In the United States, along with many other modern nations, meat consumption has been normalized to the point where most Americans are consuming animal products on a daily basis. It is estimated that meat consumption in the U.S. is three times that of the global average; furthermore, it has been steadily increasing in modern nations, roughly a 66% increase in the last century (NCBI). Vigorous marketing and advertisement campaigns have conditioned Americans to believe that this level of consumption is normal, despite the fact that increased meat intake has been correlated to a wide array of disease and chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.
It seems strange that our consumption of meat is so high compared to the rest of the world, but this can be attributed in part to the increase in its accessibility. So why is meat so much more accessible to Americans than the rest of the world, or compared to 100 years ago? Part of the answer can be found in agricultural subsidies from the U.S. government, which are not allocated equitably at all. It is estimated that in the last 15 years, the majority of farmers did not see a single penny of the 100 billion dollars given in agricultural subsidies; most of this money went straight to farmers producing for large corporations, a large percentage of which grow crops that go directly to feed lots to produce meat instead of directly to the consumer.
Now that it had been established that meat consumption rates in the United States are unnaturally high, let’s examine the environmental implications of the animal agriculture industry. First of all, we must realize that the global population is still rapidly growing, and there are many questions as to how efficiently use land in order to feed billions of people. One study estimates that the current use of land in the United States is over eight times what we would use if everyone chose a vegan diet (Elementa). This shows that meat production uses a very large amount of land, which could instead be used to grow crops that go directly to consumers and feed way more people. This is happening all over the world as more countries are industrializing and transitioning to diets with increased meat; for example, the Brazilian rainforest is undergoing massive amounts of deforestation in order to plant soy, most of which is simply grown as feed for cows (Smithsonian).
A very large percentage of our agricultural land is devoted to meat production, but that pales in comparison to the amount of water necessary to produce the meat that we consume. Water limitations have been a large issue recently, especially in California where water is so scarce that many farmers are going bankrupt because they cannot afford to keep their fields watered. Fingers are pointed at farmers that use water inefficiently, or water intensive crops such as almonds, but the factory farming industry has been relatively undiscussed in this regard. In light of water shortages, people have been urged to take shorter showers, turn off the sink when brushing their teeth, etc., but only a minuscule 5% of water in the United States is used by private homes, whereas agriculture accounts for 80-90% and 56% is used to grow crops specifically for livestock (Cowspiracy). A much more shocking figure is that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. So, in terms of water usage and scarcity, who is the real culprit here?
Apart from land and water use, there are other serious implications surrounding animal agriculture practices. Environmental degradation is one, which has several aspects. Another figure states that animal agriculture accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, which is actually greater than the exhaust from all transportation combined (Cowspiracy). Apart from emissions, soil erosion from improper farming methods is diminishing available land to be used or agriculture. Furthermore, animal waste and pesticides go downstream in high concentrations, causing dead zones in ecosystems. All of the aforementioned problems result in a severe loss of biodiversity in the form of habitat destruction. One example of this is in California (again), where the water-intensive crop alfalfa – which is primarily used to feed livestock – is grown at such a scale that it is depleting river water so severely that it has a detrimental effect on the salmon runs every year (Smithsonian). This is just one example; loss of biodiversity for the sake of livestock is happening on a global scale and is one of the major drivers of species extinction today.
Due to all these factors, it is clear that there are unseen costs that end up being paid by society, and not the producers. Public health risk due to overconsumption of meat, climate change, and land and water scarcity are all very significant problems that go unaccounted for. It is estimated that if all these negative externalities were internalized, a Big Mac would cost $12, to be compared to the $5 price that consumers see (Meatonomics).
So what can you do as an individual? Unfortunately, the agricultural industry in the United States is so powerful that the likelihood of a supply-side change is very slim; extensive marketing campaigns and lobbying ensure the survival of factory farming in our society. Therefore, the change that must happen is on the demand side. People are naturally resistant to change, sure, and many are unwilling to give up cheesy, juicy bacon burgers. But if our society collectively chose to forego meat for just one day out of the week, the change would be incredible. It may seem like there is not much that we can do as individuals, but the first step to taking back our food system is as simple as McNuggetless Mondays.