how does beef contribute to climate change

1. How does beef production cause greenhouse gas emissions? The short answer: Through the agricultural production process and through land-use change. The longer explanation: Cows and other ruminant animals (like goats and sheep) emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants.

More and more people are going vegeterian or vegan in an effort to help fight climate change. But is a meatless diet really better for the planet?

Global meat consumption has increased significantly in recent decades, with per capita consumption almost doubling since the early 1960s, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Whereas an average of 23.1 kilograms (50.8 pounds) of meat per person were consumed annually in the 60s, the figure had risen to 43.2 kilograms in 2019. Studies show that wealthier countries tend to consume more meat. Projections show that per capita meat consumption in industrialized nations is projected to climb to 69.5 kilograms in 2022 — the projected figure for the developing world is just 27.6 kilograms.

Does avoiding meat slow down global warming?

Examining greenhouse gas emissions tied to livestock farming does not tell us everything about the impact of meat consumption on the climate. As such, comparing greenhouse gas emission from plant-based and animal-based foods is more insightful. A 2021 study published in Nature Food did just this.

It found that that plant-based foods account for just 29% of greenhouse gases emitted by the global food industry. In contrast, 57% of greenhouse gas emission in the industry are linked to breeding and rearing cows, pigs and other livestock, as well as producing feed. A quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions in the food industry are said to result from beef production alone. This is followed by rice cultivation, which generates more greenhouse gases than pork, poultry, lamb, mutton and dairy production.

The study analyzes total global greenhouse gas emissions for each food product. A more nuanced pictures emerges when one studies the environmental impact in producing just 1 kilogram of the different foods. With 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram, beef production remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases. This is more than double the carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram linked to lamb and mutton production (39.72 kilograms).

Pork and poultry production show lower carbon dioxide equivalents, at 12.31 kilograms and 9.87 per kilogram of meat, respectively. Both also emit fewer emissions than cheese production (23.88 kilograms) and fish farming (13.63 kilograms). This means that greenhouse gas emissions vary considerably depending on the kind of meat produced and consumed. Switching from eating beef to consuming poultry, for example, already result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Today, an average 9 kilograms of beef are consumed every day, resulting in 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. If Europeans and North Americans were to forgo eating beef, they would cut 1.2 tons and 3.3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, respectively.

Another problem with personal behavior is that people do not like to be told what to do. As former congressperson Bob Inglis of South Carolina (a conservative) said in the documentary Merchants of Doubt, people think, “You’re saying that I shouldn’t have this house in a suburb? I shouldn’t be driving this car?”

Perhaps most important, social action is contagious—in a good way. If lots of us begin to eat less meat and if we talk about it constructively, we will likely influence others. Pretty soon the 1 percent reduction becomes 2 percent or more. Reduced demand for meat could motivate my local supermarket to carry better produce, making it easier for me and my neighbors to prepare a few more satisfying meat-free meals. Ultimately changes in demand will influence industry. Forty years ago few mainstream supermarkets carried organic products; now nearly all do. Consumer demand did that.

Some people have argued that calls for individual action actually distract us from corporate responsibility. That could explain why the fossil-fuel industry is enamored of such entreaties. Oil giant BP popularized and promoted the idea of a carbon footprint, deflecting attention to its customers who, it suggests, should take personal responsibility by lowering their carbon footprints. One study found that focusing on individual activity actually undermines support for more effective policy initiatives such as a carbon tax.

Yet individual acts can grow into influential group activity. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the strength of the fossil-fuel behemoth or to think that calling your congressperson is a meaningless gesture, especially when you learn about the billions of dollars the industry and its allies have spent trying to block Congress from acting. But one effective act, and one that can be amplified, is to eat less red meat.

That’s a tough one. The major drivers of climate change are collective enterprises such as power grids, industry, large-scale agriculture and transportation systems. About half of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from electricity generation and industrial fossil-fuel use. Substantial emissions reductions in these settings most likely will not come from personal actions; they will come from laws and policies such as carbon-pricing systems, revised building codes and supports for green investment.

How does livestock contribute to global warming?

According to FAO data, 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock farming, an industry that emits not only carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) — two gases considered to play a similar role to CO2 in driving global warming. Though methane and nitrous oxide do not remain in the atmosphere as long as CO2, their respective climate warming potential is about 25 times and 300 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. To compare the impact of different greenhouse gases, a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) is typically calculated.

Cattle farms are a major source of greenhouse gases: Rupert Oberhäuser/dpa/picture alliance

Most emissions in livestock farming result from feed production (58%) and are released during animals digestive processes (31%); ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats produce large quantities of methane. Processing and transport account for sizable share of greenhouse gas emissions (7%), as well, as does the storage of manure (4%). About 87% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions in livestock farming are attributable to cattle farming because of the sheer number of animals.

These figures pertain to overall livestock farming, meaning that they also encompass areas such as dairy farming, cheese, gelatin and wool production. A large percentage of methane emissions, for example, is linked to dairy cows.

It can be concluded that about 15% of global greenhouse emissions result from livestock farming — almost on par with those produced by the transport sector.

1. How does beef production cause greenhouse gas emissions? The short answer: Through the agricultural production process and through land-use change. The longer explanation: Cows and other ruminant animals (like goats and sheep) emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants.

FAQ

How much does beef contribute to climate change?

With 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram, beef production remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases.

Why is beef production bad for the environment?

As the global cattle industry has expanded, the beef slaughter and leather industries have grown vigorously. When it is not properly treated, waste from slaughterhouses and tanneries—rich in organic matter, heavy metals and caustic solutions—is highly polluting without appropriate treatment.

How does not eating beef help climate change?

If you compared the protein content of beef and peas, for example, beef would produce roughly 90% times more Earth-warming emissions. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 14% of all emissions come from meat and dairy production.

What is biggest contributor to climate change?

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

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