Updated: Oct 13
Lately, it seems that everyone is hating on meat: cows are increasing global warming with their burps, eating all our food, hogging all the land that we could use for other crops, and using up all our water. If we would cut back on meat, or go vegan, we could save our planet and ourselves. “Meatless Monday” and “Vegan Friday” initiatives are popping up everywhere, especially in schools.
As a nutritionist, I first observed this trend with mild disdain, but as the drumbeat gets louder, and the messaging is picking up momentum, I’m increasingly alarmed and bewildered. I’d like to explain, if you’ll gift me with a few minutes of your attention, why most of these claims and initiatives are misguided and aren’t real solutions to the climate crisis. I’ll also share some ways that we can heal the environment and try to dig ourselves out of this mess.
Let’s start with the biggest claim – that the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although this number is accurate, it does not reflect the huge regional differences amongst countries and how efficiencies in production, particularly in Western countries, have reduced emissions, while increasing yield. For example, India, with its 300 million cows produces the same amount of dairy as the US does with its 9 million dairy cows. This is an ideal example of how global numbers can be misleading and yield inappropriate solutions. Eating less meat in a country that has some of the best livestock efficiencies in the world is not going to move the needle on global emissions.
"If the entire US participated in “Meatless Mondays,” our emissions would decrease by 0.3%"
The US livestock sector is only 3.9% of emissions, of which cattle are responsible for 2%. According to a study done in 2017, if the entire American population participated in “Meatless Monday,” we would reduce US emissions by 0.3%. That’s not even measurable in practical terms. If the entire US population became vegan, all 300 million of us, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6%. Yes, you read that correctly: two point six percent. When talking about emissions, we have to focus regionally. Because that’s where the solutions lie. To imply that every country’s livestock sector is contributing double-digits in emissions is to provide a smokescreen from other, far more destructive players. Here in the US, fossil fuel dependent industries - energy, transportation and construction - are responsible for over 80% of our emissions.
Myths: Land and Water Use
One common argument is that so much land is wasted on grazing when we could instead use that land to grow more crops for humans.
The truth is, we can’t just pick and choose where we want to grow crops. Two-thirds of all agricultural land in the world is marginal. This means that you cannot grow crops on it. It is either too hilly, too rocky, too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, the soil is poor quality or there isn’t enough water. And the only way to produce any food on marginal lands is by using grazing animals because they can eat just grass and upcycle it into highly nutritious meat and dairy. Removing grazing animals from that land will not make it available for growing crops.
Fossil fuels contribute over 80% of US emissions; livestock contribute 3.9%
The remaining one-third of agricultural land is arable land, meaning we can grow crops on it. And we do. There’s a reason so much of our produce comes from California. It has lots of arable land.
Another common complaint about cows is that they use up so much water. However, this is also misleading. Beef production uses 94% rain water. Meaning that that rain would fall on that land regardless of whether there were cows on it or not. To attribute thousands of gallons of water to each pound of beef without clarifying the source or type of water is disingenuous.
The bigger concern we should have for water use is the freshwater used for irrigation. Yes, California provides a lot of our produce, and, for example, all of our almonds, but 95% of the water used for almond crops is coming from groundwater. Such water-intensive crops are contributing to California’s drought, as groundwater reserves have drastically decreased.
Myth: Livestock Feed
What about all the grain that goes to feeding animal livestock? Many people complain that the feed given to cattle should instead be fed directly to hungry humans. Well, I’m pretty sure we don’t want to eat what the cows are eating.
According the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over 84% of what is fed to livestock (cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, etc.) is inedible by humans. Humans cannot eat or digest 84% of what is fed to livestock. Why is that?
The majority of what is fed to the livestock sector comes from crop residue and byproducts. When you harvest a soybean or a stalk of corn, the actual human-edible component is very small compared to the rest of the plant. The stalks, skins, shells, the hulls, cobs, straw, husks, etc. of all the various crops grown are handed over to the livestock industry as feed for the animals. By eating all this crop residue, livestock upcycle what would otherwise become 43 billion kilograms of waste each year for our landfills, into high-quality protein.
Myth: Methane Burps
And now for the most popular myth, the infamous cow burps (yes, burps, not farts). Cows release methane gas when they burp. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has greater warming potential than even carbon, so it’s understandable that there’s reason for concern. But are those burps really adding more carbon to the environment? Let’s take a quick trip back to 7th grade Biology class and talk about the carbon cycle.
As we know plants ‘inhale’ carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, along with sunlight, use it to make food for themselves, aka photosynthesis. Cows eat the plants, ingesting the carbon that was bound up in the plants’ fibers. When they burp, the carbon is released back to the air in the form of methane. After about 10-12 years, that methane breaks down into carbon dioxide and water.
At that point, the cycle is complete, and the carbon dioxide is again returned to the atmosphere where it originally came from. It is not new carbon being added to atmosphere. This means that if cowherds are not increased, and our herds in the US have remained the same for the past 20 years, then no new carbon is being added to the air. It is simply the same carbon moving in the same cycle as it has been for millennia.
Carbon from cow burps is not adding new carbon to the atmosphere; it is part of the natural carbon cycle
Carbon from fossil fuels however, is a different story. That carbon is pulled from deep within the earth and is being added to the environment. There is no cycle here. It is a one-way, additive process. And it is destroying us and our planet.
Further, industrial plant agriculture destroys topsoil. By removing animals from the land and growing miles and miles of single-crop fields, we are ravaging the earth. Soil is a living, breathing, growing entity. It is hungry and needs nourishment just like every other living thing on this planet. Soil gets its nourishment from the nutrients and microbes from cow (and other ruminants’) manure. As they trample the ground, they reintegrate nutrients into it, and over time, they actually help build new soil.
This leads to more plants taking in more carbon from the air. So, with well-managed grazing, grasslands actually regenerate and sequester carbon, putting 100s of millions of tons of carbon back into the ground and becoming an important element of regional climate goals.
Then, there’s the whole nutritional aspect. Meat and dairy are ancestral foods. They are the foods that made us human, that allowed our brains to grow to the disproportionately large size it currently is, compared to our next, nearest relative in the animal kingdom. They provide necessary nutrients that cannot be sourced in adequate amounts from plant foods. They are the best source of key nutrients for women of child-bearing age, growing children, and the elderly, here in the West, but especially in the developing world.
To vilify whole, natural foods that have been a part of the human diet since we first graced this planet millions of years ago, is elitist and reckless.
Yes, we need solutions to the climate crisis, and yes, animal agriculture absolutely needs reform in many aspects. However, cutting back on meat and disparaging its consumption are not the answer.
Did you know that over 40% of all food in the US is wasted? If food waste were a country, it would be the third highest emitter, after the US and China. This has a huge environmental impact, aside from the ethical issues. Let’s stop wasting food for starters. Here are a few additional, food-related tips that can make a real impact:
Over 40% of food in the US is wasted, contributing to over 8% of our emissions.
1 – Shrink your food’s supply chain. Buy local, at least within 50-100 miles. More than 50% of our fruit is imported from other countries. Do we really need berries from Peru in December? Think of the fossil fuel cost of transport and refrigeration. Instead shop at local farmer’s markets and limit yourself to local and seasonal foods.
2 – Know the farmers who grow your food. This champions small businesses, local economies and supports sustainable agriculture, all while saving on transport and refrigeration demands for foods imported from far-flung places. Knowing where our food comes from and where it is grown brings us closer to understanding our role in the local ecosystem.
3 – Start a small garden in your yard or community. We are so disconnected from how food is grown and sourced that we do not understand the complexities of food ecosystems. Growing our own food also prevents food wastage as we tend to value what is grown by our own hands.
4 – Support local, regenerative farms with your business. Regenerative agriculture is the most effective, best solution we have for regenerating our soil, sequestering tons of carbon back into the ground, and creating healthy, nutrient-dense food systems that nourish us and nourish our planet. Check out Allan Savory and his non-profit, the Savory Institute if you want to learn more about regenerative agriculture.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you. Really. I hope, after reading this, you walk away with the knowledge that cutting back on meat in the West is not going to get us to our climate goals. And asking the developing world to cut back on such necessary nutrients is unfair and misguided. Let’s focus the spotlight where it really needs to be, and that’s on our fossil fuel consumption.
1 Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/
2 EPA (2023). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 430-R-23-002. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-andsinks-1990-2021.
3 White, R. R., & Hall, M. B. (2017). Nutritional and greenhouse gas impacts of removing animals from US agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(48), E10301-E10308.
4 White, R. R., & Hall, M. B. (2017). Nutritional and greenhouse gas impacts of removing animals from US agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(48), E10301-E10308.
5 EPA (2023). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 430-R-23-002. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-andsinks-1990-2021.
6 P.W. Gerbens-Leenes, M.M. Mekonnen, A.Y. Hoekstra, (2013). “The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems.” Water Resources and Industry, Volumes 1–2, Pages 25-36, ISSN 2212-3717, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wri.2013.03.001. and
“Beef is Not a Water Hog.” Global Food Justice Alliance . https://www.globalfoodjustice.org/environment/blog-post-title-three-s6f8a
7 Mottet, A. Cees de Haan, Falcucci, A. Tempio, G., Opio, C., Gerber, P. (2017). Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate. Global Food Security, Volume 14. Pages 1-8, ISSN 2211-9124, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2017.01.001.
8 Benjamin B. Henderson, Pierre J. Gerber, Tom E. Hilinski, Alessandra Falcucci, Dennis S. Ojima, Mirella Salvatore, Richard T. Conant. (2015). Greenhouse gas mitigation potential of the world’s grazing lands: Modeling soil carbon and nitrogen fluxes of mitigation practices. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 207. Pages 91-100, ISSN 0167-8809, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2015.03.029.
9 FAO makes case for meat, eggs and milk as ‘essential source of nutrients.’ (2023, April 25). UN News - Global Perspective Human Stories. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/04/1135972
10 Mitloehner, F. (2020, November 13). “The Carbon Impact of Food Waste: The Problem With What We’re Not Eating.” GHG Guru Blog. UC Davis CLEAR Center. https://clear.ucdavis.edu/blog/carbon-impact-food-waste-problem-what-were-not-eating
11 Pitesky, M. E., Stackhouse, K. R., & Mitloehner, F. M. (2009). “Clearing the air: Livestock's contribution to climate change.” Advances in agronomy, 103, 1-40.
12 The Savory Institute. https://savory.global/