes is converted into ammonia and nitrates, and leaches into ground and surface water, where it pollutes rivers and streams and kills aquatic life. Moreover, soil laden with fertilisers and pesticides erodes and runs off into surface and ground water. This leads to excessive nitrates in well water which, when ingested, can cause damage to the nervous system, cancer and "blue baby" syndrome. This pollution can eventually reach the ocean, where it poisons marine life.

After World War II, advances in pesticides and synthetic fertilisers brought monocropping, allowing farmers to grow vast areas of grains for the animal feed market. But pests adapt rapidly to toxins, so more and more pesticides were needed to give the same degree of crop protection. As a result, meat, poultry and dairy products are now the major sources of pesticide residues in the western diet.

Human Health

The effect on western health of a diet rich in animal products has been devastating. In the US, health care expenditure now accounts for 12% of GNP and is increasing. Yet the government ignores the US Surgeon-General's statement that 68% of all diseases are diet-related.

By observing a low-fat diet free from animal products, many diseases including cancer can be prevented, mitigated or cured. Meat, dairy products and eggs raise the blood cholesterol level, increasing the risk of heart disease, which is now the leading cause of death in western nations.

The protein fallacy

Contrary to popular belief, the protein needs of the human body are easily met by an adequate, varied diet. The animal product industries have stressed the highly concentrated nature of protein found in animal foods. This publicity has led many people to believe that animal protein is superior to plant protein, thus encouraging the overconsumption of animal foods.

In fact, animal protein places a great burden on the human body. Unlike plant proteins, animal proteins are high in sulphur-containing amino acids, and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream (owing to their low fibre content). Excreting this sulphur-induced acid load results in the loss of calcium from the body. This contributes to the high rates of osteoporosis and kidney disease found among populations that consume large amounts of animal protein.

A word on milk

A mythology has developed around the importance of calcium, and drinking cow's milk, to the extent that many people are afraid of not consuming enough calcium. Humans are the only mammals to consume the milk of another species after being weaned. Moreover, some 20% of Caucasians and up to 90% of people of African and Asian descent are naturally lactose-intolerant. Fortunately, calcium deficiency caused by insufficient calcium in the diet is not known to occur in humans.

Official nutritional guidelines

The US Department of Agriculture is primarily concerned with promoting agricultural commerce, and is also responsible for recommending dietary guidelines. It is thus not surprising that dietary recommendations emanating from the USDA favour the meat and dairy industries. For this reason officials have reduced the recognised number of food groups, over the past 50 years, from 12 to 4, giving major prominence to meat and dairy products.

Food contamination

Competition for markets has led to production methods that increase output while compromising food quality. Certain pesticides used today in growing livestock feeds are stored in the bodies of the animals that ingest them, and in turn are ingested by humans who consume their flesh.

Antibiotics and hormones

During this century the use of hormones has helped to rid us of scourges like diptheria and scarlet fever. Yet bacteria are becoming resistant to the effects of antibiotics, just as insects are becoming resistant to the effects of pesticides. This trend is greatly aggravated by the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock in factory farms.

Livestock producers use synthetic hormones to increase growth, reproductive rates and milk production. The FDA has approved the use of these drugs even though their long-term effects on humans may not surface for generations. The US is the only fully industrialised nation that still implants beef cattle with hormones.

Moreover, because of economic pressures, the USDA had reduced the number of inspectors, and relaxed inspection guidelines, to such a degree that many inspectors say they cannot do the job for which they are paid. Inspection procedures are inadequate to protect the public from meat-related diseases.

An alternative future for farmers

Despite these pressures from bureaucracy and big business to grow animal feed intensively, there are alternatives open to American farmers, and to those in other countries under similar constraints; and far-sighted farmers are adopting them.

Farmers can grow - organically and sustainably - abundant food for all Earth's people, in a way that increases rather than diminishes land productivity. A thriving agricultural economy favours biodiversity and the small farmer. By making informed choices as individuals, and thus creating a more life-affirming demand, we as consumers can help give farmers a nobler role in our world - that of sustainably feeding, clothing and powering the people of this earth.

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