Editor’s note: In March 2022, this article was updated to reflect the most recent findings.
From cows’ purported high-methane farts (fact check: they’re largely high-methane burps) to analogies with cars and airplanes, beef and climate change are in the headlines these days (fact check: the world needs to reduce emissions from fossil fuels and agriculture to sufficiently rein in global warming). It’s easy for the discourse to get polarized, as it is with so many topics in the public domain.
Animal-based meals are healthy and vital to the livelihoods and diets of people in underdeveloped nations, yet also waste resources inefficiently. Although beef output is improving, forests are still being torn down for new pasture. Even though many say they wish to eat more plants, meat consumption continues to rise. All of these things are true, even if they appear to be conflicting. That’s what makes the debate between beef and sustainability so nuanced and divisive.
Here are six frequently asked questions regarding beef and climate change, based on our World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future and other research:
How does beef production cause greenhouse gas emissions?
The quick answer is that it occurs during the agricultural production process and as a result of changes in land use.
The lengthy version: As they digest grasses and plants, cows and other ruminant animals (such as goats and sheep) release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This is known as “enteric fermentation,” and it is the cause of cow burps. Manure produces methane as well. Furthermore, nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is created by ruminant waste on pastures and chemical fertilizers used on bovine feed crops.
More indirectly, but no less significant, increased beef production necessitates more acreage. Cutting down trees to make new pastureland is a common practice that releases carbon dioxide contained in forests.
Total yearly emissions from beef production, comprising agricultural production emissions and land-use change, were projected to be around 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That means that in 2010, beef production emissions were roughly on par with India’s, accounting for about 7% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This is a cautious estimate because FAO only accounted for land-use-change emissions in a limited way.
Beef and other ruminant foods are in high demand around the world, with demand increasing by 25% between 2000 and 2019. The major direct driver of deforestation during the first two decades of this century was pastureland expansion. Demand will continue to climb, putting strain on forests, biodiversity, and the environment. Even after accounting for advances in beef production efficiency, pastureland might rise by 400 million hectares between 2010 and 2050, covering an area greater than India. The ensuing deforestation may raise global emissions to the point where the worldwide target of keeping temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius (2.7-3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is no longer achievable.
At COP26, world leaders committed to a 30% reduction in methane emissions and the abolition of deforestation by 2030. Addressing beef-related emissions could assist governments in meeting both of their commitments.
Is beef more resource-intensive than other foods?
The longer explanation: Because ruminant animals develop and reproduce at a slower rate than pigs and poultry, they require more feed per unit of meat produced. Animal feed necessitates the use of land, which comes with a carbon cost. Overall, beef requires more resources to produce than most other types of meat, and animal-based diets require more resources than plant-based foods. Beef consumes 20 times the amount of land and produces 20 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per gram of digestible protein than popular plant proteins like beans. While the bulk of the world’s grasslands are unable to support crops or trees, these “native grasslands” are already widely utilized for livestock production, implying that increased beef demand will exacerbate forest pressure.
Why are some people saying beef production is only a small contributor to emissions?
The quick explanation is that such estimations frequently ignore land-use implications, such as logging forests to create new pastureland.
The longer version: Many statistics exist that account for emissions from beef production but not for concomitant land-use change. Here are three commonly used estimations in the United States:
- The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture emissions will account for only 10% of total US emissions in 2019.
- According to a 2019 study published in Agricultural Systems, beef production accounts for only 3% of total US emissions.
- According to a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eliminating all animals from American agriculture would only lower emissions by 3%.
While all of these estimates include emissions from agricultural production in the United States, they leave out a critical component: emissions linked with land use for agriculture. An acre of land dedicated to food production could often store significantly more carbon if allowed to develop forest or native flora. Estimates of emissions related with domestic cattle production must also go beyond national borders, especially as global beef demand is increasing.
Because food is a global commodity, what one country consumes can have an impact on land use and emissions in another. Increased beef consumption in the United States, for example, may result in deforestation in Latin America to make room for pastureland. Reduced beef consumption in the United States, on the other hand, can help to prevent deforestation and land-use-change emissions in other countries. Another example is beef exports from the United States to China, which have been significantly increasing since 2020.
When land-use consequences of beef production are taken into consideration, the GHG emissions associated with the average American-style diet approach per capita US energy-related emissions. When land-use impacts are taken into consideration, the average European’s diet-related emissions are equivalent to the per capita emissions normally allocated to each European’s consumption of all products and services, including energy, according to a linked study.
Can beef be produced more sustainably?
The short answer is yes, however beef production will always be resource-intensive.
The longer version: Beef production emits a wide range of emissions around the world, and advances in cattle production efficiency can drastically cut land use and emissions per pound of meat. Improved feed quality and veterinary care, as well as enhanced animal breeds that convert feed more efficiently into meat and milk, and improved management practices such as rotational grazing, can boost production and soil health while lowering emissions. By minimizing the demand for extra pastureland, increasing productivity can relieve strain on tropical forests.
There are numerous examples of better procedures. Some beef farming in Colombia, for example, incorporates trees and grasses onto pasturelands, allowing the area to provide more quantity and quality feed. Farmers could quadruple the number of cows per acre while lowering methane emissions per pound of meat since the cows grow faster. Supplementing standard bovine diets with high-quality feeds like napier grass and high-protein Calliandra shrubs which can contribute to faster cattle growth and better milk output might lower methane emissions per liter of milk by 8% to 60%, according to a study of dairy farms in Kenya.
There are also developing technologies, such as feed additives like 3-nitrooxypropan (3-NOP) or seaweed, that can help cows burp less. Agricultural emissions can be reduced by improving manure management and utilizing methods that prevent nitrogen in animal waste from converting to nitrous oxide. Companies that buy beef can also encourage these kinds of changes in methods and technologies to reduce emissions.
Do we all need to stop eating beef in order to curb climate change?
The longer explanation: Fighting climate change does not necessitate everyone becoming vegetarian or vegan, or even giving up beef. If ruminant meat consumption in high-consumption countries fell to about 50 calories per day, or 1.5 burgers per person per week about half of current U.S. levels and 25% below current European levels, but still well above the national average for most countries the need for additional agricultural expansion and associated deforestation would be nearly eliminated. Even in a world of 10 billion people, which is expected by 2050, this is true.
In certain locations, people’s diets are already changing away from beef. Since the 1970s, per capita beef consumption in the United States has decreased by one-third. On crucial features including taste, affordability, and convenience, plant-based burgers and blended meat-plant alternatives are increasingly competing with conventional meat products. Plant-based alternatives are gaining popularity at a rapid pace, albeit from a low base. Even while per capita ruminant meat consumption is declining in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania, the drop in high-consumption regions would have to be 1.5 times quicker to meet the 50 calorie per day objective by 2050.
Other convincing arguments exist for people to switch to plant-based foods. Some studies have linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancer, while diets rich in healthy plant-based foods (such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancer. People in high-income nations such as North America and Europe consume more protein than they require to meet their nutritional needs.
Would eating less beef be bad for jobs in the food and agriculture sector?
The longer version: Given projected future rise in meat demand in developing nations, even if people in higher-income countries eat less beef, the worldwide market for beef is expected to grow in the coming decades. Between 2010 and 2050, the scenario depicted in the graph results in a 32 percent increase in worldwide ruminant meat consumption. Despite decreased per capita beef consumption in the United States, total beef output has been stable since the 1970s. Increased export potential in top beef-producing countries will result from rising demand in emerging markets such as China, albeit developing such markets takes time.
Furthermore, large meat producers are making investments in the alternative protein industry. Even as they try to cut emissions from beef production in their supply chains through enhanced production standards, they’re promoting themselves more broadly as “protein companies.”
Moving Toward a Sustainable Food Future
Beef uses more resources than most other foods and has a significant environmental impact. From farm to plate, a sustainable food future will necessitate a variety of techniques. As the world’s population grows, both food producers and consumers have a role to play in decreasing beef emissions. And, as the globe works on measures to combat climate change, whether in agriculture, energy, or elsewhere, it’s critical to make judgments based on the best available data.
How much CO2 is produced by a kilogram of beef?
A kilogram of beef (beef herd) produces 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2eq), but a kilogram of poultry meat produces less than 10 kg CO2eq. Globally, food production is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
What is the most significant cause of global warming?
The majority of analysis in the attempt to understand and solve global climate change has concentrated on fast rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and solutions for lowering them. Carbon dioxide, which is produced as a consequence of fossil fuel combustion, is the primary greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and a variety of industrial-process gases, contribute significantly to climate change. Effective climate policies should target both carbon dioxide and these other greenhouse gases from an environmental and economic standpoint.
In the United States, non-CO2 gases account for 17% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with a substantially higher percentage in developing countries like India and Brazil. Furthermore, a variety of local and regional air pollutant emissions interact with the complicated chemistry of the atmosphere to provide additional warming or cooling effects. Understanding how these gases interact, as well as how to create policies that address a variety of environmental effects, is critical for addressing both local and global environmental challenges.
The authors of this research, M.I.T.’s John Reilly, Henry Jacoby, and Ronald Prinn, decipher some of the intricacies involved in analyzing the impacts of these numerous gases and potential solutions. Emissions come from a variety of industries and actions. For certain sources, accurately calculating emissions and emission reductions is easier than for others. Various greenhouse gases are analyzed for policy purposes using “global warming potentials,” which are based on each gas’s atmospheric lifespan and capacity to trap heat. These, on the other hand, do not yet accurately reflect the climatic effects of all the elements that contribute to climate change, therefore they should be used with caution. While scientists have long recognized the various roles of non-CO2 gases and other substances in climate change, the various pieces of the puzzle have only recently been put together to provide a more complete picture of the critical role these gases can play in a cost-effective climate change strategy.
The authors show that integrating all greenhouse gases in a moderate emissions reduction approach not only raises the overall amount of emissions reductions, but also lowers the overall cost of mitigation: a win-win method. In fact, because of the non-CO2 gases’ high potency and the current lack of economic incentives, our research finds that controlling these gases is particularly crucial and cost-effective in the short term. The policy implications are clear: any effort to reduce CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases should be included in any endeavor to limit global warming.
James Hansen, Keith Paustian, Ev Ehrlich, Francisco Delachesnaye, and Dina Kruger provided helpful comments on prior drafts of this study, which the Center and the authors appreciate. The authors also thank Marcus Sarofim for his research assistance and support from the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Climate Change.
What role does meat have in global warming?
Meat eating contributes to greenhouse gas emissions such as methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide. Climate change, such as global warming, is exacerbated by these gases. Livestock production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways: Forest ecosystems are being destroyed.
How much pollution does the beef business cause?
It is common knowledge that the meat industry has a negative impact on the environment. Factory farms emit enormous amounts of pollutants at practically every stage of their operations, beginning with the animal feed. Nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas that causes almost 300 times more heat than CO2 and depletes the ozone layer, is produced by nitrogen fertilizer used to increase the feed. Ammonia, methane, CO2, and other pollutants are released by animal manure. According to the United Nations, the meat industry accounts for 18% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Factory farming is widespread in the region. While there are few factory farms in New Jersey, southern Delaware is known as the world’s poultry capital (producing over 200,000,000 chickens per year), and Pennsylvania’s 100+ factory farms produce over 15,000,000 animals each year. Despite this, little is being done to control the pollution caused by these facilities in the air.
The Clean Air Council is presently not working on this issue due to a lack of funding. However, given its size and proximity, it’s a project we’d like to work on and believe we’re well-suited for. The agricultural business uses tactics that are quite similar to those used by other industrial pollutants we’ve opposed, including the fracking industry. For example, just as the “Halliburton Loophole” exempts fracking from most EPA water restrictions, the EPA has similarly exempted animal farm enterprises from reporting on the pollutants they cause. Furthermore, Pennsylvania’s permitting process is rigged in favor of industry, with only a small percentage of comprehensive applications ever being denied. This has made local zoning boards the best place to fight industrial farms, just as the Council’s aim in the Middlesex case was to prevent fracking away from schools.
How much CO2 is emitted by the meat industry?
Researchers presented the most comprehensive review of farming’s environmental impact to date in 2019. According to the study, beef generates just under 50 kilograms of CO2 equivalents every 100 grams of protein. Lamb and mutton produce little under 20 kilograms, but farmed prawns and pig meat produce 18.19 kilograms and 7.61 kilograms, respectively.
To put things in perspective, grains produce 2.71kg of CO2 equivalents per 100g of protein, while soybeans produce 1.98kg.
Peas, a major ingredient in plant-based meat (such as Beyond Burgers), produce only 0.44kg of CO2.
Plant-based sources emit substantially less than animal-based sources when measured per kilogram of food (rather than per 100g of protein).
According to the researchers, producing a kilogram of beef releases 60 kilograms of CO2 equivalents, but pea production emits only 1 kilogram of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of food.
Lamb, poultry, and pork, respectively, produce 20kg, 6kg, and 7kg of CO2 equivalents. Root vegetables and apples, on the other hand, both produce 0.4kg. To mention a few, rice (4kg), tomatoes (1.4kg), almonds (0.3kg), and bananas (0.7kg) have a lower carbon footprint.
“A vegan diet is probably the single most effective strategy to lessen your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gas emissions, but also global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water consumption,” said Joseph Poore, the study’s lead author. He went on to say that avoiding animal products has a ‘much greater’ impact than flying less or driving an electric car.
What are the top ten factors that contribute to global warming?
Top 10 Global Warming Causes
- Deforestation. Deforestation is the clearing of woodland and forest for the purpose of harvesting timber or making room for farms or ranches.
What is the environmental impact of beef production?
Beef production contributes significantly to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases such methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Ruminant animals are responsible for between 7% and 18% of worldwide methane emissions from human-related activities, according to research.
What is the environmental benefit of eating less meat?
The most typical question people ask me when I give public talks about the climate catastrophe is, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” Yes, that is my response. California has accomplished significant carbon reductions while maintaining a vibrant economy, which gives me optimism, but the fossil-fuel sector is adamant about not changing. “What can I personally do?” is the second most often asked question.
That’s a difficult one. Collective businesses such as power grids, manufacturing, large-scale agriculture, and transportation systems are important drivers of climate change. Electricity generation and industrial fossil-fuel consumption account for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Significant emissions reductions in these situations are most likely to come via laws and regulations such as carbon-pricing systems, improved building rules, and financial incentives for green investment.
Some contend that appeals for individual action divert our attention away from corporate accountability. That could explain why the fossil-fuel business is so taken with such requests. BP popularized and promoted the concept of a carbon footprint, directing attention away from itself and toward its consumers, who, according to the company, should take personal responsibility by reducing their carbon footprints. Focusing on individual action, according to one study, actually reduces support for more effective policy approaches like a carbon price.
People dislike being told what to do, which is another issue with personal behavior. People wonder, “You’re saying I shouldn’t have this house in a suburb?” as former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis (a Republican) noted in the documentary Merchants of Doubt. Isn’t it true that I shouldn’t be driving this car?”
Individual acts, on the other hand, can blossom into powerful group activity. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the fossil-fuel behemoth’s might, or to believe that calling your congressperson is a pointless gesture, especially when you learn about the billions of dollars spent by the business and its allies to prevent Congress from acting. However, eating less red meat is a beneficial action that can be amplified.
Cutting meat consumption is a powerful and personal act that most Americans can do right now to help solve the climate catastrophe. Agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes account for about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. Meat, particularly beef, contributes to climate change in two ways: first, by the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas by cows, and second, through the destruction of forests as grazing pasture. Despite the economic slowdown induced by the COVID epidemic, atmospheric greenhouse gas levels continued to grow in 2020, owing in large part to a spike in emissions in the Amazon as rain forests were converted to cow pastures to meet global beef demand. We may begin to reduce the demand for beef by consuming less of it.
This does not necessitate becoming a vegan. According to one recent study, cutting meat consumption by 25% would result in a 1% reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. That may not seem like much, but it would help protect the rain forest, thereby amplifying the positive effectssuch as reduced water and fertilizer consumption, improved biodiversity, and the protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights.
The fact that social action is contagiousin a good wayis maybe the most essential factor. If a large number of people start eating less meat and talk about it in a positive way, we will most likely persuade others. The 1 percent reduction quickly becomes 2 percent or more. Reduced demand for meat may encourage my local grocer to stock higher-quality produce, allowing me and my neighbors to create a few more satisfying meat-free dinners. Changes in demand will eventually have an impact on the sector. Few mainstream supermarkets stocked organic products forty years ago; now nearly all do. That was due to consumer demand.
Reducing your intake of red meat has the extra benefit of improving your health. So, while I wouldn’t suggest governments to make people stop eating hamburgers, if someone asks, “What can I do?” the answer is straightforward and accurate: “Eat less meat.” It’s entirely within your power, and you can start right now. It’s good for both you and the environment.”
What makes beef so harmful to the environment?
Livestock is responsible for about 15% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Beef is the worst offender, accounting for roughly 65 percent of all livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle create methane and require a lot of carbon-intensive land conversion and carbon-intensive feed to survive. Beef requires 20 times more land and generates 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein than typical plant proteins like beans, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental research NGO.
Those who support beef claim that it doesn’t have to be this way. Proposals ranging from giving seaweed to calves to minimize methane emissions to “The concept of “regenerative farming,” which can improve soil and land, has been discussed, and some of it has been tried out on a small scale.
But don’t kid yourself: unless you go to great lengths to trace, source, and verify the meat’s sustainable history, you’re getting the output of a carbon-intensive industrial process when you buy beef from a grocery store shelf or in a restaurant in America.
Epicurious acknowledged this reality when it announced it will no longer publish beef recipes: “We understand that some people may see this decision as a vengeance against cows or the people who eat them. But we didn’t make this decision because we despise hamburgers (we don’t!). Instead, we’ve made the decision to focus only on sustainability, avoiding providing publicity to one of the world’s top climate violators. We consider this decision to be pro-planet rather than anti-beef.”
The emergence of “climatarians” was highlighted in a May 20 New York Times article about the development of “climatarians,” which noted that while many climate-conscious eaters have moved away from meat, many still believe that “chicken or lamb are much better choices than beef.”
It’s understandable that some consumers have determined that beef is no longer a good choice. Individual consumer decisions do matter: researchers looked at the elasticity of supply for beef how much consumer demand influences production and discovered that when consumers demand fewer hamburgers, fewer cows are grown.
However, whether this is a good thing in general depends a lot on what you choose instead.
The animal-cruelty angle
Being a cow on an industrial farm is no joy. Experts in animal welfare, on the other hand, believe that being a chicken is significantly worse.
This is due to the commercial incentives that drive the production of both cows and chickens. Ranchers have discovered that raising cows on pasture and then fattening them for slaughter on feedlots is the most efficient method. There’s a lot wrong with the way we raise them: cows are painfully dehorned, antibiotics are widely distributed to keep them healthy at the expense of breeding antibiotic resistance, and while there is a federal law requiring pigs and cattle to be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter, it’s not always followed and only minimally enforced.
Chickens, on the other hand, have it far worse. Chickens are raised in enormous, congested indoor warehouses where they never see the sun for the most part. Companies have developed chickens to grow so quickly that their joints break as they reach full size over time. According to observational studies, they spend a lot of time sitting still because they are in too much discomfort to move.