By Scott Smith, Communications Director
Most vegans and vegetarians can make persuasive moral and ethical arguments about the need to end the killing of farm animals for food and to limit the vast amount of land, water and other resources required to raise cows and sheep for slaughter.
In his latest book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, writer and activist George Monbiot argues that we need to become more “food-numerate.” That is, vegans and vegetarians need to understand the numbers behind such crucial issues as land use, crop yields, the energy and chemicals required to make that food, and the pollution that animal agriculture creates. Only then can we convince others of the harm that Big Ag is doing to our health, to animals—both domestic and free-roaming—and to the very planet itself.
“It’s time we become obsessed by numbers,” says Monbiot. “Visceral as these issues are, we cannot resolve the issues they raise through gut instinct.”
So let’s look at some numbers as they relate to raising cows and sheep for food, citing Monbiot and other sources, including “Costs & Consequences: The real price of livestock grazing on America’s public lands,” produced by the Center for Biological Diversity:
- Half of all the calories that farmers grow worldwide are used for raising livestock;
- Producing 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of soy protein requires two square meters (22 square feet, or smaller than a picnic blanket) of land; milk 27 square meters, beef 163, and lamb 185 square meters;
- Over three-quarters of the world’s soy is fed to farm animals; only 7% is turned into substitutes for meat and milk;
- Raising a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef protein releases 113 times more greenhouse gases than growing a kilogram of pea protein, and 190 times more than the same amount of nut protein;
- Grazing land is responsible for 40% of the deforestation caused by the food industry;
- If we stopped eating meat and dairy and switched to vegan, plant-based diets, we would reduce the amount of land used for farming by 76%;
- If destructive farming and grazing activity ceased on just 15% of land in some parts of the world, 60% of the extinctions that would otherwise happen could be averted.
As stark as this data is in describing the waste and inefficiency of growing cows, pigs and sheep for human consumption, the numbers get even worse when you consider who’s propping up this economic house of horrors. Four firms run 75% of the world’s corporate slaughterhouses and beef-packing plants. Four others control 70% of the corporate pork slaughter. An additional four companies control 90% of the world grain trade. Such a concentration of power not only allows these global conglomerates to control market forces, it also gives them outsized influence over lawmakers, academic researchers and even public opinion.
“Extensive livestock farming is an economic fantasy, sustained either by lashings of public money or public tolerance of massive environmental destruction, or both,” Monbiot writes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent almost $50 billion in subsidies for livestock operators since 1995, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. By contrast, since 2018 the USDA has spent less than $30 million to support plant-based proteins that produce fewer greenhouse gases and require less land than livestock.
Let’s apply this by-the-numbers approach to a specific real-world scenario: the American West, where entrenched livestock-grazing interests and complicit government agencies are wreaking havoc on public lands as well as on federally protected wild horses. Upwards of 2 million cattle and millions more sheep are given free rein to 155 million acres of public land across an arid and fragile landscape wholly unsuitable for domestic livestock, especially in such numbers and in a period of extended drought. Meanwhile, wild horses, which now number around 80,000, are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they also have to share with all those cows and sheep.
For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has ignored science to justify its wild horse eradication efforts. This is an agency that sees wild horses as a roadblock to money-making ventures on public lands, like grazing cattle at rock-bottom rates heavily subsidized by taxpayers.
Each year in January, the federal government establishes the fee it charges livestock operators to use federal public lands for grazing privileges. The federal grazing fee was set in 2014 at the legal minimum of $1.35/AUM, or animal unit month, which is the amount of forage to feed a cow and calf for one month. That’s just 6.72% of fees charged for non-irrigated private grazing lands in the West, which now approach $30 per cow-calf a month in some areas. The BLM’s sweetheart deals have cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars while benefiting a small number of ranchers—less than 3% of all livestock operators in the U.S.
A new study by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) blasts the BLM for ignoring the devastating impacts of cattle and sheep grazing on federal public lands where wild horses and other native wildlife live. The study’s conclusion that livestock grazing is the primary culprit behind range degradation is something Friends of Animals has been bringing attention to through its legal and educational efforts to protect wild horses for years.
As called for in FoA’s recent petition to the BLM, the agency must include the impact of cattle and sheep ranching on public-land range assessments and immediately reduce the number of cattle and sheep within wild horse herd management areas, followed by a phaseout of all livestock as grazing permits expire.
Some may try to hold steadfast to alternative facts, but the numbers don’t lie. In fact, they reveal the urgent need to listen to the science and act accordingly.
“I could produce an excellent argument, based on both human and planetary health, for switching to a diet dominated by beans, lentils and nuts. But beyond a particular social circle, it’s unlikely, at the moment, to gain much traction,” writes Monbiot in Regenesis. “The less we need to rely on moral suasion, the more successful a shift is likely to be.”