Did you know that the UN projections show that the human population will hit the 9.7 billion mark by 2050? This situation raises the question: How can our planet host this huge number of people, and will there be enough food to sustain the population?
One of the strategies to provide food for the growing number of people on earth is commercial-scale farming, particularly raising large herds of cows for meat and milk. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), people slaughter more than 56 billion animals every year for food. What’s more, there are over 270 million cows reared for milk across the world.
However, while keeping cows in such large numbers offers a solution to our food supply, it comes at a tremendous cost. We examine the rearing of cows and the environment-changing impact.
Cows Are a Huge Contributor to Climate Change
Livestock keeping is the world’s biggest methane source emitter. Keeping cows and other farm animals plays a critical role in climate change, as it contributes about 18% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. These levels are higher than the emissions from all forms of transport, including cars, planes, ships, and trucks combined.
Climate change poses many risks to our health and well-being by increasing the risk of extreme weather and is the single greatest threat to humankind in the 21st century.
Keeping Cows Wastes Massive Amounts of Water and Grain
We live in a world of scarce natural resources and need to do everything to protect our water and plant life for a healthy environment. More than 1 billion people on our planet do not have access to water, and 2.7 billion find the precious liquid scarce for at least one month per year.
Keeping cows could be a factor in water scarcity because red meat and milk production are highly inefficient. For example, 25 pounds of grain and about 4000 gallons of water are necessary to feed a cow to produce one pound of beef. A dairy cow needs to drink more than 600 gallons of water to produce one pound of cheese.
Livestock Rearing Requires Large Tracts of Land
Using land to grow animal feeds is highly inefficient. According to the journal Science, a study found that feeding a meat-eater requires 75 percent more land than feeding someone on a vegan (plant-based) diet. A vegan eats the crops directly instead of feeding them to cows to produce meat.
An examination of land use shows the full scale of the problem - about 30 percent of the earth's landmass is currently used as grazing land or for growing food for consumption by farm animals. These crops could have fed people instead. With land, water, and food in scarce supply throughout the world, this is an inefficient use of natural resources.
Keeping Cows Causes Deforestation
Large-scale livestock farming and the expansion of grazing land for cows is the biggest cause of global deforestation. A major case in point is Brazil, where farmers deliberately set fire to large sections of the Amazon forest to cleat space for cattle ranches and grow commercial animal feed grain like soya.
This destruction of the world’s largest and most important rainforest is devastating for the people and wildlife who live in and depend on the forest. The continued destruction of the Amazon forest could result in less rainfall and affect irrigation and drinking water across large sections of South America. There may also be changes in the climate patterns of other parts of the world.
Alternatives To Milk and Beef Help to Protect the Environment
Most people in the developed world - and a growing number of those in developing nations - now have unprecedented dietary choices. If we can meet our nutritional needs without keeping cows or other animals on commercial farms, we should help protect the environment.