The Environment’s Beef with Cattle

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.

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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.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.beefusa.org/beefindustrystatistics.aspx

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Environment’s Beef with Cattle

  1. Another point that is relevant about the beef production is the shear land use needed to produce these cows. Whether it be that large spaces are needed to farm the grain or that large areas are needed for grazing, the beef industry accounts for around 60 percent of the agriculture industry’s land. In some cases, forests are cut down to make way for this land, causing even more destruction. In my opinion, the beef industry is too strong and the culture to eat beef more than once a week or even two weeks fuels it, while some nutritionists would say that humans do not need beef at all in their diets. Somehow, beef consumption needs to be seen as a privilege rather than a necessity.

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  2. Another option that people are looking at is bugs. As unrealistic as it sounds bugs can be farmed with less environmental impact and provide a large amount of nutrients for their size. I myself am not a fan of eating bugs and something this dramatic would take decades to enact but its just something to think about.

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  3. I think that the “grass fed” movement of the food industry is not so much towards the cows dietary needs, as it is for a really great marketing tool. The industry slaps on this “grass fed” label on food and gives the false pretense of more humane treatment of animals or that the animals have better dietary conditions, thus they are able to sell their product at higher margins. I agree with your blog that it is possible to reduce methane emissions through an adjusted cattle diet, but will the market shares be willing to lose their great marketing tool in order to help the environment? I doubt we can reduce the amount of beef consumed in America to reduce methane emissions, we just like our burgers too much. If we can find a dietary supplement that reduces methane emission, that can sustain the necessary diet of cattle, and that one can convince the market to give up this “grass fed” movement, only then will we be able to reduce methane emission from cattle.

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  4. Personally, I realize that am a big reason for this over reliance on meat in our society. There are only a select few days a year that I don’t eat meat, and I realize the struggle the industry has to meet these demands. Granted, there are a couple solutions on how to decrease the methane emission from cattle, but the easiest one is to just lower the demand for it. As a society we constantly look for new solutions or technology to help us continue our luxurious lifestyle, but eventually we won’t be able to find a solution and the only way to decrease this would be to cut down. This same logic can be applied to many different controversial issues with the population rising exponentially, but we may just have to focus on lessening our own environmental impact to start with.

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  5. I had no idea that 26% of Methane derived from cows. In order for significant changes to be made American diets without government intervention, the market will need to adjust so that consumers gravitate toward alternative meats such as chicken and fish. While chicken is cheaper than beef, there is not enough of a price gap to steer consumers away from beef. Therefore, dietary changes to the cattle seem to be the best answer for reducing Methane.

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  6. I would like to see the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with beef production, aside from just the methane production of the cows themselves. The post mentions how grass-fed beef results in more methane production, but fails to mention the environmental impact from other sources in the supply chain, including the production and transportation of grain feed, and water consumption of grain vs. grass fed beef. This is pure speculation but I imagine if cattle are consuming large quantities of grass they probably require less water than a cow fed on grain. The grains themselves also require massive amounts of water to produce. Furthermore the article mentions how the fertilizers used for grain production are harmful to the environment, do the fields for grass-fed beef require similar fertilizers and therefore have a similar impact on algal blooms or can they sustain themselves over long periods of time without assistance?

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  7. Cattle and meat in general are a big part of what makes the average american have such a large ecological footprint. That being said I personally contribute to the problem and i have a hard time seeing the average american going vegan or cutting back on the amount of meat they eat in today’s current conditions. The price of meats needs to better reflect the environmental costs of it. In addition I think we need better substitutes to replace meat in our diets. I can’t see myself eating crickets instead of a burger. Recently the company beyond meat has developed their bleeding burger which is an all veggie burger that is supposed to be more like actual beef. Other improvements like this I think will help transition people away from eating so much meat.

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  8. Trey mentioned a price gap between meats being a reason that consumers might pick beef alternatives. The idea of taxing processes by how much CO2 they produce has been mentioned before. Perhaps agriculturalists could pay an equivalent tax for methane production? It would incentivize them to either find ways to raise the same number of cattle with less methane emissions or to find other animals or crops to raise. I don’t imagine that ranchers would be particularly enthusiastic about such a tax, but it’s an interesting idea to consider.

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  9. Some “solutions” to this problem has been to strap a bag apparatus to the cow and collect the methane it releases and then sell that methane for energy use. Between the harnessing and shipping and packaging, that seems to be just such an unnecessary attempt at solving this problem instead of fixing it at the source. The methane is produced per the cows diet, so changing the diet would be an attempt to quell the problem from the source. The addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the cows diet have shown a cut in methane production by up to 30%. Another alternative is to target the stomach enzymes that actually aid in the process of breaking down the food and releasing the methane by introducing a sort of probiotic to boost the growth of different enzymes that are less methane productive. Of course these are just attempts to reduce the inevitable output by the cows with no real “ideal” solution. The best attempt at an ideal solution would be a source of meat that naturally has less emissions.

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  10. Yeah, despite my agricultural background, I agree with Chase that the cattle culture has run its course and needs to enter the luxury market instead of the commodity market. I have no idea how that would alter the consumption of beef, but it would sure make it harder on the consumer to swallow the cost.
    The target of the post seems to be methane production, with a side bar on eutrophication. As to the eutrophication, a simple swap to more plant-based diets wouldn’t cut it as a solution. Our environmental chemistry professor brought up an interesting point on phasing out beef. If we chose an alternative, say soybeans given their high protein value, how would the costs of their substitution into the common diet compare to that of beef’s? Just changing to soybeans without modified practices would (possibly) contribute more to eutrophication and soil degradation.
    As to the methane, I agree with Trey that finding other sources of meat is imperative, coupled with Jordan’s point of meat consumption reduction. My first reaction would be to take Trey’s route instead, because I really enjoy eating meat, and swapping to chicken would help the Georgia economy. A meat alternative I am personally interested in following is one close to home in Georgia: deer. I had previously been under the impression that UGA’s Deer Research Lab had dabbled in studies on deer husbandry and farming, but apparently not, judging from their site. But! to pursue that path would prove beneficial in multiple ways, including more easily procurable food (since they eat acorns, clover, my dads peas right when they get ready to pick), a potentially strong partnership with forestry industries to grow hardwoods and pines on lands where the deer would graze, and potentially less methane production even though deer are ruminants as well.

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  11. http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/wahlquistmethane.html

    I just read this article from an Australian rural journalist named Asa Wahlquist. I cannot personally verify everything she wrote, but she has received many awards in the past for her work, so she’s probably on to something. She writes about the complexities surrounding a reduction of the cattle industry, mentioning things completely irrelevant to us, like eating kangaroos. But the article is fodder for further thought on our part in many regards, pushing us to abandon those thought paths we are so accustomed to take.
    A particularly relevant concern is the effect a change in that market would have on the peoples raised in, and supported by, the cattle industry. Just like the coal industry in West Virginia, its a question of people’s livelihood that we are discussing as a society and must therefore be handled/spoken of delicately and with tact. That is the respectful way, and as American citizens, we must remember that and be considerate. Liberties extended toward self-interested people tend toward tribalism and disintegration. Even as I write that, I fear I may not have reflected that in my previous post… please forgive me of that if I did.

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  12. Like several other students, I had no idea that cows produced that large of an amount of methane. Although several places get away with selling grass-fed beef at a higher rate for saying it is healthier than grain-fed I do not agree that they should be able to do this. Personally I think that yes consumers should have to pay more for grass-fed beef than grain-fed but not because its thought to be healthier, i think they should have to pay as a “fee” for purchasing grass-fed beef over grain-fed. This said “fee” could then been used as funding for studies ways to lower the levels of not only methane in the environment but also all of the other greenhouse gasses that are out there.

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  13. I agree that there are definitely major problems associated with raising cattle such as increased methane production and eutrophication. Some people believe that mainstreaming the consumption of insects could be the solution. In the context of today’s society, I think it is unlikely that people will consume less beef unless they are forced to. Similarly, it would be unlikely to convince a whole society to consume insects in place of other animal products. It seems as if it is human nature to stay close to what we have grown up on because it is more convenient and comfortable for us to do. It is also common for one to think their consumption is trivial to the bigger picture. Also, there will always be groups of people that do not necessarily care for the future of the environment. I have experienced this firsthand when talking to various friends. They understand the environmental consequences but they can never find the pivotal answer to change their views when they ask , “Why should I care if these effects harm the future when I am no longer alive? And why should I compromise my lifestyle when others are not.” Thus, voluntary change to stop eating beef would be unrealistic without economic influence.

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  14. As a past employee of the UGA Dairy, I have seen this issue hands on. There are many other resources that are used at alarming rates such as water and land. I’m not sure about other systems but the UGA dairy uses an alarming amount of water every day to clean the milking station. I had never thought about the amount of methane gas, like Jordan said I think the only way to reduce the mount is by reducing the need. I looked into what methane is commonly used for and I found it’s mainly used to create heat and light. If there were some way to collect the gas from the cows that could be an interesting greenhouse effect and possible solution to the methane issue.

    https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/chemical/methane.htm

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  15. This is a subject matter that I actually recently became interested in after watching “Cowspiracy.” Statistics on the cow industry were amazing, everything from all the water and feed they need to the waste they produce. Two things I notice cause the increase of methane is: the corn-based feed they eat and the rise of the population. Corn is not part of the cow natural diet and their digestive system is not built to consume it. On top of that, the corn is mass produced with the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals in order to insure longer lasting and larger yields. Secondly, the global population is growing at a substantial rate, so even though pounds of beef is decreasing per person, the amount of the beef consumed as a population is still increasing. And in order to feed so many people , corn-feed is the cheapest/highest yield way. The best solution would have to be reducing the need to eat beef and provide other places where the people can still get protein and other beef nutrients.

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  16. I read an interesting article recently about how grass-fed and organically raised beef actually isnt nearly so good as we imagine. The journalist criticized large farms’ practices– apparently, if the cows have to return daily to a milking house or shelter, it makes it nigh impossible for the cows to actually graze once herd size exceeds a few hundred. The required acreage of land actually doesnt matter if the cows can’t go there and back in a day. I thought that was an interesting addendum to one comment about how ‘grass fed’ is largely a marketing tactic. (I will say that organically raised cows tend to be healthier, as it is in the farmer’s best interests to keep animals from getting sick if he can’t force-feed them antibiotics. So then the ethical issue of animal welfare comes into play.) Regardless, I would say the mass-production of agriculture emerges as the common problem in both the labeling issue and the actual fact that consuming beef harms the environment. Americans are ridiculously picky eaters, if the ~50% produce waste statistic isn’t harrowing enough. I would advocate for decreased meat consumption in general, and maybe a removal of subsidoes for corn– that way beef might actually cost more, and we might game it a little more.

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  17. This post is particularly interesting to me as I have previously changed my own diet due to the large impact the beef industry has on the environment. Though I knew that cows produce a large amount of methane, I did not realize that grass-fed cows produce more than grain-fed. I had always just assumed that grass-fed was better, probably due to the positive advertising grass-fed beef receives at the grocery store or in restaurants. This really makes me think about what other “positive” advertising I could be buying into that is actually more harmful than good. Not only is the cattle industry a main producer of methane, it is also the leading cause for deforestation of the Amazon rain forest. If we want to have a truly sustainable diet while still consuming meat, we may have to start eating bugs, just as someone previously said.

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