Within the scientific community the consensus is clear - climate change is occurring and represents one of the greatest threats, not just to wildlife, but to all life on earth
The Animal Law Symposium's focus on wildlife this year was especially exciting for me. As the executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, I spent 10 years in Alaska working to protect wildlife and wilderness. I saw firsthand how rapidly wildlife was losing the competition for space to human need and human greed. Now, as the Animal Legal Defense Fund's executive director, I routinely write and speak about factory farming of animals - the cause of the most and worst animal suffering. But when we look at what human activities have the most negative impacts on wildlife, there's one endeavor that also stands out from the rest - animal agriculture.
That's because of all the land on earth devoted to agriculture - which represents about 50% of the land mass on the planet - 80% is devoted to raising animals for food. No matter the specifics of how those animals are raised, we know from basic science that raising animals for food including growing plant foods to feed them is more resource intensive than plant-based foods on all fronts - land use, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Within the scientific community the consensus is clear - climate change is occurring and represents one of the greatest threats, not just to wildlife but to all life on earth. Less well-known is that of all human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, animal agriculture is the most significant.
Animal agriculture wastes energy and resources
In a groundbreaking study of climate change, "Livestock's Long Shadow", produced in 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted that animal agriculture contributed more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. It further noted that, "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems".
In 2011 a follow-up study by the Worldwatch Institute went even further, concluding that 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities were associated with animal agriculture. Nevertheless, climate change mitigation plans continue to largely ignore animal agriculture. Even environmental advocacy groups have been slow to change their message and focus.
I always come back to one fundamental equation - transfer of energy through the food chain. At the start of it all is sunlight, which plants use to grow. When herbivores eat those plants, only 10 percent of the plant's energy is available to them, and only 10 percent of the herbivore's energy is available to the carnivore. It follows that it simply takes more organisms on a lower level of the chain to sustain fewer organisms on the next level up. There's no way around the fact that eating lower on the food chain is simply a more efficient use of energy, land and water.
All of these impacts are becoming magnified as the human population continues to grow and the demands on the planet to feed our growing numbers also rise. Between now and mid-century, we will have added the equivalent of two entire nations of India to our population. This alone makes eating more efficiently a critical issue.
Using the law to expose our food system's calamitous impact on the earth
Challenging the impacts of animal agriculture on farmed animals - as well as wildlife and the environment - is a focus for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. California, where the Animal Legal Defense Fund is based, recently experienced a record-breaking five-year drought. Despite a recent lifting of the drought state of emergency for much of the state, the United States Geological Survey notes that, "the hydrologic effects of the drought will take years to recover from" and its long-term effects remain unknown. During the drought the state's official approach to water management included unprecedented cuts in residential water usage, but completely ignored animal agriculture, despite it consuming, by far, the majority of the state's surface and subterranean water.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund successfully fought to expose water use records in Livingston, California, revealing that even in times of drought, Foster Farms-a chicken slaughter and processing plant-consumed two thirds of the city's water. The situation in Livingston illustrates animal agriculture's egregious misuse of resources. The Animal Legal Defense Fund also filed a petition with the California Air Resources Board (ARB) demanding regulation of methane emissions - a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - from animal agriculture. Despite being the largest methane emitting industry in the state, it was entirely ignored in the state's methane regulatory plans. The ARB subsequently committed to regulating the dairy industry's emissions, with implementation scheduled for roughly 2024. The Animal Legal Defense Fund will continue pursuing cases and campaigns that that hold the animal agriculture industry accountable.
I'm confident that everyone at the Animal Law Symposium walked away with a renewed commitment to protecting and minimizing their own impacts on wildlife. One way we can all contribute is through our personal choices, not just in terms of what we drive but in terms of what we eat. It's the Animal Legal Defense Fund's mission to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. In combatting the horrors of factory farming, we're fighting to protect all animals, human and non-human, from a worrisome future.
Stephen Wells is the Executive Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund which he joined in 1999 and immediately began laying groundwork for the organization's growth into the nation's preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals. He considers it his job to create an environment where egos are out the door and everyone works together toward one end -ending the exploitation and suffering of animals. And that is just what he has done. Steve lives in the western woodlands of Sonoma County, California with his dog Eve and cat Ocho.