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The Place I Know the Best: CAFOs by Barnard Blogger Sage Max

The place I know the best is not a place I have never visited. This place, however, exists in almost every US state. It is not only affected by climate change, but causes climate change to a greater degree than the entire transportation sector combined. Ultimately, it is a place the government does not want citizens to see. The average concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is the place I know the best because I have dedicated my life to ending the suffering on animals on factory farms. I grew up vegetarian and became increasingly involved in animal protection as I learned more about the horrific treatment of cows, pigs, and chickens on dairy, beef, pork, egg, and chicken meat farming operations. But factory farming is at a unique place of intersection between many other urgent issues, from the violation of workers’ rights to climate change.

Though I will never be able to see the place I know the best, there is a wealth of information about its effects on the environment. In this piece I will focus on emissions alone, for the sake of concision. To start, livestock farming contributes 65 percent of all anthropogenic nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, which have a global warming potential 296 times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2). Similarly, methane (CH4), the representative emission of dairy and beef cattle, has a global warming potential 86 times greater than carbon dioxide. Interestingly, methane emissions from livestock and natural gas are nearly equal. All of this is to say that factory farming has an undeniably huge impact on global warming. And there is a positive feedback loop between all types of farming systems and their emissions. Climate change means increased heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather events, to name a few. All of these things are exacerbated by increased greenhouse gas emissions, and ironically, they all can negatively impact the very same farming practices that create them. Heat waves decrease the productivity of dairy cows by 33 percent, and flooding and other extreme weather events mean many animals die from drowning on CAFOs. In addition, the feed grown for these animals is affected by all of the above, and its nutritional value declines, as well, making it a less efficient product to feed to animals in an already inefficient system.

As a student of environmental policy, I’m lucky to have found such an obvious connection between my two passions of animal and environmental protection. In my work within and outside of the classroom, I focus on these issues, spending my free time educating myself on the many facets of animal farming and educating others about the numerous benefits of vegan eating. Though many will argue that livestock farming is necessary for feeding populations effectively and with adequate nutrition, or that there are many options for carbon sequestration from farms, the best way to feed people and decrease emission is to lower our global intake of all forms of meat and animal products. Running grain through a chicken before eating her is inherently inefficient—a nonsensical Rube Goldberg machine. Usable crops can be fed directly to human populations, eliminating the middleman and all of her carbon-filled feces. If we no longer brought cows into the world and kept them alive and continually impregnated for the dairy industry, then we would automatically “sequester” a great deal of carbon by never allowing it to form to begin with. And the alternative is easy and delicious.

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7 Responses

  1. Sage’s post exhibits the interconnection of various issues related to climate change. Meat farming really does not seem to be efficient, humane, environmentally friendly or healthy for our diets. I think that decreasing our consumption of meat and changing the land used for animal agriculture to other sustainable agriculture practices would be positive change in the world. However, this is a difficult thing to change of course because of the demand of meat and the already situated systems.

  2. I really appreciate how the place you know best is not a place that is commonly talked about and discussed in the mainstream media. CAFOs are a huge issue both environmentally and humanely. Recently, I learned about a “reducetarian” (https://reducetarian.org/) initiative that focuses on consuming less meat. This initiative is about choosing other food options over meat when presented with a choice. The goals center around reducing the carbon footprint associated with meat production. It follows the logic that less meat consumption will lead to less meat production and in turn less greenhouse gas emissions. Your post succinctly lays out the issues with the CAFO system and how these issues extend beyond the animal food production sector. Thank you for this insightful piece and sharing your goals and ideas for carbon sequestration.

  3. Sage, I really appreciated how you focused on animals! It is interesting to learn how animals are related to climate change as a source of emissions, but also are greatly impacted. Your post definitely makes me question what I eat and makes me what to change that!

  4. Thank you so much for giving animals a voice in the discussion on climate change, Sage! Oftentimes, our focus on climate impacts tends to be very anthropocentric, and we forget that we are not the only stakeholders in this global issue. We should make sure that nonhuman life forms also get consideration in environmental justice, as they are also essential parts of our global ecosystem.

  5. Thanks for the thorough analysis, Sage! Even confining your scope to the emissions from CAFOs makes a very convincing case for diet-based climate change mitigation. I am curious about some of the other aspects of the “intersection” on which factory farming is situated. How does the presence of CAFOs affect the air and water quality of the communities in which they exist? Also, how does factory farming contribute to labor rights abuses?

  6. This is a fantastic article that tackles an issue often rejected as too uncomfortable for public discussion. The effects of our diet are quite impactful, not only on emissions as you mention but also on the local environment with issues like blood lagoons and waterway pollution. Decreasing consumption is really one of the most effective ways to individually contribute to climate change efforts, and information like this is key so that more people realize that their personal choices have big repercussions.

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