Earth Day and Animal Products Don't Mix

Cattle are seen at a feedlot near Beemer, Neb., Friday, July 20, 2012. The Agriculture Department releases on Friday its esti
Cattle are seen at a feedlot near Beemer, Neb., Friday, July 20, 2012. The Agriculture Department releases on Friday its estimate of the size of the nation's cattle herd. Higher prices of feed and the loss of pasture due to drought is forcing ranchers to thin their herds. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Americans care about the environment. The majority of us think protecting the natural world should be given priority over economic growth, while nearly 40 percent of us consider ourselves environmentalists. So on this 45th Earth Day, let's all take one simple step to help protect the environment. It's more effective at combating greenhouse-gas emissions than switching to renewable energy, and it doesn't cost thousands of dollars like buying a new hybrid car does.

All we have to do is stop thinking of meat and dairy products as anything other than environmentally destructive foods.

Americans eat 288 percent more meat than the global average, and we drink 235 percent more milk. We simply cannot claim to care about the environment when we are consuming so many animal products. It's like buying a special-edition Coke bottle with a polar bear on it and calling yourself a conservationist.

Raising animals for food is destroying the planet. The animals on factory farms produce billions of pounds of excrement every day. This waste often washes into streams and rivers, polluting the water for human consumption. It kills marine life -- more than 100,000 fish died in 2009, for example, when 200,000 gallons of pig excrement spilled into an Illinois creek. And when the waste continues on to the ocean, it creates "dead zones" in which virtually all sea animals and plants die. There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut.

But meat and dairy production doesn't just taint our water, it also wastes tremendous amounts of it. It can take up to 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Nearly 900 gallons of water are required to produce a single gallon of dairy milk, while soy milk requires only 28 percent of that. With places like California and Texas in the grip of historic droughts, we simply cannot continue to divert water into unnecessary commodities such as meat and dairy products.

And water isn't the only resource squandered by the meat and dairy industries. Seven football fields' worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for animals to be raised for meat and the crops that feed them. We are losing jungles, ancient forests, and the plants and animals living in them. According to the U.N., 150 to 200 species of plants and animals become extinct every 24 hours. Our planet has not experienced such an extensive mass extinction event since the time of the dinosaurs.

Meat and dairy production also pollutes something that we take for granted -- the air we breathe. Animal feedlots release thousands of tons of dust contaminated with bacteria, mold, and fungi into the atmosphere. Liquid manure is often sprayed into the air, releasing toxic chemicals that have been shown to cause inflammation, lowered immunity, and neurochemical problems in humans. And, according to a California study, dairy farms are the largest source of smog in the U.S., surpassing trucks and passenger cars.

And let's not forget the damage to the animals themselves. We slaughter nearly 9 billion animals in the United States each year. The demand to produce quickly and cheaply means that animals are afforded little care. Animals raised for food are confined by the tens of thousands to filthy, windowless sheds with virtually no room to move. They are mutilated without painkillers. They are manipulated to overeat or are force-fed. Many won't see the light of day or breathe fresh air until they are taken to the slaughterhouse. And there, many will still be conscious when they're thrown into vats of boiling water to remove their feathers and hair.

Americans are outraged -- and rightly so -- at the treatment of wild animals in abusement parks such as SeaWorld, and they are outraged -- and rightly so -- at the abuse of cats and dogs. But when it comes to animals raised for food -- animals who are just as much a part of the environment as you and I and who value their lives just as much as we do -- all too often people turn a blind eye, make a weak joke about bacon, and quickly change the subject.

We cannot claim to care about the environment while ignoring the issue of animal products. That is why PETA has asked Live Earth 2015 to serve only eco-friendly vegan food at its events. And it is also why I ask that we all celebrate this Earth Day -- and all future Earth Days -- by ditching the products that are killing both the planet and the beings who live on it. For more information on how to go vegan, visit