The way we grow our food and raise livestock has changed significantly over the past several decades. Independent, small-scale family farms are increasingly giving way to industrial factory farms.
Factory farms have problems, one of which is their contribution to global climate change.
We need to take bold action over the next decade in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This includes tackling the greenhouse gas emissions created by food production, including meat and other animal products. The dominant system for producing food animals in the United States – on crowded factory farms – is incompatible with these climate goals, consuming an enormous amount of fossil fuels and generating significant greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions originating from human activity.
Factory farms are likely to be more polluting than smaller operations:
Factory farms create huge amounts of animal waste. Unlike smaller, more integrated farms that can recycle dry animal manure as fertilizer, factory farms often produce more waste than can be used on the farm. They are more likely to use storage methods that increase greenhouse gas emissions, such as storing liquid manure in lagoons. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that methane emissions from U.S. farms increased by 65 percent between 1990 and 2013, coinciding with the rise in factory farms.
Factory farms usually raise beef cows on grains rather than on pasture. Growing and processing this feed consumes an enormous amount of land and fossil fuels. It also produces significantly fewer calories than using those acres to grow crops for direct human consumption. Additionally, cattle did not evolve to eat grain-heavy diets, which can wreak havoc on their digestive systems. This causes cattle to produce higher levels of methane during digestion than those raised on more natural diets.
Simply switching to chicken or other animal proteins with smaller carbon footprints is not enough. Factory farms raising broiler chickens still emit a huge amount of greenhouse gases and share the same potential to contaminate water and air with other pollutants as factory beef operations.
State and federal policies must be enacted to create a swift transition from factory farms to smaller, more integrated crop and livestock systems. These policies should include aggressive policies to address climate change, including policies to limit the contribution of agriculture to climate change.
By holding our elected officials accountable to create and enforce the right policies, we can replace factory farms with a more sustainable food system that protects people and animals, reduces our climate impact, and revitalizes rural communities across America.