When thinking about the main culprits that contribute to global climate change, we tend to focus on the burning and extraction of fossil fuels and transportation. However, there is a larger threat to our planet that often goes unchallenged: The livestock industry.
This business is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. According to the Land Health Institute, the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than transportation.
The Food and Agriculture Organization reports “about 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of methane.” Methane is more harmful than carbon dioxide, as it has a global warming potential 82 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over 20 years.
Cattle, raised for both beef and milk, is the species responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions within the livestock sector, representing about 65% of them.
While cow flatulence does produce a small amount of methane, belching is the main culprit. Inside Climate News reported about a quarter of United States methane emissions come out of livestock, mostly from belching.
An article by World Animal Protection stated cows burp approximately every 90 minutes, and it also noted “1.47 billion cows are burping and farting out approximately 150 billion gallons of methane every day.”
Cows and other animals, such as goats, sheep and buffalo, are ruminants, which means they re-chew and re-swallow their food in a cycle called rumination. This natural digestive process creates methane, which is burped. Another reason cows burp frequently is their insufficient diets; they are often given corn and soy to cut down on production costs.
According to Clear Water Action, cow manure decomposes and releases emissions, including methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide, thus accelerating climate change. In addition to this process, manure collection ponds generate about one-tenth of all U.S. methane production.
This means the dairy industry is also extremely destructive to the environment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture stated manure from 200 dairy cows produces as much nitrogen as the sewage from a community of 10,000 people.
When these cow manure lagoons flood or leak, they release harmful pesticides and bacteria into the environment and our waterways. This is due to the use of toxic fertilizers on fields, in addition to cows being pumped full with antibiotics.
Millions of acres of land are cultivated to raise livestock, greatly impacting habitats and biodiversity while emitting greenhouse gases. For example, prairies and grasslands used for farming in the Midwest are at risk, also according to Clear Water Action.
The food responsible for the largest global water footprint is beef. It takes approximately 1,847 gallons of water to make one pound of beef.
Inside Climate News stated in 1960, the U.S. produced 16 billion pounds of beef, compared to the 27 billion pounds in 2018. The country is the largest beef manufacturers in the world. Furthermore, our people consume it excessively, as the average American eats almost triple the global average at 57 pounds per capita.
Another climate concern is the growing population and how to feed the prospective 10 billion people who will be living on Earth by 2050. According to an article from World Animal Protection, “If left unchecked, agriculture is projected to produce 52% of global greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, 70% of which will come from meat and dairy.”
A report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was written by more than 100 scientists, stated “better land use, less meat-intensive diets and eliminating food waste should be global priorities, crucial … to forestall a climate catastrophe.” The report also made it clear that diets high in meat have an increased carbon footprint.
If improving the global climate crisis is important to you, the livestock industry must be recognized as a large contributor. Think about what you are willing to do about it.
Everyone knows about supply and demand. We vote with our dollars. Purchasing meat sends the message that you support the environmental damage caused during its production — and want it to continue.
While changes within the farming process should be made, such as more sustainable feeding methods for livestock and responsible manure management, the simplest and easiest way the average American can help is to consume less meat and dairy.
If you’re not ready to become vegetarian or vegan, supporting small, local farms can help reduce your carbon footprint. However, cutting it out altogether is unequivocally the best way to fight against the climate crisis.
It is a privilege to try to eat sustainably. One of the only valid excuses for continuing to eat meat is living in areas, or dealing with financial situations, that don’t allow for accessible, affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, fast food is all people can manage.
Oat milk, a sustainable alternative to cow’s milk, for example, is about 2.5 times more expensive. Other sustainable products, such as locally farmed produce and meat alternatives, can be difficult to find — and are expensive as well.
Despite this, I believe paying marginally higher prices or going out of our way for more eco-friendly products is worthwhile. I am willing to spend a few extra dollars to know I am helping the environment and contributing to a worldwide shift toward sustainable diets.
If humanity hopes to make strides toward a healthier planet, everyone concerned about the state of our environment must do the same.