When it comes to reducing our environmental footprint, media stories often cite reducing meat consumption—specifically beef—as the most important step you can take.

But when you consider beef and dairy cattle only contribute 3.8% of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions, the advice falls a little flat.

Think about that for a second.

Less than 4% of emissions for 92 million animals in America responsible for 28.3 billion pounds of meat and 226 million pounds of milk consumed not just domestically—but around the globe.

Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson—director of AgNext at Colorado State University, a center dedicated to the advancement of sustainable animal agriculture—says the United States has the lowest carbon footprint for meat and milk in the world.

This is primarily due to improvements in genetics, raising more animals with fewer resources and optimizing cattle nutrition.

You typically don’t think of feeding as “tech,” says Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson. However, there has been and continues to be an immense amount of research done related to the animal feed. For example, studies show using steam-flaked versus dry-rolled corn can reduce cattle methane emissions and aid in healthy animal growth.

In terms of the idea people should limit their beef intake, Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson says when we eliminate or reduce any part of a system, there are tradeoffs.

The way cattle upcycle forages humans cannot eat into high-quality meat and milk is their “superpower,” she says.

Beef provides essential nutrients for the human diet and plays a critical role in addressing food insecurity. Cattle pastures also create open space for wildlife, add plant biodiversity to the land and promote soil health.

Meanwhile, research shows if the entire United States population transitioned to a vegan diet, we could only expect greenhouse gases in the nation to decline by 2.6%.

As agriculture continues to be put under a sustainability microscope, Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson has optimism for the future.

The innovation and collaboration between farmers and researchers are providing even more sustainable solutions going forward, she says. New methane-inhibiting feed additives have also been approved for use in Canada, and she’s hopeful the United States can take advantage of this technology that helps reduce emissions.

The story of the American farmer and the efforts put in on family farms to raise more sustainable meat, milk, eggs and grains simply isn’t told enough. But it’s one that will hopefully make you feel confident that you can have your steak and eat it, too.

Learn more about author Caitlyn Lamm here.

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