In the U.K., where Animal Rebellion is based, the meat and dairy industries are the country’s primary source of waterway pollution, leaving rivers choked with algal blooms and dead fish. Despite warnings going back almost a century, such waste has increased with little mitigation. In his recent book Regenesis, a lamentation of where agriculture has gone wrong, journalist George Monbiot sees the story of ruined rivers as one of a British countryside in thrall to farming interests and a declawed regulatory state that fails to enforce basic regulations against polluting dairy and chicken megafarms. On the few occasions when farms are investigated and fined, those fines amount to a slap on the wrist and don’t necessarily address the underlying problems. Meanwhile, these megafarms are proliferating, with well over a thousand concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—defined as housing over 125,000 chickens or 700 dairy cows—now churning out meat, eggs, and dairy and despoiling the British countryside. That massive scale of production also leads to a massive scale of waste. Those criticizing Animal Rebellion for wasting a few pint bottles during their protest might not know that 490 million pints of year are wasted every year in the U.K. by consumers alone, part of the 330,000 metric tons of milk wasted overall across the country. Globally, one out of every six pints of milk produced is wasted, or 116 millions tons. And that’s besides the net protein and calorie loss of growing feed crops to then feed to animals: The protein conversion efficiency—meaning the amount of protein inputs in fodder that are converted into animal protein for human consumption—of dairy milk is a measly 14 percent and of beef an anemic 4 percent.
Stateside, in the birthplace of the CAFO and the industrial feedlot, the situation is likewise dire. The reservoirs of the once-mighty Colorado River, which helps irrigate the vast majority of agriculture in the western United States and provides water to tens of millions of Americans, are down to historical lows. The main culprit here is not just drought or demand for drinking water but feed crops for beef and cattle like alfalfa, which itself is responsible for 37 percent of all water drawn from the Colorado. California’s 1.7 million cows not only require 142 million gallons of water per day, but their manure contributes to the dangerously high nitrate levels in groundwater (almonds, in fairness, aren’t doing California’s water table any favors either). Waste is also rampant, often due to the vagaries of the market for milk, which is highly perishable. In the first eight months of 2016, facing low prices and an oversupply of dairy, farmers dumped 43 million gallons of milk. In early 2020, with Covid-19 reducing demand, American farmers were dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk every day. Overall, between 30 and 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. That number takes on a grim viscerality when translated into animal lives. Over a billion chickens, as well as about a 100 million other animals, are slaughtered every year only to be tossed into landfills.
If we’re serious about rationally managing resources and building a more sustainable food system, then surely such a brutal, inefficient, polluting industry should by all rights be first on the chopping block. And that’s before you get to the animal welfare and animal rights arguments.