The Impact of Agriculture on Wildlife
Zoologist Jordi Casamitjana discusses the different ways agriculture has been impacting the lives of wild animals all over the world.
I have been campaigning for the protection of wildlife longer than I have been vegan.
I started last century dealing with the issue of wild animals in captivity. First, trying to rehabilitate back into the Brazilian Amazon a colony of woolly monkeys kept in a primate sanctuary in Cornwall. Then, campaigning to phase out zoos and public aquaria in the UK. It continued by working on the enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004 investigating and prosecuting those who hunted foxes, hare, and deer against the law. I even helped train anti elephant and rhino poaching officials in the East African country of Mozambique.
Therefore, I have a pretty good idea about the main threats wildlife are exposed to, and what kind of measures we can take to help. But most of the wild animals involved in my campaigning were either big mammals or “exotic animals”. In other words, animals most people like. In reality, though, the majority of the wild animals that suffer because of human activity are not of these types. They are the small birds, the rodents, the insects, the arachnids, and the aquatic animals we interfere with when we go into Nature to build structures or to farm for goods. The wildlife we harm, displace, or kill to accommodate our population growth, our relentless expansion, and our growing economy.
When we cut down forests and build concrete towns and cities in their place, countless wild animals perish. But once we have done it, the resulting land is no longer part of “the wild”. Some species do manage to adapt to our urban environments, but the biodiversity of these spaces is small and fragile. When we build major structures, roads and buildings, we attack nature as huge meteorites attack our planet when falling from the sky. Fast, devastating, and indiscriminate, causing the extinction of many local populations all at once. However, when we go into Nature and make it the countryside, the damage is no longer acute, but chronic. When we transform a forest into a farm, we keep attacking wildlife every year—and we have been doing it for the last 12,000 years. We are in a constant never-ending battle with all the animals who try to get their land back. A battle that arguably causes more suffering than the concrete, plastic, and metal tsunamis we unleash when we urbanised the world. Agriculture is a chronic disease for wildlife. Like an oozing wound that never heals.
The Worst Type: Animal Agriculture
There are different kinds of agriculture and not all of them are equally damaging to wildlife, though. Some are depleting while others are regenerative. Some are destructive while others are sustainable. Some are traditional, while others are industrial. There is one type, though, which is, without doubt, the worse for wildlife. The depleting, destructive, and industrial rearing of animals for food, fibre, or any other goods. In other words, animal agriculture.
For us vegans, the term “animal agriculture” (shortened as Animal AG) is not like the term “Borg” for a Trekkie; or “Voldemort” for a Potterhead; or “Darth Vader” for a Jedi. It’s not a personification of evil that is useful to make our outreach narrative more dramatic and compelling. It’s something much more dangerous and sinister than that, because it has permeated most societies in the world, and has almost become part of all humanity’s landscapes wherever we go. It is so entrenched in anything human, that it feels it is already a part of our essence, even when we reject it.
Many vegans still eat food shaped, coloured and flavoured by the marketers of animal agriculture. Still wear clothes, shoes and accessories with the textures and shades created by the designers of such industry. And still indulge in the pastimes that animal farmers conceived to entertain countryside folk. Vegans may be able to avoid the direct use of animals for all those things, but the bloody connection remains.
The number of farm animals involved in Animal AG is so high, that it has become almost meaningless. Like the number of stars in the Universe, when we talk about trillions of animals being killed by animal agriculture every year, we cannot process this magnitude. However, the number of wild animals this industry harms is bound to be much higher. So high, that nobody has ever managed to calculate.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 24,000 of the 28,000 species threatened with extinction, are mainly threatened by animal agriculture. Half of the world’s habitable land is arable land, and 77% of that is used for animal agriculture. Livestock grazing occurs on approximately 60% of the world’s agricultural land and supports at least 1.5 billion cattle/buffalo, and 1.9 billion sheep/ goats. Global production of “livestock” for human consumption has more than doubled since the 1960s.
But in addition to eliminating natural ecosystems. there are many other ways Animal AG harms wildlife. Let’s talk about some of them.
Killing by Polluting
For each pig, chicken or cattle factory farm in the countryside, there is a myriad of wild animals constantly perishing by the pollution spilling out from their hellish premises. Animal waste from these factories of flesh and excreta contains traces of salt and heavy metals, which can end up in bodies of water and accumulate in the sediment. It generates dangerous levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which removes water from oxygen and destroys aquatic life. These animal factories often give antibiotics to their inmates to promote growth, which enter the environment and the food chain disturbing the ecological balance.
Not only the water and soil are affected. The air too. Factory farms contribute to air pollution by releasing hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, and methane. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that farm animals in factory farms generate more than 450 million tonnes of manure annually, three times more raw waste than generated by American humans. And this is constantly releasing damaging gasses into the air.
But if you remove the buildings but keep the animals, the situation doesn’t improve much. The so-called grass-fed animals of the industry still devastatingly pollute the environment. The recent documentary Milked has exposed the wrongdoings of New Zealand’s dairy industry, which sells itself as clean, green and grass-fed based, an example for ethical consumers to admire. However, it turns out that, to get to such lush greenery, the dairy industry is resorting to irrigating the fields with synthetic fertilisers, which end up polluting the soil, rivers and lakes, killing the “disposable” wildlife there. New Zealand now holds the dishonourable title of having increased synthetic fertiliser use more than any other OECD nation since 1990. As a result, Nature in New Zealand is being slowly killed by animal agriculture — as it has already done so in many countries that used to be as green as them.
In this documentary, Genevive Toop, from Greenpeace Aotearoa, says: “Industrial dairying is this country’s biggest polluter. It’s our biggest climate emitter. Emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire transport sector. It’s our biggest water polluter, and is also a major stressor for biodiversity and soil health.” And it happens everywhere. Intensive cattle grazing in Tanzania is reducing the diversity of grasses, which is impacting on zebras, wildebeests,
elephants, giraffes, and rhinos. Soil degradation of grassland by grazing domestic animals causes defoliation, trampling damage, and excretion contamination, which are serious problems in many countries. According to the UN, about 20% of the world’s pasture areas are considered to be degraded as a consequence of overgrazing and associated erosion and compaction.
And then we have the other type of polluting that affects not only the local populations of wild animals but wildlife all over the world: global heating. This is not only about CO2 emissions, though. Methane, the problematic gas hugely emitted by animal agriculture, has a global warming potential 84 times stronger than CO2, and one dairy cow produces about 500 kilogrammes of methane. It turns out that grass-fed cows produce more methane than grain feed cows. In 2006, the UN concluded that animal agriculture is responsible for at least 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Then, the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington D.C. environmental think-tank, reported that “livestock” emissions account for 51% of greenhouse gases. And a recent white paper published in the Journal of Ecological Society now estimates that animal agriculture could be responsible for as much as 87% of greenhouse gases. It doesn’t matter what is the actual percentage. Nobody doubts anymore that Animal AG is one of the leading causes of global heating…and this means a major cause of hardship for populations of wild animals all over the world.
The Competition Game
Another way animal agriculture harms wildlife is by persecuting those animals from species deemed to be competing for space, food or water with animal farmers. Let’s look at some examples.
Hens and sheep farmers use all sorts of lethal methods to get rid of foxes in their land because they claim they are a threat to their “livestock”. Despite the fact research has repeatedly shown that such claims are gross exaggerations, it does not matter if they are real or not. What matters is that animal farmers believe them, so they use foxhunting, terrier work, snares, shooting, lamping, and any other means at their disposal to kill foxes in their land or neighbouring areas. This does not work, by the way. Fox populations expand when such methods are used, as they allow these territorial mammals to occupy more land when the local foxes are no longer there to defend their territory. And the more you try to control foxes’ populations with lethal means, the more foxes you would have to kill. A vicious circle of violence and suffering.
Chicken and lamb farmers are not the only ones that do this to foxes. Shooters do it too. Those in the business of commercial shooting not only kill the foxes but also any wild raptor in the area — even if it is illegal to do so. You may think that the pheasant shooting industry is not part of animal agriculture, as they just kill wild animals in the wild. You would be wrong. The pheasants they shoot are introduced in the land after they have been bred in captivity with similar methods to chicken factory farming — often from chicks imported from other farms overseas. Both pheasants and chickens are not native to the UK. They both come from the East. They are both captive bred in factory-like enclosures. The only difference is that chickens are killed in abattoirs, and pheasants are shot by paying punters after they have been allowed to run a few days in a field — a practice that also harms the local wildlife as the huge numbers of birds released compete with the local animals, and the ammunition scattered when people shoot them is also a threat to them.
All of this is not new, by the way. Since the birth of animal agriculture about 12,000 years ago, farmers have been targeting wild animals that may threaten their “livestock”. Countless species of predatory mammals and birds have become extinct because of this. In the UK, there are no longer wild wolf populations because of this. Or wolverines. Or Lynx. And the populations of these mammals have decreased considerably in the rest of Europe for the same reason. The grizzly bear and the Mexican grey wolf were driven to extinction in southwestern American ecosystems by “predator control” programs designed to protect the animal agriculture industry.
Sometimes this is done by farmers and their countryside friends. Sometimes is done by governments (perhaps disguised as ecological measures). In 2018, 68,292 coyotes were killed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The next year, it killed approximately 1.2 million animals native to North America. That includes hundreds of black bears, grey wolves, and bobcats, thousands of red foxes, tens of thousands of beavers, and hundreds of thousands of birds. All using poison, inhumane traps, and even being shot from the air.
And once they have eliminated all the big mammals that may constitute a real or imaginary threat to their “livestock”, then farmers go for smaller ones. For instance, badgers.
There has been a government-sanctioned badger cull in England for many years now (one of several culls that have targeted this iconic species), and it is all done, the government says, to protect animal agriculture. Cattle from the dairy industry, to be precise. Badgers have not been accused to predate on cattle, but to make them ill by spreading Bovine Tuberculosis. This is not true, though, as this cattle disease is mainly spread from cattle to cattle, and the badgers are just some of the unfortunate collateral wild animals that also catch this disease — another way animal agriculture affects wild animals, by infecting them with pathogens they would not have encountered in the wild. But as in the case of farmers blaming foxes, it doesn’t matter if it is true or not. The government and the farming leadership decided they had to kill badgers, and that was that. So far, they have killed more than 100,000 in England.
Both pheasants and chickens are not native to the UK. They both come from the East. They are both captive bred in factory-like enclosures.
The only difference is that chickens are killed in abattoirs, and pheasants are shot by paying punters
The Better Type: Plant-based Agriculture
Removing farmed animals from agriculture reduces considerably the harm done to animals of all types. However, growing plants with the traditional methods instead of rearing animals also harms wildlife. Standard plant-based agriculture is responsible for the distress, injury and death of billions of wild animals. As vegans, we may not like this fact, but we cannot deny it.
Traditional plant-based agriculture is also partially responsible for the destruction of land ecosystems to plant crops — although more often than not these are part of animal agriculture as crops to feed “livestock”. For example, forests in Sumatra that are home to elephants, jaguars and orang-utans are being destroyed for palm plantations.
Pollution from plant-based crops is also a cause of negative impact on wild animals. For instance, fertilisers. Non-organic fertilizers mainly contain phosphate, nitrate, ammonium and potassium salts, that when they go into the natural ecosystems in great quantities have devastating effects on wildlife. The fertilizer industry is considered to be a major source of the ecosystem’s contamination with dangerous heavy metals.
And then we have the use of substances directly designed to kill wildlife: pesticides. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about one billion pounds of pesticides are applied every year to agricultural land and other areas in the United States. Bees, frogs, birds, hedgehogs, and bats are often the victims of pesticides, even if they were designed to kill other species considered pests. A 2019 report by the Endangered Species Coalition showed that insecticide exposure kills about one-tenth of the San Joaquin kit fox population. In California, 70% of tested wild mammals have been exposed to pesticides designed to kill rodents. Malathion, an insecticide registered for use in the US since 1956, is likely to harm 97% of the 1,782 mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and plants listed under the US Endangered Species Act.
In theory, organic farming uses fewer pesticides or fertilizers, but most plant crops are not organic. For instance, in the EU in 2019, the organic area was only 8.5 % of total EU agricultural land. Only 5% of the UK crops land is organic. The North American share of the global land used for organic farming also only amounts to 5%.
The persecution game is also played in plantbased agriculture. And not only with innocent “scarecrows” deterring wild birds from eating food from crops. In the UK, from 1st January 2021, landowners can use a government’s general licence to kill or take certain wild birds to prevent serious damage to their property (such as crops). These include carrion crows, feral pigeons, jackdaws, magpies, rooks, and wood pigeons. Larsen traps (which contain a separate compartment for a “decoy” bird that are seen as intruders by the local birds) are commonly used for this purpose.
There are also wildlife disturbances (including deaths) when the food of crops is harvested, especially if mechanical methods have been used. There are a couple of studies that suggest that the average number of rodent deaths during harvest is between 6 and 40 per acre, but they have been challenged as overestimations as some of these rodents may have just left the fields, rather than perished. But being forced out of your home is also a disturbance that we should not ignore. They may be disputes regarding the numbers involved, but when I watch farmers using big machines on their fields to harvest as much food as possible as fast as possible, it seems inevitable to me that some wildlife would not be able to get away on time.
Additionally, we have rainforest deforestation to plant crops. Between 1994 and 2004, the area of land used to grow soya beans in Latin America more than doubled to 39 million hectares, making it the largest world area for a single crop above maize (28 million hectares).
However, this trend has been driven mainly by the sharp increase in demand for animal products, which led to a tripling of global meat production between 1980 and 2002. Most of the soya beans grown in these areas are to feed cattle, pigs and chickens. And most of this increased production came from the demand for intensive “livestock” operations in China and other East Asian countries, where arable land is scarce.
More than a third of the world’s crop calories are fed to animals in a very inefficient system that wastes most of the food (for every 100 calories fed to animals in the form of human-edible crops, people receive just 17-30 calories in the form of meat and milk).
In other words, most plantbased agriculture is, in fact, animal agriculture in disguise, and therefore all the wildlife it harms mentioned above should be added to the tally of animal harm that animal agriculture causes. This is why many vegans continue to eat plants without feeling too guilty of the ecological damage crops may have caused.
What About the so-called “Ethical” Animal Agriculture?
We have seen that traditional plant-based agriculture also causes a lot of damage to the countryside and wildlife. Also, we know that some types of animal agriculture (such as factory farming) are worse than others. Therefore, is consuming only products of the better types an acceptable ethical alternative to vegan eating?
Which types I am talking about? Firstly, we have “organic” animal agriculture. Then we have traditional low-scale sheep grazing operations in mountainous land to produce wool, which has been put forward as an acceptable farming option in some harsh landscapes where crops cannot grow — one of the classic arguments against vegans’ intransigence. And finally, we have “regenerative animal agriculture”, put forward as ecologically sound. Are these tolerable ethical alternatives to veganism? I don’t think so.
Ethically speaking, trying to “do less harm” will never be a better alternative than trying to “do no harm”. And if a business ends up killing animals before their natural time, even if it improves their lives considerably (such as letting them roam free in the countryside eating grass), this would always be an ethical reason to reject it. Organic animal farming may cause less harm than factory farming, but it still pollutes the environment, wastes resources (land and water), persecutes competing animals, and kills the farmed animals using the same horrible slaughter methods.
But some neo-farmers now claim they have found ways to reverse the negative effect of their practices on the environment, so using their products should be acceptable — especially by eco-vegans. They call these practices “holistic grazing” or “regenerative animal agriculture”. They claim animal grazing sequesters enough carbon in the non-cultivated grass soil to compensate for the animals’ greenhouse gases contribution. Sounds nice, but in my opinion, these “changes” are mostly greenwashing and propaganda.
For instance, the environmental claims of holistic grazing have already been debunked by many experts. In 2017, the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) conducted a two-year review of holistic grazing titled “Grace and Confused”. They concluded that Carbon sequestered in the soil from grazing only offsets 20–60 % of the emissions produced by the animals. And after 15 years or so this effect vanishes when the soil reaches carbon equilibrium.
But what about the flock of sheep in a Welsh or a Scottish hill? Isn’t that the only option for a landowner in this type of harsh environment? No, it’s not.
Rebecca Knowle is the founder of Farmers for Stock Free Farming and Vegan Outreach Scotland. In 2018 she began lobbying Scottish politicians for a change in the food production system. She told me the following:
“During 2018 and 2019 we were lobbying for the shift to a plant-based diet. Through our lobbying, my colleague Amanda and I were meeting with two of the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). One has one of the biggest egg production facilities in Scotland. He stopped us and he said, ‘Do you know what? If you shift to a plant-based diet you are going to put 60% of Scottish farmers out of business.’ We knew he was wrong, but we knew we had to prove it.”
“Out of our agricultural land in Scotland, 77% is permanent pasture or rough grazing. And that is deemed unsuitable for growing food for human consumption. It’s only deemed suitable for grazing sheep and cows. So, people say the only way to grow food in grassland is by grazing sheep and cows, and then eat them. And that’s not true.”
Rebecca’s response was to create a new website that shows which other income-generating alternatives to animal agriculture Scottish farmers could choose. And she did not find only two or three. The webpage is titled “100 Ways to Farm Stock- Free”. Here they all are:
Growing stuff (broad beans, field beans, lentils, peas, lupins, oats, wheat, barley, rye, triticale, potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, kale, onions, carrots, beetroot, chard, lettuce, turnips/swedes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, leeks, parsnips, Calabrese, cucumber, radish, squash, Spring greens, mushrooms, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, tayberries, honeyberries, tomatoes, rhubarb, apples, pears, plums, gooseberries, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts, hemp, kelp, buckwheat, oilseed rape, flaxseed/ linseed, high erucic acid rapeseed, Echium, lavender, peppermint, rose, rosemary); repurpose buildings (vertical farming, mushroom growing, storage space rental, renting space, wedding venues, meeting venues, children’s holiday clubs, gin distilling, pet boarding facilities); alternative land use (native tree planting, rewilding, lazy beds, ‘Leafu’ or Leaf ProteinConcentrate Production, Polycrubs, green burials, outdoor weddings, music festivals, film shoots, secure dog walking); retailing (farmers markets, farms shops, crafting, veg box schemes, vending machines, garden centres); renewable energy (wind turbines, solar panels, anaerobic digesters); catering/accommodation (farmhouse B&B, self-catering, AirBnB, shepherd huts, yurts, hikers’ / campers’ cafés or restaurants); leisure activities (grass-sledging, archery, zip wire rides, segway hire/ adventures, straw bale mazes, paintballing, hovercrafting, speedboating, kayaking, paddle-boarding); and Nature-based tourism (guided nature walks, birdwatching, wildlife watching, den building, foraging workshops, Arts and Craft holidays).
And all that in the harsh high latitude environment of Scotland. You may think that some of the suggested crops are not possible in the Scottish grasslands, but that is not true. Rebecca has done her homework. She told me:
If you look at the islands now there is only sheep. But they used to grow oats and hemp there. They used to grow their own food. There is history that hemp was grown in the Isle of Lewis in 1771. It grows on marginal land.
I rest my case.
The Best Type: Veganic Agriculture
Even if we re-label most of the crops on Earth as being part of animal agriculture as they are grown to feed “livestock”, I do not doubt that the remaining crops still cause far too much harm to wildlife to be ignored by ethical vegans. Traditional plant-based agriculture is better than animal agriculture, but that’s not good enough. OK, by switching to organic plant-based agriculture, we improve the situation considerably. We get rid of the suffering caused by most pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, but that’s not enough either. Organic farming still uses some pesticides (in the EU, 28 of the 490 substances approved for use as pesticides are approved for use in organic agriculture), and still uses animal manure as fertilizers. There must be a better way.
There is. It is called Regenerative Veganic Agriculture. The term “veganic farming” was first seen in a Vegan Society’s magazine in 1960. It meant the organic cultivation of plants and crops with a minimal amount of exploitation or harm to any animal. For instance, no use of animal manure or bone/fish meal, no pesticides, and no killing of competitor wildlife. It was initially experimenting more in gardens and orchards rather than major farms, but with time, veganic farmers become more organized, developing different approaches and standards. And recently, they have taken an even wider approach in the way they look at avoiding harming not only local wildlife but the planet — thus becoming Regenerative Veganic Agriculture. This type of crop growing aims to produce food for society sustainably and compassionately (for domestic and wild animals alike) and helps to repair the planet faster.
The methods they use to minimise negative impact to wildlife go beyond avoiding pesticides and nasty fertilisers. They use physical barriers to deal with competing species, do not intentionally kill any animals on their holdings, and try to promote biodiversity in and around their crops. They use buffer zones or hedges if the farms are close to sprayed fields, and they favour companion planting with extensive crop rotations. Although this type of agriculture is still a very small minority of the total, it is nevertheless growing. In different parts of the world different terms and standards are used for this type of farming, such as stock-free farming, vegánics, Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture, Certified Stockfree-Organic, etc. Each of these labels may imply slightly different approaches, but the core idea is the same: minimising even further the harm that plant agriculture causes to animals — including wildlife — and the environment. This is why, although small in numbers and often unknown, this is the best type of agriculture for wild animals — and vegans.
It’s not all just letting Nature do the work, though. Some veganic farming methods can be very hands-on and high tech: No-till cultivation, using plants with taproots, planting cover crops, and even using ultra-lightweight robots for less disruptive precision farming, are all methods that are being tried. There is an exciting future in veganic farming too.
The Post Agricultural Era
Even Regenerative Veganic Agriculture may have some negative impact on wildlife, though. After all, it is occupying the land that otherwise would be a wild meadow or forest for wild animals to use at their leisure. Can we go a step further?
Well, some people are trying. You can now grow plants in vertical farms in urban areas with even less disruption to wildlife. Vertical farming is the process of growing plants indoors under controlled conditions in a series of stacked layers. Many may use LED light instead of sunlight and may not even need soil. This type of indoor farming has become popular among investors across the globe getting around $1.8 billion of investment since 2014. Denmark and Abu Dhabi seem to be leading on this. And via precision fermentation, you can now grow all sorts of food miles away from the countryside by using bacteria. You can even grow food from the air, so to speak. In California, a company called Air Protein uses Carbon dioxide-reducing hydrogenotrophic bacteria that take CO2 and Hydrogen from the air and produce biological molecules from which, adding the right substrate, you can make nutritious food with all the proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals that you need. NASA studied these in the 1960s trying to find ways to feed astronauts on long journeys, and this technology has now been resurrected. You can grow all sorts of food from bacteria, algae, and fungi, and you do not need that much land, water or space. And in the end, it may be cheaper as well, as it takes fewer resources and can grow faster. So, theoretically — and now also practically — humanity could soon leave the agriculture era behind and move into a new post-agricultural era (I am sure future historians will be clever enough to give it a better name) less harmful to the environment and wildlife. I say theoretically, because who knows which hidden cost and risk these technologies may carry, which will only be discovered when they are sufficiently scaled up.
If all these new food technologies work efficiently, safely, and do not carry unexpected negative surprises, this may be quite a clean solution to the problems we have been discussing. They will not only allow producing more food faster without harming wildlife but will also allow for freeing land and returning it to Nature. And then, balanced natural ecosystems could be restored, which, in the long term, are bound to cause qualitatively and quantitatively less suffering than that caused by “the countryside” humans created since the dawn of agriculture.
We could then sign a peace treaty with wildlife and finally live in harmony with everyone. I am sure the animals will sign it.