Earth Day 2020: Climate Action! (part 1)

April 22nd, 2020 will mark the 50th annual Earth Day—that’s officially half a century of humans taking action to support our Earth! The event was first created in 1970 by then-Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson after he witnessed the intense harms from a Santa Barbara oil spill. Inspired by the anti-war movement on college campuses, he realized that major change could only happen through passion, education, and widespread following. 

Senator Nelson pitched the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” and soon gathered a team to rally the nation. When April 22nd, 1970 came around, nearly 20 million folks in the U.S. took part in environmental demonstrations across the country, with college campuses hosting especially memorable protests.

The single day quickly generated a modern environmental movement, one that was uniquely bipartisan and gained support from diverse economic, social, and geographic groups. It was so successful that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were passed. 

Today, Earth Day not only commemorates these enormous wins for the environment, but continues the international fight for a healthy and sustainable home.

The plant-based role in saving our planet

Today, perhaps the most devastating threat facing our Earth is the animal agriculture industry. It pollutes our air, water, and soil, rapidly destroys forests and overuses land, threatens the survival of ocean ecosystems, and contributes significantly to climate change. Even more tragically, underprivileged communities unequally and unjustly receive the negative health impacts of the industry’s irresponsibility to which they contribute least.

Unfortunately, because the animal agriculture industry is economically protected by governments across the globe, the truth of just how environmentally and socially damaging it’s been isn’t common knowledge. However, per this year’s Earth Day theme of climate action, making individual decisions to promote Earth over industry has the collective power to save our home. As Senator Nelson’s legacy tells, a movement starts with one!

Here are some of the essential facts to know when considering how you can make change with your diet this Earth Day:

Greenhouse gas emissions

Methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide are the leading greenhouse gas emissions from the animal agriculture industry. Some of the ways they’re emitted are via fertilizer production and use, feed crop maintenance, animal waste, energy consumption, and transportation/storage.

  • The animal agriculture sector (which includes feed crop production, fertilizer manufacturing, and shipping) is responsible for 18% of the world’s GHG emissions. In particular, it accounts for 9% of carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane emissions, and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. (1)
  • Methane has 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) and nitrous oxide has 300 times the GWP of carbon dioxide. (1)
  • Over a third of the raw materials and fossil fuels in the United States are consumed by the animal agriculture industry. (2, 3)

Farm runoff into our waterways

When animals do not fully absorb added nutrients from their feed (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus), their excrements runoff into waterways to threaten ecosystems and water quality. Other runoff includes chemicals used in the agricultural process such as fertilizers and pesticides.

  • Runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, hormones, and antibiotics from farms end up in our oceans and cause significant lasting damage, including ocean dead zones, coral reef degradation, difficulties in wildlife’s reproductive systems, and damage to human health. (4)
  • Ocean dead zones are formed when excess nutrients (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) stimulate the overgrowth of algae in water ecosystems. When algae overgrows, it eventually sinks to the bottom to decompose, consuming a lot of the ocean’s available oxygen in the process. As a result, marine life is unable to healthfully inhabit the area because of the lack of oxygen.
  • Locally, we can see our impact on the Mississippi River that drains from Minnesota into the Gulf of Mexico. Close to where the river empties in the gulf, an 8,500 square mile dead zone exists, which is roughly the size of New Jersey. (5)

Water overuse

Animal agriculture is extremely water-intensive for its irrigation of feed crops, water fed to animals, and cleaning of facilities. Effects lead to drought and unequal water distribution within communities.

  • It takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of cow meat and 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of cow’s milk; it takes 25 gallons to make one pound of wheat. (2, 6)
  • 5% of water in the United States is consumed by individual homes whereas 55% is dedicated to raising animals for food. (6)
  • Worldwide, animal agriculture consumes around 20-33% of all freshwater. (7)

Deforestation

To make room for new plots of grazing/crop land, deforestation is happening aggressively every day. Because commercial agriculture practices are unsustainable, many old plots of land aren’t healthy enough for reuse. Thus, new land (which is finite) is bought to be destroyed, of which rainforests are the most exploited areas.

  • We’re losing roughly 80,000 acres of rainforest every single day primarily due to feed crop agriculture, livestock grazing, and commercial logging. That’s about an acre a second. (8)
  • 91% of the deforested area in the Amazonia has been converted to cattle ranching and animal agriculture practices. (9)
  • Experts predict that the last remaining rainforests could disappear within 40 years due to the rate at which humankind is deforesting. (10)

Join us next week to learn more of the ways animal agriculture impacts the climate and the planet we share!

References

  1. https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/archive/assets/pdfs/farm/hsus-fact-sheet-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-animal-agriculture.pdf
  2. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/facts-on-animal-farming-and-the-environment/
  3. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/527483.Ecological_Cooking
  4. https://www.epa.gov/
  5. https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-is-largest-ever-measured
  6. https://www.cowspiracy.com/facts
  7. https://www.forksoverknives.com/freshwater-abuse-and-loss-where-is-it-all-going/#gs.zym3k6
  8. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talks-daily-destruction/
  9. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/758171468768828889/pdf/277150PAPER0wbwp0no1022.pdf
  10. https://www.zmescience.com/ecology/environmental-issues/world-deforestation-surprisingly-results-net-cooling-effect/

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