Beyond just human health. Our lifestyle choices can cause damage to another major shared resource. The oceans and waterways of the world that we depend on. Having safe water systems is an important element not only for our own health, but for all of the plants and animals.
The 20th century has seen enormous technological advances in food production and harvesting which have resulted in ever larger numbers of animals being raised, hunted, and fished. Overfishing for example is at a crisis point with 70% of the world’s fish species either fully exploited or depleted. (link) (link) (link)
The sad truth is that not only is an ocean food source
destructive to the populations of animals being
consumed, it’s also sadly devastating to thousands of
other species. For example the populations of predatory
fish which depend on the smaller fish being caught in
nets, or predatory fish who’s food is taken onto fishing
boats, end up struggling for food themselves. Ironically,
for large commercial fishermen only 1/5 of the animals
caught are actually sold, with the rest discarded as
On top of the actively used nets, there are thousands of nets which escape from fisherman only to continue killing fish on the ocean floor. The Suzuki foundation offers programs to encourage volunteer divers to remove these escaped nets before they can harm marine life.
and what’s the response I get? - abalone!
For many people the suggested solution is aquaculture (fish farms). These days, the United States imports 60% of it’s fish and shellfish. Aquaculture is regularly advertised as the answer to both of the above problems. However raising fish in concentrated areas causes overloading of the ecosystem. This means that there is too much of a demand on the resources like oxygen that the fish need. When overloading happens, the area becomes “spent.” What was once thriving habitat for native species becomes unlivable. In Brazil, for example, so many areas have been overloaded that some operations have had to shut down. You can read more about the issue here.
Water pollution as well is a major issue with both fossil fuels and animal agriculture. Given that 1% of the trillions of gallons of water on the planet is fresh and available to us, the effects are all the more frightening.
When people think of ocean pollution, they think of major oil spills like the Exxon Valdez or the BP explosion. This is only the surface of a much deeper issue however. The fact is that pollution of our waterways occurs in many different forms every day. The enormous profits secured by the world’s major petroleum company’s has given them the financial resources to fund brilliant PR departments. These employees are highly skilled at downplaying the effects or even outright blocking oil spills from the news. Thankfully the internet provides us with the tools to discover information which would never be broadcast on nightly news.
For example, the big news oil spills like the Exxon Valdez spill (estimated at 11-38 million gallons) don’t even make the list of the 10 largest oil spills in modern history. Within a year or two, the media attention on these devastating events becomes lost in the background. So should our efforts be spent on reigning in the power of the big oil companies and pushing for 38more effective cleanup? Of course that would be a worthy cause. However what will undoubtedly surprise you is that these large oil spills make up less then 10 percent of the oil that humans leak into our oceans and waterways. (link)
The largest source of pollution is that little black stain on most people’s driveways. Oil which sits on pavement or in the storage tanks of gas stations will inevitably get washed into the nearest waterway by rain.
Given that a single litre of motor oil can pollute 1 million litres (1 gallon can pollute 1 million gallons) of water, (link) it’s all the more important to use as little of the substance as possible.
And it’s not just petroleum that gets transported from our roads to our waterways. Car tires and brake pads flake off bits of debris throughout their lifetime. These include toxic chemicals like styrene-butadiene which leaches into the oceans. (link)
On the other side of the equation, the enormous amount of animal waste produced [mainly] by factory farms and the fertilizers used for growing cattle feed result in gigantic algae blooms along river deltas. The ‘red tide’ that results has been linked with severe birth defects in humans (link) and with low oxygen-levels in the water. Tyson foods, one of the largest meat product producers releases more toxic pollution into North American waterways then even companies like ExxonMobil.
The last point that I would like to share with you here is water consumption. The ever more frequent droughts around the world are threatening the lives and safety of thousands of people. Yet at the same time millions of gallons of water are used in oil exploration and for animal agriculture. This makes it difficult for small farmers to keep growing the food that we need to stay alive.
In the U.S. roughly 2 billion gallons of water per year are used to raise domestic animals for food. The original UN report states that water use for animal agriculture “includes slaughtering, meat and milk processing, and leather tanning, all of which have a very high water usage and a high wastewater generation.” The estimated water consumption for animal products is roughly 1/3 of all global water used to produce food. (link) Fossil fuels on the other hand, use water mainly for drilling and fracking. It’s impossible to tell how much is used, because the companies simply refuse to tell us.
True story: My buddy & I were in our boat, fishing, when a flock of geese flew off the pond right at us. I yelled, “Duck!” He sat upright and said, “No, those are geese.” And got hit in the head by one.”
So despite the massive amount of damage that oil pollution does to waterways, I believe it can be conclusively argued that raising animals for food causes more damage to the drinkable water supply. (link) If all of this sounds like ...um...a lot to digest, the LA Times produced a very clever infographic to help clear things up.