The Impact of the Beef Industry on Climate Change

The connection between beef and climate change is a popular topic of discussion recently, from cow’s high-methane burps to comparing emissions from beef consumption to cars on the road (ex. if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, over a year, the effect on emissions would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road). These statements are true as cows are ruminants, meaning that their stomachs contain specialized bacteria capable of digesting tough and fibrous material such as grass. The digestive process causes cows to belch out methane – a greenhouse gas around 25 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2. Cattle produce about 80 million metric tons of methane per year globally. In the U.S., 58 percent of our methane emissions are produced by cattle. 

The emissions produced by the beef industry are concerning as it’s estimated that the world population will grow from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050. A growing population with increasing incomes and urbanization combine to put stressors on our current food systems. Not to mention the impacts that climate change is currently and expected to have on food systems. For example, more extreme weather can harm livestock and crops. Additionally, water scarcity across the U.S. Southwest makes it more expensive and difficult to sustain crops and livestock, and increased wildfires can devastate farms.

study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the best strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, is for farmers to be more efficient with their land use. Farmers would profit more if they used less land to raise their cattle by feeding them both grass and a high-calorie feed instead of just grass. For example, livestock produce more milk when they eat energy-rich diets that include grain supplements, meaning that more livestock can be raised on less land, with fewer emissions per pound of meat or milk produced. However, one caveat to the study is that it doesn’t really apply to the U.S., as North America is ahead of most of the rest of the world in livestock production efficiency. The study’s results apply primarily to agriculture in developing countries.

The U.S. is a leader in beef production efficiency because of scientific advancements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, husbandry practices, and biotechnologies. Those husbandry practices include the widespread use of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are large-scale industrial farms where over 1000 animal units are confined for over 45 days a year. One-thousand ‘animal units’ is equal to 700 dairy cows or 1000 meat cows, for example. As of 2016, there were around 19,496 CAFOs in the United States. 

Even as beef production is becoming more efficient (albeit costly and ethically concerning), forests are still being cut down for new pasture as meat consumption is still rising. The World Resources Institute estimates that global demand for beef and other ruminant meats could grow by 88 percent between 2010 and 2050, putting enormous pressure on forests, biodiversity, and the climate. Pastureland could expand by roughly 400 million hectares, an area of land larger than the size of India, to meet growing demand. The resulting deforestation could increase global emissions so much that we would surpass the global goal highlighted by the IPCC report of limiting temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees C (2.7-3.6 degrees F) to avoid catastrophic impacts due to climate change.

Consumer Choices

So if the U.S. beef industry is running efficiently, yet we are still seeing increased emissions and a loss of land what can we as consumers do to help with the impacts of climate change?

Well, the beef industry is demand-driven, which means that it’s driven by consumer needs. The more we buy it, the more the industry will produce. Beef is more resource-intensive than most other foods and has a substantial impact on the climate. A sustainable food future will require a range of strategies from farm to plate. As consumers, the best way we can help alleviate this issue is to eat less meat. If you switch to only eating meat on weekends, for instance, you’ll cut your impact by over 70 percent.

Similarly, you could choose to incorporate meat into your main meal – ideally with a smaller portion than you’d usually go for – but not have any for lunch or breakfast. When you eat meat, you can further reduce your environmental impact by choosing chicken and avoiding beef, mutton, or lamb. While beef costs the environment 16 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat, pork is closer to 8 kg per kg of meat, and chicken comes in at 4.4 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat.

It’s also essential to know where your meat comes from. Since it most closely resembles what occurs in nature, animals raised on pastures have a lower environmental impact. They’re free to forage naturally, which reduces their reliance on high-energy grains and other crops. They use their waste to fertilize the soil, preserving the natural environment. They’re much less likely to be given antibiotics, because the animals are in less tightly contained, stressed environments. Even if pasture-raised meat isn’t available, choosing meat from local farmers that grass-feed their animals or encourage them to graze on grass would significantly minimize the environmental impact of your meat consumption.

However, the best way to curb emissions and reduce your diet’s impact on the planet is by adopting a plant-based diet. Plant-based burgers and blended meat-plant alternatives increasingly compete with conventional meat products on important attributes like taste, price, and convenience. The market for plant-based alternatives is growing at a high rate, albeit from a low baseline. There are also other compelling reasons for people to shift toward plant-based foods. Some studies have shown that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancer. Diets higher in healthy plant-based foods (such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) are associated with lower risks. Actually, in the U.S., we generally consume more protein than we need to meet our dietary requirements anyway.

All in all, beef production at its current levels is unsustainable and contributes heavily to the increases in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, soil degradation, and water stress. Climate change will only further exacerbate these impacts. Therefore we need to take action as consumers. I’m not stating that we all have to adopt a “meatless” diet tomorrow. But, we must all develop “meat consciousness” and reduce our meat consumption. To fight climate change, land, air, and water contamination, ocean dead zones, and a slew of other issues exacerbated by commercial livestock farming, a shift to more plant-based diets is critical. If we opt to consume less meat or dairy-based meals per week it will have a huge impact on our personal wellbeing and the health of the planet.

article by Tatiana Eaves

Additional Reading

National Geographic – Eating meat has ‘dire’ consequences for the planet, says report

Union of Concerned Scientists — CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations

Science Daily — Eating red meat and processed meat hikes heart disease and death risk, study finds

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