When we think about green house gas emissions that are causing the earth and oceans to heat up, we picture smokestacks belching pollution, or tail piles on cars, or perhaps an oil well. It probably never crossed our minds to connect a cattle feedlot or a chicken shed with green house gasses. We probably never considered these things to be adverse to our environment.
It may come as a surprise but large factory farms and confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) account for a very high percentage of the climate change causing carbon pollution in the United States and the entire world. Large factory farms generate greenhouse gasses in seed production, fertilizer, and transportation over long distances to market. Animal operations generate greenhouse gasses in very high quantities.
This article will focus on the contributions of animal factories on greenhouse gas.
There are nearly 10 billion land animals raised each year in the United States for meat, milk, and eggs. In the world there are 65 billion. A large and growing percentage of these animals are confined in 18.800 CAFO’s in the U.S. Typical factory farms intensively restrict animals in large, overcrowded, and barren sheds, denying them the ability to engage in most of their natural behavior. These sheds necessitate the heavy use of antibiotics, which are another problem.
The USDA estimates these animals produce 335 million tons of manure a year. Much of this runs off into streams, or is stored for long periods of time in tanks or lagoons. This animal waste produces 400 different gasses and a lot of each. Hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide are the major hazardous gases produced by decomposing manure.
The EPA estimates that methane emissions from manure increased by 26% in the United States between 1990 and 2004, due primarily to larger, more concentrated dairy cow and swine facilities. North Carolina’s hog industry alone produces about 300 tons of ammonia each day.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the confined animal sector alone is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, measured in carbon-dioxide equivalent in the world.
According to the FAO, the farm animal sector annually accounts for:
• 9% of human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)
• 37% of emissions of methane (CH4), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 and
• 65% of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which has nearly 300 times the GWP of CO2
Manure is not the only culprit from factory animal farming. Today’s animals do not forage and graze the way nature intended. They are fed high energy feed. Growing that feed requires fertilizer and that fertilizer accounts for 41 million tons of CO2 per year—on top of the CO2 from the manure.
Transporting the fertilizer to the centralized factory feed lots also has a huge carbon foot print. Unlike the open pastures or unheated barns and chicken coops of old, today’s CFO’s have huge inefficient sheds that require heating, cooling, and ventilation. This generates another 90 million tons of CO2 a year.
Lastly slaughtering and packaging of animal products adds tens of millions of tons of CO2 a year on top of the rest.
Methane is the big culprit since it is heavier and traps more heat in the atmosphere. Animal CFO’s generate between 35%-40% of all methane released into the atmosphere.
Putting that in simpler terms, factory animal farms produce more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation system of the country. CFO’s produce more GHG’s than most cities.
Traditional animal farming would also produce gasses. However, on a traditional farm, there are fewer animals in one spot, and much of their foods would come from on-site sources like grass and grains. The naturally occurring gasses from their waste would be absorbed in large part by trees and shrubs surrounding the farms. It is not concentrated like in a CFO. In other words, nature would clean the air turning the carbon gas into oxygen.
If we change the way we grow our meat, milk, and eggs, we would make a huge dent in green house gas emissions. This would give us a chance to reverse climate change. We would also be healthier. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of support in our government for making those changes, and certainly no interest in the agriculture industry to change on its own.
So, we watch as the world burns and the ice melts.
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