Last week, I took a look at the detrimental impact of livestock production on the nation's waters. For the second installment in this Earth Month series, let’s examine another segment of our environment on which the meat industry leaves a major footprint – our land. Consider these statistics. It takes seven times more land to produce beef than equivalent amounts of protein-rich vegetables. In the United States alone, roughly 528 million acres, or some 57 percent of domestic agricultural land, is devoted to animal production. Worldwide, 70 percent of agricultural land is used to produce feed, and an astounding 98 percent of the soy crop goes to feeding livestock. The ever-increasing need for large swaths of land leads to rapid deforestation, a phenomenon which causes disruptions in ecosystems and extreme loss of biodiversity. Livestock production also destroys topsoil at a rapid rate – an effect called erosion. Factory farms ruin topsoil by demanding large quantities of crops, such as corn and soy, to feed the animals crowded onto the land. This high demand forces farmers to use inefficient tilling techniques that erode the topsoil. Researchers estimate that the livestock sector is responsible for 55 percent of soil erosion in the United States, and they further approximate that the production of a single hamburger patty destroys 5 times its weight in topsoil, which is essential to growing food for humans and animals alike. Another fact illustrating the magnitude of the problem is that topsoil is currently disappearing at more than ten times the replacement rate. It is essential that we care for and protect this topsoil in order to support Earth’s rapidly growing population and ensure sustainable food sources for generations to come. The effects of meat production on land extend to altering vegetation, and overgrazing is a leading cause of desertification. According to Philip Fradkin of the National Audubon Society, “The impact of countless hooves and mouths over the years has done more to alter the type of vegetation and land forms of the West than all the water projects, strip mines, power plants, freeways, and subdivision developments combined.” Cows in particular eat grass until it is beyond the point of repair, a problem exacerbated by the fact that large numbers of animals are forced to graze in the same pasture to minimize production costs. They stomp on and compact soil, removing air spaces necessary for nitrogen-fixing bacteria to produce nutrients for plants. Livestock’s devastation of native vegetation and tendency to accelerate soil erosion contribute heavily to desertification, in which fertile land is transformed into arid land where it's impossible to grow crops and many native species can't survive. Unfortunately, deforestation, erosion, and desertification can lead not only to food shortages but also, in an unfortunate twist, to water pollution. Treed areas that once soaked up polluted runoff have become unbuffered farmland or arid land that eases the path of polluted water to tributaries and then large bodies of water. Much of this pollution comes in the form of nutrients from the fertilizers and animal waste on factory farms. In this way, one can see an effect of livestock production on one part of the environment (land) trickling over to another valuable resource (water). Allie Parisien, a River Hill High School senior and Great Sage hostess, has been a vegetarian ever since she came face-to-face with a cow at an agricultural fair five years ago. She plans to major in environmental sciences and policy this fall at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Allie’s next blog will spotlight how vegan and vegetarian diets can curb air emissions. Pictures for this post were found at the following sites, ecoki.com, themulchyard.com and colostate.edu.