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.