sustainable local livestock production climate climate change

La Belle et La Boeuf (NOT!) How do human meat preferences impact climate change?

The agricultural industry has taken a toll on our environment in terms of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Post by jcafiero

The Beauty and the Beef? What kind of story is that?! I’ll tell you. Firstly, beauty is not in the beef. The global challenge we are currently facing is that livestock production contributes significantly to climate change.

Picture 1

**Figure 1. **Cows grazing on a ranch in Montana, USA. (Source: Missoula Chamber of Commerce via MissoulaCurrent.com)

The beauty is that humans receive their essential proteins, including iron, zinc, and other nutritious vitamins, from beef consumption. However, the beast is that this so-called staple in our diet is a major contributor to the increase in greenhouse gasses. Specifically, the increase in methane gas. Methane is an organic compound that is 25 times more potent when released into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide [1]. Cow’s expulsion of gas through burps and farts alone produces this accelerated increase within the livestock industry.

With the global population of humans increasing rapidly, the number of cows raised for the livestock industry does the same. Beef farming operations produce higher levels of methane than any other human activity. The United States alone contributes 14% of the methane in the atmosphere. This percentage of methane production continues to rise as the industry grows [5].

It’s Beef-zilla!

Like Godzilla, the livestock population is taking over at a slower but equally devastating rate. Many livestock are herbivores and need ample space to roam and graze. Consequently, 50% of all land in the United States is devoted to their production. Reserving all this land for livestock contributes to loss of biodiversity, increased competition for resources in communities, and promotes climate-forcing emissions. Climate-forcing emissions are heat-trapping mechanisms caused by humans; also known as anthropogenic or man-made [4]. Raising livestock also requires excessive amounts of water to grow the feed, maintain the farm, and produce drinking water for the animals. The concept of the water footprint is a tool that calculates the amount of water used for meat production. It is helpful to understand how much water is used in one place. You can even look it up yourself using a water calculator and calculate how much water you use throughout the day [2].

Silver Lining

Science is cool because there is almost always more than one solution to a problem. One way to address the consequences of livestock production is a simple, yet challenging solution: reduce your meat consumption and choose to eat meat locally. Reducing one’s meat consumption is not as easy as most make it sound, however, it is extremely beneficial for one’s health and the surrounding environment to be more plant-based. For an individual that experiences heart-related issues, a plant-based diet is the way to go. Switching to a plant-based diet also reduces the livestock needed to produce meat, and therefore allows for a lower-carbon environment. A study done in Europe found that halving meat consumption per person would reduce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40%, and the use of cropland for food production would reduce 23% per capita [6].

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**Figure 2. **Cow in a field. (Source: The Irish Times via irishtimes.com)

Decreasing meat consumption and eating locally will reduce land use, water use, and methane emissions [3]. Industrial agriculture uses enormous amounts of energy and resources to fuel a system that doesn’t last [3]. Whereas sustainable agriculture is designed to provide diverse food choices, omit the need for industrial sized farms, and minimize environmental impacts. ​​Just 1lb of beef requires about 2,400 gallons of water to produce [3]. The average American consumes approximately 97 pounds of beef per year. Limiting meat consumption would make a substantial difference on the environment and would conserve many of our natural resources [3].

La Belle et La Monde

The beauty of the world we live in is in the nature we find all around us. Humans are taking advantage of the resources that this beautiful Earth provides for us, which has consequences that extend far beyond just our species. Next time you go to the grocery store, check out where that ground beef is sourced from. Or check out a local farm store to know exactly where your meat comes from and how it is processed. With scientific knowledge, we can make better, more informed choices when it comes to the survival of our Earth, how cool is that?


[1] EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#methane.

[2] Gerbens-Leenes, P.W., M.M. Mekonnen, A.Y. Hoekstra. 2013. The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems. Water Resources and Industry 1:25-36.

[3] Horrigan, Leo, et al. “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 110, no. 5, 2002, pp. 445–456., https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.02110445.

[4] Peters, Christian J., et al. “Carrying Capacity of U.S. Agricultural Land: Ten Diet Scenarios carrying Capacity of U.S. Agricultural Land: Ten Diet Scenarios.” University of California Press, University of California Press, 22 July 2016, https://online.ucpress.edu/elementa/article/doi/10.12952/journal.elementa.000116/112904/Carrying-capacity-of-U-S-agricultural-land-Ten.

[5] Petrovic, Z., Djordjevic, V., Milicevic, D., Nastasijevic, I. 2015. Meat Production and Consumption: Environmental Consequences. Procedia Food Science, 5(58), 235-238. doi: 10.1016/j.profoo.2015.09.041

[6] Westhoek, Henk, et al. “Food Choices, Health and Environment: Effects of Cutting Europe’s   Meat and Dairy Intake.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 26, 2014, pp. 196–205., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.02.004

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