Would Removing Beef from the Diet Actually Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Ashley Broocks, Emily Andreini, Megan Rolf, Ph.D., and Sara Place, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University

This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the US Department of Agriculture. 

Many people have suggested that removing beef from the human diet could significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In reality, completely removing beef from the diet would likely not result in huge declines in GHG emissions and would have negative implications for the sustainability of the U.S. food system.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle production was responsible for 1.9 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2013. Comparing food production (essential for human life) to transportation and electricity (non-essential for human survival, but important to our modern lifestyles) is problematic. Electricity and transportation produce much of the GHG emissions in the United States, but most people do not call for the elimination of electricity or transportation. Instead, efforts are made to lower the GHG emissions produced to provide the same energy and transportation services (e.g. switching to renewable energy sources for electricity generation).

U.S> EPS GHG Emissions Inventory for 2013

Studying the different ways resources like feed, water and land can be used more efficiently throughout the beef lifecycle to reduce GHG emissions per pound of beef would provide the means to maintain the same level of food production while reducing GHG emissions. Beef production has made impressive advances to meet the protein demands of a growing population while reducing the amount of natural resources required. For example, due to improved genetics, animal nutrition, management, and the use of growth promoting technologies, the U.S. beef community has decreased its GHG emissions per pound of beef 9-16 percent from the 1970s to today.

Another key component of reducing GHG emissions from the beef system is the role of the consumer. Over 20 percent of edible beef is wasted at grocery stores, restaurants and in the home. As with other foods, the amount of non-renewable resources used and the environmental impacts that went into producing the portions of beef that are being sent to a landfill are often overlooked. Consumers could improve beef sustainability by 10 percent if beef waste were reduced by half.

Additionally, cattle have the ability to utilize forages such as grass and hay, and by-products (e.g. distillers grains) that are unfit for human consumption. Cattle can utilize cellulose, one of the world’s most abundant organic molecules, that is indigestible by humans, and can also convert low-quality feeds into high-quality protein from land not suited for cultivation, thereby reducing soil erosion and enhancing soil carbon storage. U.S. beef farmers and ranchers feed their cattle feed sources that are not in direct competition with humans and/or would have gone to waste.

Beef is a valuable asset to the human diet. Along with being a significant source of lean protein, beef provides key nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. Removing beef from the food chain would result in consumers having to seek alternative protein and micronutrient sources. As with all foods, the production of beef has impacts, but direct emissions from the U.S. beef community are only estimated to be 1.9 percent of the total U.S. GHG emissions.[1]

[1] https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/ghgemissions/US-GHG-Inventory-2015-Chapter-Executive-Summary.pdf

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Agricultural with Dr. Lindsay and commented:
    Happy Earth Day! Today is generally a day for us to be involved in doing something constructive for our community and our planet. It is also a time to reflect on the sustainability of the Earth and our resources.

    The consumption of meat, specifically beef, gets a bad reputation for being perceived as a high emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). This article share other sources of GHG. More importantly, it challenges you to think about food waste as a consumer, and the role you play in global concerns.

  2. Reblogged this on ranch wife life and commented:
    Happy Earth Day! While the call to action this year is planting new tree, I just love that the focus is on what individuals can DO.

    My focus for the last couple of years has been to minimize the amount of food waste we produce. I’ve always felt funky about throwing food out–knowing first hand all of the time, natural resources and human effort involved in getting us our edibles. My main challenge has been how to manage this with teaching small baby children how to eat and try new foods. For now, it’s basically a zero-tolerance policy for Rancher and I, in order to offset the food that hits the floor and smears the little hair and faces of our munchkins.

    This also feels quite a bit more proactive and productive than the calls to “minimize or eliminate” individual consumption of meat. Or only eat meat produced in very specific ways. Often those recommendations are not based in accurate science, oversimplifying the issue of resource use in beef production.

    This post shares some of the specific data and steps the beef community (ranchers like us, farmers and feeders, processors, butchers) has been taking to constantly measure and improve the sustainability of bringing you beef.

    I meet dozens of others in the beef community every year who are so passionate about using the knowledge, science, and innovation available today blended with our ranching and food-providing heritage to keep going in a positive direction. This side of the story is pretty well marginalized by the simplified notion that not eating beef is the best thing for the planet.

    I’d hope that our approach of constant improvement and staying open to ideas and technology that allows us to would shed some light on how farmers & ranchers feel everyday, today included.

    – Bridget

  3. Ashley Adams says:

    I was wondering what is your opinion on cattle farms that are packed to capacity. I drive by these farm and the cows are standing in their own manure and barely have room to walk sometimes. When I drive by the smell becomes overpowering in my truck. Then I drive by farms that have more than enough room for their cattle and have lots of lush grass growing in the pasture. Now when I drive by this farm I don’t notice any smell ever. Do you think that the overcrowded farm would be producing more GHG emissions than the farm that has room for the cattle to roam?

    • Hi Ashley, without seeing a picture, it’s hard to speak to what kind of farm or ranch that you are referring to but cattle that spend time (a few months) in a feedyard are at a different phase in the beef lifecycle than cattle that are grazing on pastures. Here is more info on the beef lifecycle for your reference- http://www.beef.org/beef-lifecycle/index.html. In regards to GHG, the EPA reported in 2013 that beef cattle production is responsible for less than 2% of GHG in the U.S (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html). So regardless of how cattle are being raised, in a feedyard or on exclusively on grass, you can be confident that beef farmers and ranchers are working to improve sustainability every day.

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