Animal agriculture and climate change

Maia Welbel

How do food systems fit into the climate conversation?

The 2015 Paris Agreement, which since first proposed has been signed by nearly 200 countries, set a goal of limiting global temperature increase in this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This, scientists agree, is the cap we must not exceed if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. Updated commitments to cut CO2 and methane emissions, reduce the use of coal, and curb deforestation, were established at COP26 in November 2021 in Glasgow, but independent research conducted by Climate Action Tracker found that these pledges will not be enough to meet the targets set by the Paris agreement. Their projections still showed warming hitting 2.4-2.7 degrees.

The primary focus at COP26 was decreasing the use of fossil fuels and implementing greener energy alternatives. However, climate change mitigation strategies centered in global food systems were largely absent from the conversation.

Year after year, animal agriculture is shown to be one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. We will not be able to avert the worst impacts of climate change without serious efforts towards enacting sustainable solutions in the industry.

Why does animal agriculture have such a large climate impact?

Meat and animal byproducts have an outsized impact on environmental degradation for several reasons. The process of producing them is highly resource intensive and ecologically damaging from start to finish. The U.S. and other industrialized nations are consuming animal products at a rate that is not anywhere near sustainable. Every year we raise 70 billion animals for human consumption — a number of living things that require one third of the planet’s non-ice land surface, and nearly 16 percent of global freshwater to cultivate. Additionally, one third of the grain grown around the world is intended not for human consumption, but for livestock feed.

With animal product consumption predicted to rise significantly in coming decades, there is no way our planet can continue to support these methods.

Let’s break it down a bit further:

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock farming

Total GHG emissions from global livestock production amount to about 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic (human caused) GHG emissions. These volumes are measured in CO2-equivalents for consistency, because different greenhouse gases have different heat trapping effects in the atmosphere. Methane (CH4) actually has an effect that is around 30 times greater than CO2, and about 44 percent of livestock emissions are in the form of methane. The remaining portion is almost equally split between Nitrous Oxide (N2O) at 29 percent, and CO2 at 27 percent. Enteric fermentation — the natural digestive process of ruminants — and manure is responsible for a large portion of livestock based GHG emissions.


Animal agriculture is a top driver of deforestation worldwide, and especially in the Amazon rain forest, home to the greatest diversity of living organisms on earth. According to the World Wildlife Fund, at current rates of deforestation, 27 percent of the Amazon will be without trees by 2030. The great majority of forest destruction in the Amazon is caused to make way for cattle ranching and soy farming to feed livestock.

On top of devastating biodiversity loss, the razing of forest land has a manifold impact on climate change. Forest soils store enormous magnitudes of carbon, so when forests are cleared or burned, much of that gets released into the atmosphere as CO2. The World Resources Institute reports that, as of 2017, tropical tree cover loss is causing more emissions every year than 85 million cars would over their entire lifetime. Forests also play a critical role in regulating their local climates by shading the ground and transpiring water. Deforestation increases local air temperature and parches land surface.

Growing Feed

All of the environmental harms caused by animal agriculture are interlinked — rain forests are cleared not only for livestock to live on but for growing the massive quantities of grain they eat. GHGs flow out of industrial farm machinery and transportation in addition to the animals themselves.

It’s worth noting that the way feed crops are grown is especially harmful. Most of the cultivation takes the form of corn and soy grown as monoculture, meaning just a single crop is grown year after year on a given field. And most of it is sprayed heavily with chemical pesticides and fertilizers in order to sustain high yields under those conditions (since lack of crop biodiversity leads to greater threat of pests, diseases, and rapid soil depletion).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock and livestock feed globally contribute over half of the soil erosion, nitrogen pollution, and phosphorus footprint from the agriculture industry, despite contributing far less than 50 percent of global calorie consumption.

How do we move forward?

One of the most important shifts we must make to mitigate climate change is understanding that the rate at which we consume animal products is completely unsustainable. Meaningful progress won't come from small portions of the population cutting out animal products entirely — it will require everyone with the privilege to do so incrementally adjusting our diets based on the information we've learned. Eating consciously means choosing to support small local farms when you can, reducing waste as much as possible, and if you do choose to consume animal products, doing so mindfully and with less frequency. The path forward isn't about restriction, but curiosity and commitment to the cause. Learn more about regenerative agriculture and all of the innovations and traditional methods farmers worldwide are pursuing to keep life possible on this planet. Support movements, organizations, and policies that advocate for ethical, ecologically safe agriculture. Use the knowledge you gain to make informed choices, and feel good knowing you are working towards positive change.

Organizations to follow

Eating a more plant-based diet and supporting forest protection initiatives are two ways you can help promote a more sustainable food system!

Here are some great organizations and resources to get you started:

Closed Loop Cooking offers resources, recipes, and stories around plant-based, low waste cooking and eating.

Afro-Vegan Society is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to provide resources and support to help people in marginalized communities transition to vegan living.

Veggie Mijas is a consortium of community organizations exploring plant-based lifestyle through an intersectional lens.

Amazon Frontlines is an international group of human rights lawyers, environmental activists, forestry specialists, environmental health scientists, filmmakers, journalists, anthropologists, and farmers, supporting the struggles of Indigenous peoples to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon Rainforest.

Amazon Watch resists the destruction of the Amazon by challenging disastrous development projects that threaten Indigenous peoples and their ancestral territories.

What role does Farm play in challenging the environmental threat of animal agriculture?

Farm seeks ethical climate and farm improvement solutions in every choice we make. We recognize that a sustainable food system requires a variety of agricultural, technological, and community-based strategies, and we enthusiastically facilitate connections within those fields.