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What’s Happening Behind Our Plates

Matthew Prescott

Senior Director of Food Policy, The Humane Society of the United States

Meat, dairy and egg production is a leading greenhouse gas emitter. Not even including seafood, animal agribusiness is estimated to account for more direct emissions than the entire global transportation sector, according to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

On the whole, “the production of animal-based foods,” confirms a study published in the journal Climate Change wherein it “is associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods.” And it’s an incredibly thirsty system, with hundreds of gallons of water needed to produce a single pound of chicken or glass of milk, and dozens of gallons needed to produce a single egg.

According to a report produced in collaboration with the World Bank, even the most efficient sources of meat convert only around 11 percent of gross feed energy into human food.

Not so home on the range

Aside from the vast inefficiency of funneling copious amounts of grain and other resources through industrially-produced animals, there are also enormous ethical costs. Nearly all chickens used for meat have been turned into “frankenbirds” — genetically manipulated to grow so fat, so fast they suffer crippling leg deformities and heart attacks. Most egg-laying hens are confined in barren, wire cages so small and cramped the birds can’t even spread their wings. And millions of pigs are crammed inside crates so narrow they’re unable even to turn around.

These are all social, intelligent, inquisitive animals who desire lives free of pain and suffering, yet pain and suffering are essentially all they ever know.   

Beyond the farm

However, there is good news when it comes to the treatment of farm animals. Major food companies — Walmart, McDonald’s and hundreds more — are phasing out many of the cruelest factory farm practices from their supply chains, and 11 states have banned certain forms of extreme cage confinement of farm animals.  

Meanwhile, countless consumers — who needn’t wait for lawmakers or corporations to do the right thing — are avoiding these products at the grocery store and in restaurants. Millions among us are also reducing our consumption of meat, dairy and eggs by eating more plant-based proteins. We can all do our part to practice compassionate eating by following the three Rs: reducing the amount of meat we eat, replacing animal-based foods with plant-based foods and refining our diets to avoid factory-farm agriculture  and, instead, choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.

We’re choosing kindness over cruelty and sustainability over wastefulness. It’s up to us to create the kind of world we want to live in, and the kind of Earth we want to live on. There’s no better time to start than today.

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