I keep coming across this statistic in the media that says livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of global gas emissions. Some cite ruminants – cows, sheep and goats – as the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Others then offer a solution: switch from beef and lamb to chicken and pork … and consume less dairy products.
Not everyone agrees with this conclusion, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality expert at the University of California at Davis.
“Going without meat is not the ecological panacea that many would have us believe,” he says. Here are some of his reasons:
It’s true that cattle are the number one agricultural greenhouse gas source worldwide, says Mitloehner. Hence the prevailing statistic of 14.5% emissions from cattle.
Not so in the United States, where cows and other ruminants make up only 4 percent of all greenhouse gases produced. Beef cattle in particular are responsible for 2 percent of direct emissions, he says.
Then what is the source of the higher greenhouse gas emissions from cattle in the rest of the world?
“India is a hot spot,” says Mitloehner. “This country has more cattle than anywhere else on earth, but the lowest beef consumption. As a result, cows live longer and emit more methane over the course of their life. In addition, cows in tropical regions produce less milk and meat, so they need longer to get to market ”(and thus produce more gas emissions), says Mitloehner.
On the US side, better animal husbandry, genetics, and nutrition have made animal production more efficient. “We feed more people with fewer cattle, which leads to a much smaller carbon footprint,” says Mitloehner.
This conclusion is confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency. They report that all of the food-producing agriculture in the United States is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Transport contributes 29%, electricity 25% and industry 23%.
This is not an argument to make everyone a meat eater. Our human diet varies from person to person and culture to culture. What does not change are the basic nutritional needs of every person on this planet. And as the world population increases, the importance of all types of agriculture becomes more and more evident.
That means we need a system that is not only good for the environment, but also sustainable in the long term. I invite you to read more about it at https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/making-cattle-more-sustainable.
Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a registered nutritionist and diabetes specialist affiliated with the Monterey Peninsula Community Hospital. She is the author of Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating. Send her an email at [email protected]