cowsA new analysis from the Worldwatch Institute lays out some key facts about global meat production and its massive toll on the environment.

Of the world’s vast tracts of agricultural land, two-thirds of them are devoted to raising animals. According to Worldwatch, another 10 percent of global farmland is dedicated to raising feed grains for livestock and poultry.

That’s a lot of land to consider, but now consider this: 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture, but 33 percent of that is used to irrigate feed grain. That means nearly a quarter of the world’s fresh water is being used to feed its livestock – which doesn’t even account for how much water the animals drink.

Last year, global farms churned out an unprecedented 308.5 million tons of meat, approximately 25 times the annual amount in 1800. And demand for meat is rising across the developing world.

The world’s two most populous countries, India and China, are both hosts to a rapidly growing middle-class. They have a taste for meat, which has transformed Asia into the world’s largest meat-producing region (China alone accounts for almost 50 percent of global pig meat production).

“Industrial methods in the livestock sector cut down forests to expand grazing lands and use large quantities of water. Production uses grains (such as corn or soybeans) for animal feed and relies on heavy doses of antibiotics in animals,” writes Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner.

The use of antibiotics is of particular concern, as many animals are dosed with human antibiotics to speed up their growth. The bacteria inside these animals can develop resistances to the antibiotics and can be transferred to humans through contact or consumption. The danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has caused the FDA to advise farmers to cease using them and prompted California to attempt to ban them from the state’s farms.

“Limiting these environmental and health impacts requires not only a look at how much meat people eat,” writes Renner, “but also at the kind of meat that they consume worldwide.”

It seems unlikely that nations will accept being told what meat they can and cannot consume. But if that’s so, how much longer can the planet sustain this overwhelming hunger?

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