We're in an ongoing mass extinction process, and here's what's causing it
Animal consumption places a life of suffering upon farmed animals, the most abused and neglected animals of the world. But our current food production system has yet another serious collateral effect for other animals: 60% of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles of the planet have vanished from our planet since the ’70s, to 2014, all as a result of human activity, according to the Living Planet Index, a report produced by the Zoological Society of London for WWF. In freshwater habitats, populations have collapsed by 83%.
This is known today as the sixth mass extinction, an ongoing process in which wildlife is being decimated at a rate at up to 1,000 times higher than natural. Besides harming animals that should live in peace and have safe habitats and resources, the dramatic decrease in natural life poses a threat to human life on Earth. As an example, many animals and plants help regulate the very earth we live on, through temperature, climate, and pollination. This is a risk we cannot afford to lose.
Our diets — particularly the habit of eating animal products — are often behind this imbalance. A study published in the National Academy of Sciences shows that, currently, 70% of all the biomass of birds on the planet are poultry and 60% of all mammals are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animal.
Here is why animal agriculture is one of the main factors for wildlife loss:
1. Habitat loss
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, "livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface". Another considerable part is used for crops, of which most of this is used to feed animals: according to the WWF, 79% of soy produced worldwide is used for feeding cattle.
This effort causes a significant destruction of rainforests and other vulnerable natural areas, especially in the Global South: Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and, therefore, putting wildlife and biodiversity at risk.
Want a tragic example? The 2019 Amazonian forest fires were started by cattle farmers. Setting the forest on fire is a well-known technique used by farmers to create space for grassland. It has always been this way in Brazil, and it has always been a dangerous option. The difference is that, in 2019, the devastated area was 85% larger when compared to the previous year because producers wanted to show they were "working hard".
Livestock is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the Amazon in all Amazonian countries, contributing to 80% of deforestation rates. Approximately 450,000 square kilometers of deforested areas in the Amazon in Brazil are now made for grazing cattle.
Indigenous territory at the Amazonia Forest on fire in 2017. Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama.
Alright, so you don't eat meat from Brazil? But do you eat meat at all? If yes, chances are that the soy animals are given comes from deforested areas. If you were shocked by the Amazonia's fires, you should probably know that 80% of the soy produced there (which is one of the main reasons for deforestation, besides cattle ranching) is destined to become feed for animal agriculture around the world.
“Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot", says Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, who studies how human diets affect the environment. It's a simple (and terrifying) equation, after all: the more animal products we eat, the more land we use, and the less untouched areas are left for wildlife.
2. Culling wild animals — or starving them to death
So there are farms bordering forests (because they were created in deforested areas). All the wildlife in the area was either killed or expelled from that zone. It's only normal that wild animals will come back often to try and find any food they can, and in this case they often find food from the very place they were pushed out from.
What do farmers do? They see these wild animals as a threat to their production and start culling them. Wolves and felines, for example, are curbed for preying on cattle. Bison, kangaroos, zebras and buffalos compete with farmed animals for grazing.
Others, like badgers, are being cruelly culled for transmitting tuberculosis to cattle. Important animals for environmental balance such as insects, in their turn, are driven away from monocultures (some of them used for feeding cattle, as we mentioned before) or are killed by the intensive use of pesticides.
Besides that, to protect and contain the farmed animals (that shouldn't be there in first place), ranchers will build fences that stop millions of wild animals from continuing their migration, resulting in many unnecessary deaths from dehydration or starvation.
3. Overexploitation of resources and pollution
In other cases, the overexploitation of fishing is what is causing significant damage. For example, anchovies and sardines are caught in a large scale system, in order to feed farmed salmon, pigs and chickens. With the decrease of the availability of these animals, the whole food web changes, and animals that originally were supposed to eat them, such as penguins, may not find enough food.
Water is another resource that requires attention, as animal agriculture is a critical factor for the generation of water pollution. Most water consumed by livestock goes back to nature in the form of liquid manure: a substance full of pathogens, heavy metals, drug residues, hormones, antibiotics, that pollutes not only surface water but also groundwater.
According to the FAO, livestock-related waste has one of the highest biological oxygen demand, which means that they are an organic matter that consumes the most oxygen from water, given for their output, leading to a worrying increase in the risk of eutrophication and algal blooms in lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas.
As a result, these contaminated zones are neither liveable for water animals nor contain drinkable water for terrestrial ones. One of the largest dead zones is located in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a region of oxygen-depleted water of approximately 8,717 square miles, an area roughly the size of New Hampshire, according to researchers at Louisiana State University.
According to a report by Mighty Earth, it emerged as a result of toxins from manure and fertiliser being thrown directly into the sea. One of the main companies being held accountable for this? Tyson Foods, the world's second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, considered as a “dominant” influence in the creation of this pollution.
4. Exacerbation of the effects of climate change
Livestock represents something between 14.5% and 18% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. According to the FAO, beef is accountable for 41% of the emissions of this sector, while milk production represents 20% of the same emissions. In 2016, only three of the biggest meat companies in the world — JBS, Cargill, and Tyson — were together accountable for more greenhouse gas emissions than France.
This means that animal agriculture plays a critical part in climate change and all the environmental catastrophes that come with it: more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical storms.
Of course, this comes at the expense of wildlife. Remember the Australian fires that started in September 2019, and victimized an estimated number of one billion animals and 26 people. Among them, possibly 25,000 koalas were burnt to death and 10,000 feral camels were expected to be shot in order to save water.
With more than 10 million hectares burnt, an area greater than the size of Austria, the expectation is that some ecosystems would be able to recover in a few years, but on the other hand, others could take more than a century to grow back, or even never get back to what it was before.
Climate change is also warming the oceans' waters in many ways, as well as the carbon emissions are making the waters more acidic, affecting the coral reefs, which are considered by Unesco as the "nurseries of the oceans" and "biodiversity hot spots". In some tropical coral reefs, for example, there can be as much as 1,000 species per m² — or it was, before the impact of global warming. Now, as much as 27 percent of monitored reef formations have been lost and as much as 32 percent are at risk of being lost within the next 32 years, according to NASA.
5. Overfishing, bycatch and fishing gears
According to Unesco, by the year 2100, "more than half of the world’s marine species may stand on the brink of extinction", if nothing changes. And one of the factors that needs to change is the fishing industry, which is accountable for a triple problem: overfishing, bycatch and the abandoning of fishing gear. A WWF report shows that, globally, marine vertebrate populations declined by 49% between 1970 and 2012, and that around one in four species of sharks, rays and skates is now threatened with extinction, due primarily to overfishing.
Overfishing is basically taking from the oceans much more than what we can replace — not to mention it also represents the death of billions of sensible beings. It also impacts the whole food chain, as it creates gaps in certain overfished species, which means predators will not be able to find their food easily. The WWF estimates that 29% of marine fisheries were in this situation in 2015.
Furthermore, the fishing industry commonly uses drift nets, a technique that requires hanging nets vertically in the water to catch every fish that passes through that area. But because of the diversity of marine species, many other animals are caught unintentionally, of which this is called bycatch.
The WWF estimates that at least 40%, or 38 million tonnes of the annual global marine catch, is bycatch. This is probably an underestimate, as statistics include very little information about large marine animals, such as turtles, cetaceans and seabirds which are also caught. Still according to them, over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year, making bycatch the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans.
The rest of the drift nets and other fishing gear used by the industry are simply left in the ocean. Greenpeace estimates that every year, more than 640,000 tonnes of nets, lines, pots and traps used in commercial fishing are dumped and discarded in the sea. They concluded that lost or deliberately abandoned fishing gear is one of the biggest plastic polluters in the oceans, representing up to 85% of the rubbish on the seafloor on seamounts and ocean ridges, and in the Great Pacific Gyre.
Often, animals end up trapped in these gears and die from suffocation or from starvation, or mistake these gears for food and end up eating dangerous plastic. Some of the most affected animals are crustaceans, turtles, seabirds, whales, sharks and dolphins. In 2018, for example, around 300 sea turtles were discovered dead, floating in Mexican waters, after being entangled in this ‘’ghost fishing’’ equipment.
These five reasons are more than enough to prove that ditching animal products is not only good for farmed animals, but would prevent many species of wildlife to be harmed as well. If you are concerned about the preservation of our planet's biodiversity, please consider veganism.