In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. The report aimed to assess the total environmental impact of global livestock and determined this sector of agriculture is among the world’s top contributors to negative environmental impacts, including Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from EPA, 2014. Stock Image.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions from EPA, 2014. Stock Image.

Following its release, the UN admitted flaws in reporting data that exaggerated the negative impacts of animal agriculture that resulted in livestock ranking higher in emissions than transportation. A UN policy officer was quoted saying, “we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport” – a factor that would have a significant impact on the findings.

Despite this admission of error, opponents to animal agriculture have consistently avoided that correction and used the report as an argument to minimize, or even eliminate, animal agriculture and meat consumption. More recently, the propaganda documentary films, such as Cowspiracy, rely heavily on this report for its tirade against livestock agriculture.

EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measurement

To contrast these perspectives, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show that all of agriculture contributes only 9% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions while livestock production accounts for only 3% of greenhouse gas emissions. To compare, transportation accounts for 26% and 12% of GHG emissions come from Commercial/Residential sources. You can read more about these numbers from EPA’s Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions page.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Cattle

Use of better tools and management means fewer resources required for more beef per animal in fewer days.
Use of better tools and management means fewer resources required for more beef per animal in fewer days.

Animal agriculture has consistently been working to reduce these numbers and mitigate GHG emissions, producing more food, fiber and fuel products with fewer inputs. Many of our modern technology adaptations and management practices help to lower the resource consumption and GHG emissions from beef production.

What does beef contribute to GHG Emissions?

Modern beef production requires considerably fewer resources than the equivalent system in 1977, with 69.9% of animals, 81.4% of feedstuffs, 87.9% of the water, and only 67.0% of the land required to produce 1 billion kg of beef. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, with modern beef systems producing 81.9% of the manure, 82.3% CH4, and 88.0% N2O per billion kilograms of beef compared with production systems in 1977. The C footprint per billion kg of beef produced in 2007 was reduced by 16.3% compared with equivalent beef production in 1977. Source: The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007

These innovations include better knowledge of cattle nutrition and digestion, which result in better diet formulation on pastures and in pens; better management to keep cattle healthy, improving reproductive efficiency, and understanding of genetics to breed cattle more efficient at beef (and milk) production.

As reported by Dr. Jude Capper at Washington State University in 2012, Conventional beef production (finished in feedlots with growth-enhancing technology) required the fewest animals, and least land, water and fossil fuels to produce a set quantity of beef. The carbon footprint of conventional beef production was lower than that of either natural (feedlot finished with no growth-enhancing technology) or grass-fed (forage-fed, no growth-enhancing technology) systems. All beef production systems are potentially sustainable; yet the environmental impacts of differing systems should be communicated to consumers to allow a scientific basis for dietary choices.

The Conventional system required 56.3% of the animals, 24.8% of the water, 55.3% of the land and 71.4% of the fossil fuel energy required to produce 1.0 × 109 kg of beef compared to the Grass-Fed system. The carbon footprint per 1.0 × 109 kg of beef was lowest in the CON system. Source: Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems

Do we measure beef cattle GHG emissions?

When discussing the environmental impacts and GHG emissions related to raising cattle for beef, it is easy to focus solely on emissions with images of feedlot pens. Also, keep in mind it is inaccurate to compare livestock production from different parts of the world. While deforestation may be a concern in some countries, others may be growing their forested acres. Some countries have tighter regulations on waste management and inputs, while others may have more slacked regulations.

It is important to recognize cattle spend the majority of their lives on pastures. These grasslands and farms sequester carbon and are large contributors to retaining open lands, providing wildlife habitat and are large sources of converting carbon to oxygen.

We’re not perfect. We’re never finished with innovation and there are always areas to improve.

Additional Reading on the Topic:

Actually, Raising Beef Is Good for the Planet – Wall Street Journal

15 Common Meat Myths That Need to be Crushed for Good – Buzzfeed

Greenhouse Gases by Bovidiva (Dr. Jude Capper)

Cheeseburgers Won’t Melt the Polar Ice Caps – Dr. Jayson Lusk

Beef Sustainability Research

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