Fighting the climate crisis: It’s the cow and the how

Changing how we produce beef can reduce greenhouse gas emissions – but not enough to offset the growing demand for beef and its contribution to the climate crisis.

Some beef industry advocates contend that changing how we produce beef is more important than the numbers of cows or overall demand for beef. In their view, it’s “the how, not the cow.”

The sheer number of cows needed to meet demand, and the greenhouse gases resulting from that increasing production, may make a climate catastrophe unavoidable. Scientists calculate that emissions from agriculture – mostly meat and dairy – would cause us to blow past our climate goals, even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. One solution to the climate crisis is about the cow – less meat, and especially less beef, can make a bigger difference than growing meat with more climate-friendly production practices, say the experts.

But “the how” is important, too. Production practices that reduce emissions, though important, are alone not enough to make beef production as sustainable as plants or “carbon negative,” as some beef supporters claim.

Oxford scientists found that even the best methods will not be good enough if beef consumption continues to grow as expected. Some methods – such as rotating animals through pasture – don’t do much to reduce greenhouse gases and are hard to measure or verify. Practices that improve soil health could offset, at most, 60 percent farm animals’ emissions, experts say.

The bottom line? Greenhouse gases from the animals outweigh the benefits of practices that might help. The meat industry’s typical defense of ramping up beef production by claiming that method changes solve the emissions problem underestimates or ignores the fact that more beef means more emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, powerful greenhouse gases.

A team of food and climate experts that reviewed these “regenerative” claims found:

Evidence as to the sequestration benefits of holistic, adaptive, and other variants of rotational grazing is patchy and highly contradictory. Where there are benefits, these are small. The highly ambitious claims made about the potential for holistic grazing to mitigate climate change are wrong.

No practice or combination of practices is a magic bullet. Even incorporating all the best farming practices would not reduce emissions as much as following a more sustainable diet can.

If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to change how we produce beef, and at the same time cut back on beef consumption.

We must pursue a combination of activities, such as eating more plant-based foods, eating less beef, rethinking how we raise farm animals, increasing crop yields, reducing food waste, and using fertilizer more carefully, among other steps.

Get Your Copy: EWG's Quick Tips for Reducing Your Diet's Climate Footprint

The facts are inescapable: If global protein demand doubles, as some predict, and most of that demand is met by animals raised here and abroad, little will be done to change the upward trajectory of emissions linked to meat. Beef and dairy cows already produce 36 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Even if it takes less feed to produce the same amount of meat, the impact of raising and feeding more animals will more than offset those gains.

The good news is demand for plant-based foods is growing, especially among consumers who are not vegetarians and vegans. More meat eaters’ occasionally choosing fish and plant proteins can help cut emissions. It’s the cow and the how.

Consumers don’t need to reject meat altogether. If enough consumers change their diets, at least some of the time, to reflect a healthier focus that’s less reliant on beef, we can still meet our climate goals. But time is of the essence when it comes to addressing food and farm emissions. Any delay will require future actions to be even more drastic.

Disqus Comments

Related News

Continue Reading