Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Aug. 4, 2021

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Some facts about cows and global warming


I keep coming upon this statistic that states livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of global gas emissions.

Some designate ruminant animals — cows, sheep and goats — as the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. Others then go on to offer a solution: Switch from beef and lamb to chicken and pork … and consume fewer dairy products.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality expert at the University of California at Davis.

“Forgoing meat is not the environmental panacea many would have us believe,” he states.

Here are some of his reasons.

It’s true that around the world, cattle are the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases, says Mitloehner. That’s where the prevailing statistic of 14.5 percent emissions from cattle comes from.

It’s a different story in the United States, where cows and other ruminants account for just 4 percent of all greenhouse gases produced. Beef cattle specifically are responsible for 2 percent of direct emissions, he states.

What is the source, then, of the higher greenhouse gas emissions from cattle in the rest of the world?

“India is one hot spot,” says Mitloehner. “That country has more cattle than anywhere else on earth, yet the lowest consumption of beef. As a result, cows live longer and emit more methane over their lifetime. In addition, cows in tropical regions produce less milk and meat, so it takes them longer to get to market [and thus produce more gas emissions],” says Mitloehner.

Better efficiency

On the U.S. side, better animal breeding, genetics and nutrition have increased the efficiency of livestock production.

“We’re feeding more people with fewer cattle, which creates a much smaller carbon footprint,” says Mitloehner.

That conclusion is backed up by the Environmental Protection Agency.

They report that all of agriculture to produce food in the U.S. accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation contributes 29 percent, electricity 25 percent and industry 23 percent.

This is not an argument to make everyone a meat eater. Our human diet varies from person to person and culture to culture.

What doesn’t vary are the basic nutrient needs of every human on this planet. And as our world population grows, the importance of all types of agriculture will become more and more apparent.

That means we need a system that is not only good for the environment, but sustainable for the long term.