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Grazing animals are just as responsible for contributing to climate change, according to a new study published by the University of Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network.
The 127-page report, titled “Grazed and Confused,” states there is no evidence to support the claim that grass-fed livestock have a lower carbon footprint than those fed on feedlots.
“Grass-fed livestock are not a climate solution,” says lead author Dr. Tara Garnett. “Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use.”
The primary issue with livestock concerns the microorganisms in their stomach, which emit methane into the atmosphere. With over 100 million cows in the U.S., American cattle alone are responsible for over 5.5 million metric tons of methane ending up in our atmosphere per year.
However, “pro-pastoralists” argue that the plants from the ruminants’ pastures help to capture carbon from the air, offsetting the damaging methane cows release. Yet, the effects are “small, time-limited, reversible, and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate,” according to the study’s findings.
Nonetheless, demand for grass-fed beef has risen at a rate of 25-30 percent per year over the past decade, while per capita consumption of traditional beef products has steadily declined. Driving this trend are the health benefits of grass-fed beef—65 percent less fat and 50 percent fewer calories—and the public’s growing concern for antibiotic-use on feedlots.
What Can Be Done?
“Livestock is important to any kind of sustainable agricultural system,” says Frank Mitloehner, PhD, a professor and air quality extension specialist at the University of California, Davis.
“If we were to take all of livestock out tomorrow and everybody were to become vegetarian or vegan, we would reduce the carbon footprint of the United States by 2.6 percent,” he says. “That’s not nothing, it’s something—but it’s a relatively small number.”
As such, the food industry needs to take steps to make a positive impact on climate change.
Marketing. A possible way to ease the public to a shift away from the trendy grass-fed craze is for food distributors to emphasize some the benefits of conventionally-finished animals.
“The grass-finished animal tastes different,” says Dr. Mitloehner. “The fat flavor is very different between one and the other, and the majority of citizens in the United States do not favor grass-finished beef, even though you might get that impression when you read some of the media.”
Additionally, raising grass-fed livestock has led to increases in deforestation, as farmers expand their pastures to accommodate more cows.
Thus, when marketing beef produced from feedlot systems to the public, the food industry could highlight the immense negative climate impact from land conversion required to create pastures for grazing.
Efficiency. From a global perspective, there is an apparent lack of efficiency when it comes to raising livestock for consumption.
“Of the one billion pigs [China] produces a year, 40 percent die pre-weaning,” relates Dr. Mitloehner.
“In India, [the average dairy cows] do not receive any kind of veterinary care. If they get sick, they get sick; if they die, they die,” he says. “As a result, it takes 25 cows there to produce the same amount of milk as one cow there—so think about what the environmental footprint of 25 versus one is.”
Such statistics are evidently troubling; but, as Dr. Mitloehner led onto, such inefficiencies can be corrected with better infrastructure.
As climate change is an issue uninhibited by and indiscriminate of borders, a possible solution is for the food industry to shift to a global perspective.
By moving focus and resources abroad, the industry could help companies in developing countries achieve production efficiencies similar to the leading markets, such as the U.S.
Reduce Consumption. Ultimately, the most effective way to reduce livestock’s effects on climate change would be to naturally curb our appetite for it altogether.
“Switching to grass-fed beef and dairy does not solve the climate problem—only a reduction in consumption of livestock products will do that,” said Peter Smith, an author on the report, to Science Magazine.
Restaurants could de-emphasize livestock products on their menu, offering more vegetarian or vegan dishes instead. Further, companies that utilize beef in their products could look to phase the ingredient out for eco-friendlier and/or vegetarian alternatives.
“If high consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution,” holds Dr. Garnett, “Eating less meat, of all types, is.”
Novis is an editorial intern for Wiley’s U.S. B2B editorial division.