Video Written, Produced, Filmed, and Edited by Sierra Glassman
We’ve all heard about how cow burps destroying the environment. It seems like people have beef with them. But, are cattle steeriously that bad?
Hi, I’m Sierra with Eat for the Earth, and in this series we’re examining the relationship between animal agriculture and the environment.
Here’s what’s causing climate change, according to the UN.
And yes, there’s is a scientific consensus that reducing the amount of cattle, and livestock in general, on planet Earth, will greatly benefit the climate and environment in general. The livestock sector’s percentage estimates range from the UN-accepted 14.5% to 87% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The figures that the UN used to make the 14.5% estimate are from the early 2000’s, so just because it is endorsed by them does not mean it is the most accurate number. In fact, the board in the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN that is responsible measuring the emissions of livestock is also responsible for supporting the industry. FAO is partnered with livestock industry steakholders and allows private livestock groups to influence their methodology to measure the climate impact of livestock. So, it is a flawed measurement, tainted with corporate interests, and is likely an underestimate.
The UN estimate also excludes livestock respiration, operating under the theory that those emissions are balanced by photosynthesis. However, due to the exponentially increasing deforestation for livestock pasture, some studies show this balance between plants and livestock may no longer exist.
Estimates on the higher end may also include the double-carbon dividend. Deforestation expert Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop explains this concept:
There’s a really interesting debate going on in science circles, and some are calling it the “double climate dividend.” You see, the land we devote to grazing cattle and sheep, it’s not just the extra deforestation that we do; it’s also that land could be used for other purposes, and those other purposes could be habitat for wildlife, could be trees for drawing down the carbon. So they call it the “double climate dividend.” Whenever you are growing cattle on the land, you are stopping the land from growing these other things: habitat and trees for carbon sequestration.
So, if you count that sequestration that’s not happening as an emission, if you count that land’s possibility of drawing down carbon, then suddenly animal agriculture becomes the greatest emissions source on Earth.
While beef is the most egregious emitter among animal products, none is as clean as plants, with the rare exception of air-shipped products like asparagus.
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reports: “If global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2° C, even with dramatic emissions reductions across non‐agricultural sectors.” You herd that right. Unless we slow animal production, it’s almost impossible to hit the climate bullseye for 2050. So, reduction of meat and dairy consumption is critical to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Moving towards a plant based world has the potential of halving the world’s CO2 emissions. And, personal dietary emissions are also halved on a vegan diet. But, some people may be under the impression that local or free-range animal products are cleaner. However, swapping out less than one day per week’s calories from beef and dairy to plant-based alternatives reduces emissions more than buying all your food locally.
Free-range and grass-fed systems also emit up to four times more GHGs than factory farms. So, it’s also possible to somewhat reduce the emissions of livestock by making livestock production “more efficient,” which is basically making the animals’ existence a living hell. But, no one likes that solution.
Besides CO2, methane is the most common GHG. It lasts around 9 years in the atmosphere, and during a 20-year period it traps around 84 times as much heat as CO2. Because of its short lifetime, it’s often dismissed as unimportant. However, reducing the amount of methane emitted is a much more rapid way to control climate change. And, livestock is the number one emitter of methane.
So, while climate policy is attempting to tackle fossil fuels, animal agriculture is largely ignored. And this is a problem. But, how about regenerative grazing?
You may have seen Allan Savory’s TED talk claiming that intensively grazing cattle on grasslands will somehow solve climate change. But, according to the Food Climate Research Network, “In many parts of the world the potential for grazing management to achieve sequestration is limited or absent.” Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop shares more details:
What the regenerative agriculture people are saying is that we can replenish the soil carbon and that will equal the emissions from the cows as well—it will solve the climate crisis. Well, no. Sure, we might be able to replenish the soil carbon to a certain point, to an equilibrium, but most of the carbon dioxide that’s been released is in the trees above the ground, not below the ground. If we can bring the ground back up to what is was before, that’s tremendous, but it’s not profitable. So most of the world’s producers are not going to do that.
The regenerative agriculture principles are very resource intensive, so they are costly. To cover those costs, it just won’t work. Regenerative agriculture in principle is great—bring some carbon back into the soil—but it ignores the potential for growing carbon above the soil, and it will never equal the emissions from the cattle above the ground. Never. And that has been studied thoroughly. So regenerative grazing is now used as a greenwash mantra by the big producers, Big Ag.
Also, intensive grazing, as suggested by regenerative grazing advocates, can hinder plant growth which then prevents carbon sequestration in plants.. Basically, this method needs perfect, pristine conditions. And, in the end, while converting even more land to non-native cattle usage, the maximum amount of sequestration would make a negligible dent on total livestock emissions, while increasing methane and nitrous oxide and encouraging further deforestation.
Already 41% of land in the US is used for pastures and rangelands, and this is echoed worldwide; about 40% of the Earth’s habitable land used for livestock production. Do we really want to dig that hole deeper? Cattle farming, and animal agriculture in general, is a bull in a China shop; mitigating its effects or trying to use it to better the environment is ineffective and can greatly backfire.
There’s a less round-about way to benefit nature. Rewilding.
Reducing the livestock sector frees up land to reforest or grow food for direct human consumption. Going vegan is the biggest way to reduce your impact on the environment. And, yeah, one person going vegan isn’t going to change much. But, let’s not let the destruction of the atmosphere become a tragedy of the commons. one more person means one more putting pressure on world leaders. In the end, in order to stop the rapid deterioration of the environment, we need to grab the bull by its horns and steer our species in the right direction. We cannot wait til the cows come home to stop the climate crisis.
Sierra Glassman is a recent high school graduate and Eat for the Earth summer 2022 intern. She has a passion for birds, has been accepted into UC Berkeley to study integrative biology, and just started this Fall, 2022. She spent her summer creating an educational video series for Eat for the Earth’s YouTube channel. During her brief time with the organization, she has researched and written three grants, had two approved (so far), created a plan for the series and an ad campaign. This is the sixth video in the series.