This blog post is part of a special series called “The Truth About Organic.” Want more? Download the full “The Truth About Organic” guide here.

A Frightening Trend

confined hogs
On factory farms, animals are raised indoors in confinement

In the last few decades, factory farms have taken over the global meat supply. These consolidated, large-scale operations each raise hundreds to thousands of animals every year. Their focus is on maximum production at the cheapest cost—and that comes at the expense of animal welfare and environmental health.

The prevalence of factory farms has increased as demand for meat and milk has grown across the globe, and that trend continues. Particularly as incomes increase in developing countries, so will demand for animal products. By 2050, global meat and dairy production is projected to increase more than 150%.1

Can our planet handle the burden? In 2017, the EPA reported that agriculture contributed nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock accounted for a full third of that.2 Animal feed production and processing contributes the bulk of those emissions, with manure next in line.3 It’s no secret that factory farming methods harm our air, water, and soil.

However, it’s a myth that animal agriculture has to be destructive or that we have to stop eating meat to save the planet.

It’s not the cow, it’s the how.

The Unfortunate Facts of Factory Farming

Animal Welfare Violations

  • On factory farms, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), animals are often raised indoors under artificial light in small confinement pens. Sows raised for conventional pork production spend nearly their entire lives in crates where they cannot physically turn around. Hens are crowded into windowless buildings. Animals are overcrowded indoors or out.
  • Lack of pasture creates vast “manure lagoons” that create unsanitary conditions that, along with overcrowding, breed animal disease.
  • Modifications such as beak clipping and tail docking are common.

Environmental Violations

  • In the U.S. alone, factory farmed livestock produce 500 million tons of waste a year—that’s 17 times the amount of sewage produced by the entire U.S. population.45 Livestock manure is not required to be treated.
  • Factory farm manure pits are easily eroded in heavy rain or storms. During recent flooding in North Carolina, breaches at several factory farms dumped millions of gallons of hog waste—containing antibiotics, insecticides, and potential pathogens like salmonella—into the local water supply.6
  • Factory farms feed corn and soy. The fertilizer used to grow those crops combined with excess nutrients from animal waste runs off into waterways. This creates algae blooms that suffocate aquatic life. Agricultural waste is a large contributor to these “dead zones,” including the 900-square-mile span in the Gulf of Mexico.
Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie
An algae bloom in Lake Erie. Photo: NASA

Human Health Concerns

  • 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed or administered to livestock.7 Frequent antibiotic use creates resistant bacteria that could lead to the outbreak of a superbug or other public health crisis.8
  • Factory farms create noxious fumes that pollute the air and degrade quality of life for rural residents, particularly African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians.9

Against the Grain

Beyond these most egregious problems, there are still others with factory farming. One is that the industrial livestock system is heavily dependent on grain. Pasture does not exist on factory farms.

For ruminants especially, like cows, that’s a problem. Cows’ digestive systems aren’t built for grain—they’re built for grass. Pigs, too, are foragers by nature whose genetics and instincts are to graze on pastureland, not soybean meal.

Perpetual grain feeding leads to health problems that require more antibiotics, leading to higher risks of antibiotic resistance.

sow grazes on pasture with piglets
Pigs are foragers by nature, and like cows, their systems thrive on a varied diet of grasses, legumes, and vegetables—not grains.

Grain-fed animals also emit more methane. Between 1990 and 2005, U.S. methane emissions from dairy cow manure rose 50%. The EPA traced the increase in part to greater numbers of factory farms.10 Pasture-raised animals, on the other hand, produce manure with about half of the potential to generate methane.11

Growing grain for feedlot animals is also an environmental strain. Corn and soybeans, the most common crops grown for feed, require literal tons of artificial nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides made by burning millions of tons of C02.12. The result is an increasingly unsteady climate, a food system saturated with toxins like glyphosate, and polluted air and water.

Factory farms and corn and soy fields also lead to deforestation. Grazing animals, however, can utilize marginal land otherwise unable to grow food.

Responsible livestock management can bring those marginal lands back to life.

The Organic Difference

It’s clear: Factory farming isn’t working out. The good news is that organic prohibits what factory farming allows.

mobile chicken coop
Organic farmers emphasize pasture and soil health, which also improves animal welfare.

To be certified organic, livestock farmers have to follow these rules:

  • No antibiotics or artificial growth hormones
  • Animals must be managed in a way that conserves natural resources and biodiversity
  • All feed must be 100% organic, and that means no glyphosate or polluting fertilizers
  • Animals must have year-round access to the outdoors

Many organic farmers also emphasize pasture health and utilize rotational grazing, a practice that could have a huge impact on global warming.

The Power of Pasture

Grass is powerful stuff.

Grass comes from soil. Soil is the bedrock of our entire world, but we’re losing it fast. If we continue to lose soil at current rates, we have fewer than 60 years remaining before global topsoils are depleted.13  We need the soil, and it needs us.

young girl with a cowSmart grazing can help the soil recover.

Left alone on a patch of land, animals like cattle and hogs quickly destroy all signs of life, compacting the soil as they go. The result is desertification, and nearly three quarters of North American dryland has been affected by the phenomena.14

Other times the animals will eat only the tastiest plants and leave other plants untouched. The uneaten plants then flourish, dominating the landscape. The result is the spread of invasive species and unusable rangeland.

However, if animals are managed with rotational grazing, the environment sees big returns.

How it Works

Grazing encourages plants to send out more and deeper roots. Those roots are continually sloughed off to decompose in the ground, boosting soil biomass and fertility and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. As the soil carbon matter increases, so does the land’s ability to hold water, preventing erosion and agriculture runoff.

One recent study has shown that converting cropland to perennial pasture managed regeneratively “[has] the side effect of storing more carbon in the soil than [the farm’s] cows emit during their lives.”15

Get this: If we applied strategic grazing to just 25% of our croplands and grasslands, we could mitigate the entire carbon footprint of North American agriculture.16

happily grazing in a lush field
Responsibly managed grazing can have big returns for animal and environmental health

And we don’t have to use prime pastureland to see these effects. Unlike energy-hungry crops that require fertile soil and ample water, animals can graze on subpar land otherwise unusable for growing food.

So, which would you choose? Beef, pork, chicken, or dairy from a feedlot; or food managed with care for the animals, soil, air, and water? If the latter, choose organic and grass-fed products whenever and wherever possible.

A Man-Made Alternative

There is one other option. Laboratory-grown meat is a thing, and it’s almost ready for the supermarket.

Cell-cultured meats don’t come directly from animals but are made from animal tissue. They mimic the texture and flavor of real meat. Some environmentalists and animal activists think these new products are the answer, but others don’t agree. Some “fake” meats still rely on GMOs and biotechnology, and some have been found to contain traces of glyphosate.

Would you eat meat grown by scientists? Hop into the comments and tell us what you think.

How to Take Action

Lab meat or not, if you’re ready to say no to factory farms and make the switch to regenerative beef, poultry, and pork, here’s how to do it:

  1. Look out for new labels coming to market. Regenerative Organic Certification, Real Organic Project, and Savory Institute’s Land to Market are all good labels indicating that the animals were raised humanely and with respect for the land.
  2. Purchase your animal protein directly from a local farmer. You can visit the farm, see how the animals are treated, and ask the farmer how they care for their soil. Find a farm at your local farmers’ market or search the directory at
  3. Eat vegetarian when you dine out unless the restaurant has specified that they source from organic and regenerative farms. The majority of meat available is factory farmed, so there’s a good chance that meat on the menu is the same.
  4. Give a gift to Rodale Institute. Our research on pastured pork is helping the industry improve its practices, and all of our work is focused on enhancing organic research so we can find smarter solutions for human and environmental health. Do you want to see a world with fewer factory farms and more healthy animals, land, and people? Become a supporter today.
For more updates on Rodale Institute research and programming, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

9 thoughts on “Is Meat Ruining the Planet?

  1. It is a mistake to pick on “factory farms” only. CAFOs concentrate livestock, but many of the practices employed in CAFOs are being and have been employed by non-CAFO farms. The concentration of manure presents its own risks, but spreading the livestock over a larger area doesn’t reduce the amount of manure produced. The over flow of manure pits in North Carolina is a result of poor manure pit design. My principal point is that picking on “factory farms” exclusively misses the central point: that certain practices ought to be and can be modified, independent of whether they are practiced by “factory farms” or small “family owned” farms.

  2. You are correct that certain practices ought to be modified, independent of whether these practices are employed by “factory farms” or small “family farms.” This article focuses on manure, methane, the soil, agricultural runoff and toxins. But more issues are at play with regard to overall environmental impacts and the nutrition value of the produced foods.

    Because of logistics and practicalities, wildlife is hurt less from small family farms compared to factory farms, and small organic farms probably have the least negative impact on wildlife. Why? Field operations for large farms involve large equipment operating at higher speeds. Wildlife often cannot move out of the way fast enough when this large equipment is at work. The large equipment use leads to greater kill rates of mice, voles, rabbits, fawns, turkeys, feral cats, song birds and other animals as measured on a per-acre basis compared to using smaller equipment. Larger (factory) farms often remove fence lines and contour some land to enable larger field sizes. This enables the large equipment to operate more efficiently but it removes many pockets of wildlife habitat in the process. And the very large mono-crop fields are generally NOT attractive to wildlife in the first place. Smaller farms, particularly the organically-managed farms, are much more attractive to wildlife and less dangerous to them as well. Supposedly over the past 40 years, more than half of all wildlife world-wide has disappeared. The poster-children for this problem could be lions, rhinos, elephants and whales. But we could look at song birds, bees and other insects, rabbits, squirrels and other wildlife in our own locales to observe that this trend is real and pervasive throughout the world.

    The pastured animal food products are vastly superior to confinement animal food products. Besides the much better tastes, the pastured animal food products have far better nutrient densities and nutrient profiles compared to those produced from confinement operations. We have a developed world with massively high rates of heart disease and cancer compared to historical values. The choices of food categories and the qualities of those foods that comprise the developed-world-diets play a dominant role in the health outcomes and prevalence of disease. In America we now see 17% or 18% of our GDP going to health care! Really?! And this expense category continues to climb, rapidly! Over the past century we reduced the farm and ranch producers from several tens of percent to now being roughly 1% of the American population. In America we have the cheapest foods in the world as measured in % of income. And we have the most expensive health care in the world, by far. What is wrong with this picture? (Or what is right with that picture?!?) Isn’t prevention MUCH more cost-effective than cure? Nowadays, the REAL “agriculture” in America is the milking of the American people by Big Pharma, the hospitals and the health insurance industry. CAFOs actually contribute to that “health care milking.”

    The pastured animal production methods involve much less fuel to produce. While those animals are on well-managed pastures, they are feeding themselves, spreading their own manure and urine, and not using any bedding. If they are on pasture 80% of the time, you might see a fuel use reduction of 50% to 75%.
    And this also translates into great reductions in equipment expenses as well. The land and the plants on pastured land benefit from this natural manure distribution and the loss of nutrients through evaporation and runoff from any storage facility is absolutely minimized. The soil biology is also enhanced greatly due to the natural bacteria and fungus contained in livestock manure.

    The “How to Take Action” section in this article is good advice. As consumers we collectively change the landscape. Use your voices, use your feet, use your wallet to influence how the game gets played. You can influence others to make good food choices that build community and protect the resources. As a small independent organic farmer, I can tell you that places like Rodale Institute do great work to (1) research practical organic farming methods, (2) produce GREAT foods, (3) share these farming methods with other farmers, and (4) help educate the general public with their knowledge. Rodale Institute has a staff of very knowledgeable and competent people that would make ANY business proud.

  3. Meat production entails animal suffering and death. Since we can obtain all the nutrients we need in order to thrive from plant sources, needlessly harming animals for food (or anything else) is animal abuse. Shame on Rodale for promoting it.

  4. How can Rodale NOT make a stronger statement than “There is one other option. Laboratory-grown meat … made from animal tissue.” WHAT ELSE is needed to “make” lab grown meat? To offer such an “alternative” even as a question, without the TRUTH of the down sides puts you right in the camp of ‘good folks who do nothing’. I withdraw ALL of my support from Rodale, effective immediately. SHAME ON YOU.

  5. I appreciate this article (though have deep reservations about lab grown meat) and I echo much of Steve Deibele’s comments. In addition to what is written here about root decomposition building soil, I think that recent research on soil (by people such as Christine Jones, Richard Teague etc) should be acknowledged. They show that perennial grasses build soil by means of root exudates – their roots secrete liquid sugars (carbon) into the soil, exchanging it with fungi for minerals etc. This increases the sequestration of carbon, building soil depth which helps mitigate the effects of excess rainfall and droughts.

  6. On further thought, I think we should ask why we would even consider lab grown meat when discussing regenerative agriculture.

    If, as this article notes, properly managed grazing is:
    – good for the environment by sequestering carbon
    – does not need to use prime farm land which is suitable for crops but can use marginal lands
    – produces nutrient-dense food in the form of meat

    why do we need alternatives?

  7. Why is the poor air quality and decreased quality of life more important for African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans? That seems racist! Caucasians like clean living too!

    1. Hi there! We definitely aren’t trying to say that environmental conditions are more important for certain people over others. We do think it’s very important to acknowledge, however, that issues like air pollution disproportionately affect communities of color. We’d be happy to point you in the direction of the research that illustrates this.

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