As temperatures rise, ice floes shrink, natural disasters increase in frequency and new diseases attack nations, we are seeing the effects of climate change—a climate crisis, which is the state of our world. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide (N2O) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are warming the planet.
Climate change was an important issue in the recent American presidential polls, but it has yet to become a topic of discussion in India. The burning of fossil fuels, destruction of rainforests and animal farming add enormous amounts of GHGs to the atmosphere, increasing global warming.India’s major contribution to the climate crisis is animal farming, which nobody talks about because it requires a change of diet or due to commercial interests.
This is a very remunerative source of income with no questions about health and hygiene standards. India has the world’s largest population of livestock and annually produces around 5.3 million tonnes (MT) of meat, 75 billion eggs—being the world’s third largest producer of eggs, the fourth largest of chicken, the second largest of goat meat and the world’s largest exporter of beef, notwithstanding our protestations of Gau Mata.
These are the proud statistics of the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, Government of India. The total number of cattle in India was 192.49 million in 2019, which includes 145.12 million cows, an increase of 18% from 2012. Animal farming—or factory farming—is a system of rearing livestock using highly intensive methods, by which poultry, pigs, or cattle are confined in small closed spaces under strictly controlled conditions to produce large amounts of meat, eggs or milk. It is a large-scale industrial operation that raises thousands of animals with hormones and antibiotics to prevent disease and maximise their growth and food output.
While egg-laying chicken are housed in “battery cages” the size of an A4 sheet of paper, “broiler” chicken are placed in boxes until they reach the required slaughter weight. Food animals live in their own urine and faeces till they go for slaughter. Factory farming is the main cause of animal suffering and abuse. Animals are converted into machines that generate meat, milk, and eggs.
Newborn female calves are taken away from their mothers and fed with milk from cows with cancer, since it is not legal to sell this milk. Male calves are sold at birth to become veal. Cows are artificially inseminated repeatedly so that their milk production does not stop and are injected with oxytocin to maximise output. When they stop producing milk, they are sold for beef and transported in terrible conditions to Kerala or Bengal for slaughter. Debeaked chickens stand on wire all their lives, while male chicks are ground live into pellets and fed to their mothers.
We forget that animals are sentient beings who feel pain and sorrow. Livestock farming has terrible environmental impact, contributing to air pollution, land and water degradation, biodiversity loss and deforestation. The primary gas emissions are CO2, methane and N2O that contribute the most to GHG emissions. 40% of methane emissions, which trap more heat than CO2, are produced by farm animals. N2O, found in manure and fertilisers, is 300 times more powerful than CO2 in warming the planet. Animal farms release compounds such as hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and methane.
According to an FAO report, 60% of human pathogens and 75% of emerging diseases are zoonotic; livestock contribute 18% to anthropogenic GHG emissions, while water use for livestock exceeds 8% of global human water use and causes 55% of soil erosion. Poor sanitation and waste management leads to the contamination of food supply by bacteria such as E coli and salmonella. Hormones and antibiotics fed to the animals enter human food chains.
Land is cleared to raise billions of animals for the meat and dairy industry. Around 30% of the earth’s land is used for livestock farming. Since food, water and land are scarce in most parts of the world, this is an inefficient use of resources. Instead, if all grain were fed to humans instead of animals, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people. Every 2 seconds, one acre of rainforest—43,200 acres a day—is cut down for cattle farming; 3.5 to 7 billion trees are cut, resulting in a loss of biodiversity; 70,000 sq km of forest is lost annually.
Dumping untreated animal wastes in soil degrades topsoil; it takes 500 years to produce one inch of new topsoil. 50% of the world’s wildlife habitats have been converted to farming land and 33% of land worldwide is used for livestock food production. 60% of grains are cultivated to feed farm animals. It takes 5 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of chicken, 9 kg to produce 1 kg of pork and 25 kg to produce 1 kg of beef. It takes 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of meat. The rainforests of South America are cleared to grow soybean, 75% of which is fed to livestock. Meanwhile, 25 lakh Indians die of hunger every year—one-third of the world’s hungry people.
Industrial livestock farming, by converting food into feed, is not only inefficient but also not equitable.
Global warming affects crops, weather patterns, increases plant diseases and insect infestations. Increased rains lead to floods while the reverse lead to droughts. It wreaks havoc on ecosystems and biodiversity. Islands, coastal habitations and wildlife are at risk of disappearing. And I have not even touched upon the oceans and coral reefs. If we feed our hungry children instead of farming animals, we would have less hunger. The food choices we make today will impact the future of this planet.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai (email@example.com)