by Jake Geis
According to the several celebrities, eating meat is an environmental travesty, akin to dumping used oil into the Platte River. Their biggest target is grain-fed beef, due to cattle’s production of methane gas during digestion. Most opponents cite the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production, specifically because of grain being fed to livestock. Instead of jumping on the “Meatless Monday” bandwagon espoused by Paul McCartney, take a closer look at how this report came to its inappropriate conclusions and how beef production really stacks up with environmental sustainability.
The U.N. report claims livestock contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation — the reputed center of gas emissions. How the U.N. reached this conclusion, however, is inconsistent in how they compare the two. When calculating greenhouse gas emissions from livestock worldwide, the U.N. included every possible variable, including the diesel used to drive the tractors that raise the corn being fed to cattle, the refrigeration in semi-trucks to keep the meat fresh and even the amount of rainforest removed by ranchers in Brazil.
In contrast to this exhaustive methodology utilized to measure livestock emissions, transportation emission totals were based solely upon fossil fuels burned while driving. Nowhere included were the emissions of transporting fuel to filling stations, the emissions of building cars, the emissions from drilling for the fuel and so on. Since issuing this report, the U.N. has admitted its error, but unfortunately the celebrities have failed to note the change.
Also, the U.N. report incriminates itself when the emissions breakdown is taken to a national level. When looked at nationally, livestock production accounts for 3 percent of American greenhouse gas emissions while transportation accounts for 26 percent. The highly mechanized and biotech reliant agricultural system America has embraced reduces greenhouse gas emissions to a negligible level. Our method of agriculture is sustainable and should be the model for the rest of the world, rather than a scapegoat for climate change.
When compared to 1977, each pound of American beef produced in modern production systems used 30 percent less land, 14 percent less water and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy. Overall, this translates into 18 percent less carbon emissions. Considering the U.S. supplies 25 percent of the world’s beef with 10 percent of the world’s cattle, our system is an excellent example of efficiency and careful stewardship of natural resources
Many other fallacies persist in regards to grain-fed cattle production. One in particular states that cattle being fed for slaughter eat a straight corn diet for months on end. This never occurs because, like any animal, cattle need a balanced diet to grow properly. Cattle diets contain hay, ethanol production by-products and essential minerals in addition to corn or other grains to perfectly balance the diet to their nutritional needs. Corn is not even the main energy source for cattle during the majority of their lives — two-thirds of the life of a steer that goes to slaughter is spent on pasture. By spending so much of their time foraging, cattle convert land into food that would never be productive farm ground. The human digestive system cannot process grass hay into energy like cattle can.
The reason why cattle are fed high-grain diets in their final months is to match their diet to their nutritional requirements. Finishing cattle have a high energy requirement to add marbling (fat within the muscle) in order to give the steaks that juicy beef flavor customers demand. Grass-finished cattle take 30 percent longer to reach this end point and require 35 percent more water use and 30 percent more land use to do so. Considering all these factors, grain-fed cattle actually lead to less carbon emissions than grass-fed beef.
Another myth is that manure runoff has a catastrophic effect on the environment. The problem with this thought is in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “zero-tolerance policy” with regard to runoff — any confined feeding operation in noncompliance does not receive a permit and faces stiff fines. The action of the cattle’s hooves on the ground creates a hard pack that is impenetrable to leaching within six months of the first animal entering the feedlot (much like concrete), and all runoff from the feedlot pens is captured in manure lagoons. The manure is then applied at agronomic rates to surrounding farmland as a natural source of fertilizer.
The most ridiculous claim about beef production involving runoff says hormones from beef implants enter the water system and cause girls to start puberty sooner. Aside from the fact that there is no runoff of hormones, a normal serving of beef implanted with growth hormones contains estrogen levels nearly 57,000 times lower than what the FDA allows. By comparison, garden peas naturally contain 179 times more estrogen than implanted beef, yet eating peas is not being blamed for jump-starting puberty. From the environmental standpoint however, using implants makes cattle 5 to 10 percent more efficient, which translates into producing more protein with the same amount of resources.
Beef production is an environmentally sound way to utilize the millions of acres of untillable land to provide a nutrient dense source of protein. Instead of having tofu on Mondays, enjoy UNL’s own flat iron steak or one of many other cuts of beef. If you have any questions about cattle production, check out explorebeef.org for more information and stories from cattle producers across the nation.
Today’s post was brought to you courtesy of Jake Geis, a second year veterinary currently studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This article was previously published in the Daily Nebraskan on November 5, 2010. You can find Jake on Facebook and Twitter.