The 400-page report, entitled Livestock's Long Shadow, states that the world's surging cattle herds are the No. 1 threat to the climate, forests and other wildlife, as they cause environmental problems from acid rain and the introduction of alien species to the poisoning of drinking water and the destruction of ocean life. The pollution from cattle ranching washes down into the sea and causes "dead zones" where there is no ocean life. Up to 8,108 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico is such a zone due to beef production wastes washed down by the Mississippi river.
"Producing meat from cattle is an extremely inefficient and dirty way to produce food," said Mike Adams, a nutritionist and ethicist. "There are many reasons to avoid eating red meat, including health reasons -- such as the fact that processed meat consumption radically increases the risk of various cancers -- and ecological reasons.
"Cattle ranching not only destroys rainforests, uses enormous quantities of fresh water and results in the inhumane treatment of animals, it also accelerates the destruction of the planet's atmosphere," Adams said.
The report notes that populations of sheep, chickens, pigs and goats are also damaging, but that the world's 1.5 billion cattle are the primary offenders. The fuel burned in the clearing of vegetation for grazing, the production of fertilizer for feed and the meat itself, and in the product's transportation is responsible for 9 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. While carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, the flatulence and manure of cattle herds emit more than one-third of all methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide. Livestock also produce ammonia, a primary cause of acid rain, along with more than 100 other gasses. Cattle emit 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, which beats out the emissions from all manner of transportation combined.
Ranching is the major driver of worldwide deforestation, the report states, and a fifth of the world's pastures and ranges are being turned into desert by overgrazing. Cows also require a massive amount of water -- it takes about 261 gallons of water to produce a little more than one quart of milk -- and water becomes over-nourished by the fertilizers that grow feed and the wastes from the animals, causing weeds to overgrow and choke other plant life.
The conclusion of the report states that the demand for meat will increase and the subsequent damage caused by livestock will more than double by 2050 unless changes are made.