Story by Noah Botwinick, contributing author for the PeoplePlanetProfitBlog.com.
Beef Production and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Background of Beef Production in the US
Beef cattle production represents the largest individual single portion of US agriculture today. In fact, roughly 35% of all farms in the US are beef-producing farms. The U.S. beef industry is made up of more than 1 million businesses, farms and ranches, and there are more than 800,000 ranchers and cattle producers in the United States. The retail equivalent value of the U.S. beef industry in 2011 was $79 billion and total U.S. beef consumption in the same year was 25.6 billion pounds. The value of US cattle and calf production in 2011 was $45.2 billion, and total US beef production measured in commercial carcass weight in 2011 was 26.29 billion pounds. In 2012, 90.8 million cows were produced.
Negative Impacts of Beef Production
Producing all this beef leaves a large carbon footprint on the environment. According to the National Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the meat industry is responsible for approximately 18 percent of the 36 billion tons of “CO2-equivelant” greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere on a yearly basis. To put this figure in perspective, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, electricity generation is responsible for 33% of total greenhouse gas emissions; transportation is responsible for 26%, industrial use accounts for roughly 11%, and residential and commercial uses are responsible for about 8%. According to the FAO, the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced in order to make half a pound of hamburger meat is equivalent to the amount of gases that are released when driving a 3,000 pound car for 10 miles.
Some of the adverse environmental effects of the beef production industry include:
- Deforestation: Producing large amounts of beef requires large amount of cattle, and large amounts of cattle requires large amounts of land. Additionally, asides for just the land required for grazing, the beef industry also takes up huge amounts of land to grow the crops used to make feed for the cattle. As a result, the land used for beef production purposes takes up almost a third of the earth’s total land surface. Making all this land usable for beef production requires clearing away large areas of land, lots of which was previously occupied by forests.
- In Brazil, for instance, an average of 19,368 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest was cut down every year between 2000 and 2007 to produce land to for cattle to graze on.
- This has serious negative effects on biodiversity and introduces new, deadly diseases into the human population through zoonosis.
- Desertification and Soil Erosion: Each animal that is allowed to graze consumes roughly 10,800 pounds of vegetation a year, in addition to the vegetation and soil that is trampled and ruined by the 24 pounds of force per square inch from the animals’ hooves. As a result of these effects, cattle production is quickly transforming usable land into desert in America and elsewhere around the globe.
- According to a UN report from 1991, 685 million acres of usable land in the western US is becoming ruined by overgrazing and other problems. Approximately a third of the topsoil in the US has been lost as a result of overgrazing and raising crops to feed livestock, and about seven billion tons of soil in the US has already become eroded, mostly as a result of overgrazing and planting crops to feed cattle and other animals. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 35 pounds of American topsoil becomes eroded just to produce one pound of feedlot steak.
- Water Scarcity: In the US, an estimated 50% of the total used water goes to provide drinking water for cattle and other livestock and for growing feed for cattle. As a result, US freshwater reserves have become significantly reduced, and water shortages have become severe, particularly in the Western US.
- It takes hundreds of gallons of water to produce just one pound of grain-fed steak.
- Water and Air Pollution: The main non-point source of water pollution in the US is organic waste that comes from cattle and other livestock, pesticides, agricultural salts, chemical fertilizers and sediments.
- Cattle can produce an estimated 1 billion tons of organic waste per year, and the average feedlot steer make more than 47 pounds of manure every day. There are approximately 42,000 feedlots in the US, and the average 10,000 animal feedlot can create 500,000 pounds of manure in 24 hours.
- Large amounts of this manure is stored in manure lagoons, the runoff and leaching from which can end up surface and groundwater and pollute nearby drinking water. The runoff of manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus and can cause eutrophication and dead zones from increased algae production in water. Additionally, the manure emits ammonia into the air, which can cause respiratory diseases when inhaled.
- Global Warming: As mentioned, cattle and beef production is a major producer of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, all of which contribute significantly to global warming. This comes from burning forests to create grazing land for cattle and from burning large quantities of agricultural waste from feed crops.
- For every 55 square feet of rain forest that is cleared for grazing, roughly 500 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
- Carbon dioxide is also generated by the fuel that is used in the mechanized agricultural production of feed crops for cattle and other livestock; considering that about 70 percent of the grain produced in the US is used for animal feed, this is a lot of carbon dioxide emissions.
- Petrochemical fertilizers are used to produce feed crops for grain-fed cattle, and this generates nitrous oxide, which accounts for 6 percent of the earth’s greenhouse gases.
- Another major contributor to the earth’s greenhouse gases is methane, much of which is produced from cattle belches and flatulation. One methane molecule traps almost 25 times as much solar heat as a molecule of carbon dioxide, and roughly 60 million tons of methane are produced each year just from cattle alone.
- Antibiotic Resistance: Many cattle are confined to small living spaces and are fed a diet of corn, which is not their natural food. They are often treated with antibiotics to keep them healthy and to promote growth. Roughly 70% of all antibiotics in the US are given to livestock for these purposes. The issue is that widespread use of antibiotic results in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is increasingly becoming a health problem both in the US and abroad.
Efforts to Decrease Negative Impacts
As the human population continues to increase, so does the need for meat. As a result, the US and other countries are constantly raising more cattle and clearing more land. If beef producers continue their current practices, negative impacts on the earth will be devastating. According to a report by the FAO, the environmental damage that comes from livestock may double by the year 2050. Fortunately, there have been several measures taken to reduce these adverse effects from the beef industry.
- The government of Brazil is undertaking efforts to reduce its rate of deforestation by 80% in the next 7 years by making laws that require landowners, branches of government and business to maintain up to 80% of native vegetation on private lands in the Amazon region. Brazil is also working to create management plans for the land that is better for the environment.
- If managed properly, manure can be used as an important source of nutrients and organic matter when used as a fertilizer.
- Another reform that would be beneficial for the environment is the intensification of the cattle industry. This would lead to less land being used to produce the same amount of beef. This would produce less greenhouse gases, use less fossil fuels, waste less land and use up less water. Intensification is implemented through Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.
- If cattle grazing is properly managed, it can actually have positive environmental effects on native herbs and forbs. By properly managing grazing lands through managed intensive rotational grazing and grazing at low intensities, it can lead to increased recapture of carbon dioxide, fewer ammonia emissions into the atmosphere, reduced soil erosion, better air quality as well as less water pollution.
- To reduce methane emissions, management methods include genetic selection, immunization, changing the livestock’s diet and grazing management. Although cattle that eat forage emit more methane than cattle that are fed grain, methane emissions from forage-fed cattle are offset by the increased carbon recapture of grazing pastures.