To stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions must decline 50% by 2030, followed by 50% reductions in each subsequent decade, reaching zero by 2050. Additionally, carbon dioxide will need to be removed from the atmosphere the rest of this century and beyond.

With only 1 degree Celsius of global warming so far, researchers have already documented increasing extreme weather, sea level rise, drought, ocean warming and acidification, and marine and terrestrial extinctions. Energy experts forecast increasing future carbon dioxide emissions over the next two to three decades. Models indicate this emissions pathway leads to 4 degrees Celsius of warming with a median emergence time in the decade of the 2080s.

Tied to warming is an expanding human population (now at 7.7 billion and projected to reach 9.8 billion by mid-century), driving a growing demand for food. Since 1970, food crop production has increased by 300% and half of all agriculture expansion has come at the expense of forests.

Food. We all need to eat.

Put down the cheeseburger and pick up real food to help the planet live. Flickr: chezshai

The food-supply chain is responsible for about 26% of human-greenhouse gas emissions. Another 5% of emissions comes from nonfood agriculture such as growing crops for biofuels and textiles. Most agriculture today is conducted by large industries who use methods that maximize efficiency, respond to consumer demand, and stay profitable.

These methods use synthetic pesticides and nutrients to grow plants as fast as possible. Deep plowing lays open the soil to drying, erosion, and oxidation. Chemical runoff from these fields is responsible for 78% of coastal dead zones. Eroded silt and clay has made sediment the No. 1 pollutant in the U.S. And soils that could remove carbon from the atmosphere, instead release it.

Agriculture demands huge swaths of land and massive amounts of freshwater: 43% of the worlds ice- and desert-free land, and two-thirds of all freshwater withdrawals are dedicated to food production.

Producing beef generates 100 times more greenhouse gas than plant-based food.

Over recent decades, humans have developed an aggressive desire for meat and dairy products. In total, we raise, then butcher and eat, 70 billion animals each year. More than 80% of farmland is used for livestock but it produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of protein.

Cattle, and the grain they eat, require the use of one-third of the available land surface on this planet, 16% of all available freshwater, and one-third of worldwide grain production. We are deforesting the planet at a rate of 30 football fields per minute, largely to raise cattle and the grain to feed them.

Avoiding animal agriculture reduces pollution of our waterways, soil loss, deforestation, declining biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, eating a more plant-based diet is the best way to fight extinction and global warming.

Of course, we must eat. But do agriculture practices need be so destructive?

Because of deforestation, pollution, marine acidification and warming, and overfishing, scientists have described the ongoing loss of biodiversity as Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction. Species of seed-bearing plants are going extinct at 500 times the natural rate.

Since 1900, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has dropped by at least 20%. About 9% — or 500,000 — of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species do not have sufficient habitat necessary for their long-term survival.

The statistics are alarming: of all the mammals on Earth, 96% are cows and people, only 4% are wild. Birds have been decimated: 70% of all birds are chickens and other poultry. The remaining 30% are wild and these are being quickly extirpated by feral cats. Studies estimate that free-ranging domestic cats in the U.S. kill an estimated 1.3 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.

More than 40% of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction, while almost one-third of coral reefs, sharks, and shark relatives (like skates and rays) are at risk, along with more than one-third of all marine mammals. Over 55% of oceans are subject to industrial fishing and one-third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels.

Compared to the past 10 million years, the projected rate of species loss is “tens to hundreds of times” greater than the geologic average, and the rate is accelerating.

The Path Toward Mass Extinction

Let’s sum this up. Global warming is dangerous, and conventional approaches to mitigating climate change are not working. Animal agriculture is destroying terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Combined, global warming and animal agriculture have given birth to the sixth global mass extinction in geologic history.

Oh, one more thing — the cruelty of animal agriculture is heartbreaking. But I wonʻt go there.

Animal agriculture is destroying terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

This is gloomy news. What can we do?

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%.

Reforestation of just some of this land can draw massive amounts of carbon from the air; and fostering regenerative farming (use of no-till, and cover crop methods) can reduce carbon dioxide even more. Precision farming (detailed tracking soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth) can increase yield and reduce pollution. The Dutch have excelled at this and are now the worlds 2nd largest exporter of food.

Across the planet, commercial enterprises, non-profit groups, and government agencies are driving sustainability projects that are sprouting like wildflowers. We can all join this accelerating effort by eating a more plant-based diet, avoiding meat and diary products, and calling on our leaders to do the same.

Editor’s note: Climate Week NYC runs Sept. 23-29, in coordination with the United Nations and the city of New York. This is the second of two related Community Voices from Chip Fletcher.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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