Forty-three years ago to the day, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day – a day to raise awareness about the environment in the U.S. – and it’s now celebrated internationally in nearly 200 countries. It was a grassroots insurgency, with events in communities throughout the nation producing, in a few short years, a raft of new policies to protect the environment, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
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Today, there remain an array of substantial threats to our environment. But one of the biggest threats that can no longer be sidestepped is industrialized agriculture. Its ripple effects are enormous, having consequences for topsoil, the purity and abundance of water, the health of our atmosphere, and the well-being of all human and animal life.
About a decade before the first Earth Day, American agriculture began speeding up its slow turn from family-operated, pasture-based systems – with animals on the land, and in numbers that were manageable for the farmer, and for the health of the environment – to an increasingly industrialized process. So began the era of factory farming.
The emergence of factory farming has produced mass suffering for animals, but it’s also been the bane of family farming and rural communities. Within the last 35 years, the nation has seen the loss of 90 percent of its pig farmers, 88 percent of dairy farmers, and 95 percent of egg farmers as they’ve been run out of business. All the while, the remaining farms got bigger and bigger and confined more and more animals per farm.
Within the last decade, we’re finally seeing a robust counter-movement to factory farming, with animal welfare advocates, environmental advocates, and rural community advocates – including family farmers – questioning this broken system of food production and seeking to put animals back on the land.
Over the past several years, citizens and lawmakers in nine states have moved to outlaw various forms of extreme farm animal confinement. Within the last year or so, more than 50 of the nation’s food industry giants have committed to phasing out some of the cruelest practices that factory farms utilize. More people are eating local, and eating more plant-based foods. There is a strong movement in rural communities against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. The Global Animal Partnership and other certifiers are working with responsible farmers committed to raising animals under high standards of welfare, and helping them to secure markets.
In the end, it’s pretty clear that there’s just no way we can humanely and sustainably raise nine billion animals for food in the U.S. That’s why we are also urging consumers to eat less meat and other animal products. A number of the nation’s major environmental organizations are encouraging their members, and the public, to skip meat at least one day a week and join the Meatless Monday movement.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, raising animals for food is responsible for nearly one-fifth of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and worldwide, we use more land to raise and feed farm animals than for any other purpose. Furthermore, the farm animal sector is a major consumer of scarce water, accounting for nearly one-third of the global agricultural water use.
Driving less, turning down the lights, and recycling are all enormously important. But so, too, is eating more plant-based foods and supporting sustainable agriculture at all levels. Our diet is something that each one of us controls. By eating with conscience, we can turn this system around, and Earth Day is a great day to make a new commitment, or to renew a commitment, to conscious eating.
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