In 2016, a person in the United States on average consumed 55.7 lbs of beef, but what are the environmental impacts of this meat?
Cows are ruminant animals which means they break down their food by a distinct process using multiple stomachs. This digestive process is known as enteric fermentation which means the food goes through a pre-digestion fermentation process to help break it down. This makes it easier for cows to breakdown the heavier grasses to create energy. However, this fermentation process creates methane gas. It is estimated that each full grown cow can release between 250 L and 500 L of methane per day. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas, and it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In 2015, methane accounted for 10% of greenhouse gases based on CO2 equivalent calculations. It is estimated that cows account for 26% of this methane production.
Fertilizers are also heavily used growing crops such as corn and soy for raising cattle. The high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus may not all be absorbed into the crops. Rain can then cause runoff of the excess fertilizer into nearby streams and rivers. This can be detrimental to the local ecosystems causing algal blooms.
Recently, the consumption of grass fed beef has been increasing while overall beef consumption is decreasing. Grass fed beef has lower amounts of specific fats which are viewed as less healthy. Chains such as Chipotle advertise their grass fed beef which allows them to sell their meat at higher prices due to its health factor. However, grass fed beef has greater impact on the environment compared to the traditional grain-fed beef. A grass-based diet is lower in calories causing it to take much longer for the animal to reach slaughter weight which creates more methane production per lb of beef.
Many people believe in more sustainable energy sources such as wind and hydro for powering our cities, but what about more sustainable energy sources for powering our bodies?
Some studies have shown that adding peculiar things such as seaweed and canola oil to a cow’s diet significantly lower the methane produced from enteric fermentation. With more research, methane production could be lowered. More efficient fertilizer use could reduce runoff into streams and rivers. Making farming practices more sustainable for raising cattle may have a significant impact in the future in regards to climate change.
Johnson, Kristen A., and De E. Johnson. “Methane emissions from cattle.” Journal of animal science 73.8 (1995): 2483-2492.
USDA ERS – U.S. Per Capita Availability of Red Meat, Poultry, and Fish Lowest Since 1983, United States Department of Agriculture, http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/januaryfebruary/us-per-capita-availability-of-red-meat-poultry-and-fish-lowest-since-1983/. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.