For many Christians, it is a common practice to abstain from eating meat for parts or all of Lent. While this is a spiritual practice, it also has considerable environmental benefits. Industrial-scale animal agriculture is a significant contributor to numerous environmental issues including climate change, watershed degradation, and overconsumption of resources.
Oftentimes climate change is attributed to transportation and energy use but animal agriculture is actually one of the leading causes, if not the leading cause, of climate change. As cattle, goats, and sheep digest food, they produce a significant amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In fact, livestock are the leading source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. According to a report on the role of diet in climate control from Johns Hopkins University, “If global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2º C, even with dramatic emissions reductions across non-agricultural sectors.”
Cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys do what all other animals do: poop. Livestock and poultry grown in the largest concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) produce almost 13 times the waste of the entire U.S. population. This waste isn’t treated like human waste; rather, this waste is held either in large lagoons or in other storage facilities, and then spread on land to fertilize crops. This manure can contain a toxic mix of antibiotics, chemicals, and bacteria which can find their way into the environment where it can contaminate soil and groundwater.
Unsustainable Use of Resources
Animal agriculture requires a lot of land. Not only do the animals themselves require the use of land resources, but the food they eat does as well. Globally, humans use 59% of all the land capable of growing crops to grow food for livestock. Not only that, but animal agriculture is also the leading cause of deforestation. By clearing land that previously held forest and other vegetation means, we are releasing stored carbon into the environment and destroying diverse ecosystems. Additionally, one-third of all the fresh water that humans use goes to livestock.
While these statistics are jarring, they provide us with a clear action item: eat less meat and animal products. Eating less meat is the easiest high-impact action one can take to protect the environment. Whether you choose to abstain from eating meat once per week or every day, your dietary choices will make a big difference.
Know Where Your Food is Coming From
Not all meat is created equal. While meat produced in industrial agriculture settings has major negative impacts on the environment, there are meat options available that come from local, family-owned operations that are dedicated to sustainability. Unfortunately, these products are typically more expensive and less accessible to lower income families. However, if you are able to swap out meat products from industrial farms with locally and sustainably grown products you’ll be able to support local agriculture while also reducing your carbon footprint.
Want to learn more about eating less meat? Check out our “Eating Less Meat” module in our Power to Motivate course made in partnership with the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy.
For more Lenten inspiration, check out our Lenten Calendar made in partnership with Interfaith Power and Light.
We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
Industrial Agricultural Pollution 101 - NRDC
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