How Eating Meat Hurts Wildlife and the Planet

Species Endangerment

Climate Change

Habitat Loss, Water Use and Pollution



Species Endangerment

Wild animals suffer not only the collateral damage of meat-related deforestation, drought, pollution and climate change, but also direct targeting by the meat industry. From grazing animals to predators, native species are frequently killed to protect meat-production profits. Grass-eating species such as elk, deer and pronghorn have been killed en masse to reserve more feed for cattle. Important habitat-creating animals such as beavers and prairie dogs have been decimated because they disrupt the homogenous landscapes desired by livestock managers.

"Predator control" programs designed to protect the livestock industry helped drive keystone predators like California grizzly bears and Mexican gray wolves extinct in their ecosystems. Adding insult to injury — and flying in the face of modern conservation science — the livestock industry remains the leading stodgy opponent to otherwise-popular efforts to recover species like the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.

A recent article about the connection between livestock production and the decline of wolves and other carnivores describes some of the brutal methods used to target predators:

“To support a global rise in per-capita meat-eating, livestock farming continues to expand, shrinking and fragmenting natural habitats in the process. And when cramped predators adapt by preying upon livestock, some ranchers go to extreme measures to keep them away, such as strapping pouches of neurotoxins to the necks of grazing lambs, or calling upon the United States Department of Agriculture to shoot down predators from government helicopters.” [9]

More than 175 threatened or endangered species are imperiled by livestock on federal lands [10], where livestock grazing is promoted, protected and subsidized on 270 million acres of our public lands in 11 western states. Livestock grazing — not including the large portion of agriculture devoted to cattle production or other forms of meat production — is among the greatest direct threats to imperiled species, affecting 14 percent of threatened or endangered animals and 33 percent of threatened or endangered plants [11].

In addition, at the behest of ranchers, a federal agency known as Wildlife Services shoots, traps, and poisons millions of animals every year, including wolves and foxes and bears in National Forests, to make more room for cows and other ranched animals.

Climate Change

Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5 percent of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — accounting for 20 percent of the country’s methane emissions [2].

In addition to the astounding levels of emissions that come from the feeding, digestion and transportation involved in raising livestock, the staggering amount of land used for feed crops and grazing multiplies the carbon hoofprint of meat consumption.

Global warming presents the gravest threat to life on Earth. Meat production is a major contributor to the rising temperatures that are further altering or eliminating habitat, reducing food sources, and causing drought beyond the immediate demands of raising livestock.

Habitat Loss, Water Use and Pollution

In the United States, 80 percent of agricultural land is used for raising animals and feed crops. That’s almost half the land mass of the lower 48 states dedicated to feeding the nation’s taste for beef, chicken and pork [14]. More than half of the grain grown in the country goes toward feeding livestock, [15] and nearly half of the water used goes toward meat production [16]. Check out this interactive map to learn more.

Grazing is a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystems, particularly on federal lands. The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use — yet it’s highly subsidized by the government, under pressure from Big Ag. In the arid Southwest, livestock grazing is the most widespread cause of wildlife endangerment. By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, such grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike — causing significant harm to native species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

Grazing cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of many aquatic habitats; overgrazing of fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires.

Most U.S. cattle are “finished” in feedlots, where thousands of animals are kept closely confined in pens and fed a diet of grain, antibiotics and other ingredients to prepare them for slaughter. Pigs and chickens are also typically raised in “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs. In addition to inhumane conditions for the farm animals, CAFOs generate massive amounts of waste, which causes air and water pollution. Read our Factory Farming factsheet.

Livestock produce 500 million tons of manure per year [17]. Agricultural pollution is a leading source of water-quality problems, with factory farms polluting 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminating groundwater in 17 states, in addition to impairing wetlands, lakes and estuaries [18]. Meat production is also responsible for 80 percent of antibiotic use and 37 percent of pesticide use [21], creating health threats to children and wildlife.