Farmers have stepped up their game and are feeding the world while reducing CO2 emissions.

Sometimes, news headlines make it seem like a choice has to be made: Either allow animal agriculture to continue and be able to feed a growing global population or stop raising livestock for food to save the planet from an environmental apocalypse. However, according to Gary Sides, a beef cattle nutritionist at Zoetis, the truth isn’t as simple as the talking points presented to the public by environmental activists.

“According to some people, we’re supposed to go back to farming like we did in the 1950s,” Sides said last month during the annual Iowa Cattlemen’s Association Leadership Summit. “They want us to look like a Norman Rockwell painting but don’t have a plan to also feed the (nearly 8 billion) people in the world.”

Sides noted that if plant and animal agriculture returned to practices and genetics from the mid-20th century, U.S. farmers would only raise enough food for 50% of Americans living today. “That’s not going to happen,” he said.

By the Numbers

Sides pointed out that in 1950, about 65% of the global population experienced some level of starvation and/or malnutrition. Thanks in large part to scientific advancement in agriculture, that number was cut to 25% in 1970 and was below 10% in 2019.

From 1950 to 2019, the world’s population grew from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion, and agriculture had to increase food production more than 800% to keep up with demand and drive down hunger.

Drilling Down ON Cattle Production

In particular, the improvements in cattle production are stunning,Sides said. Currently, the U.S. produces just shy of 20% of the global beef supply, while the U.S. cattle herd represents only 6% of all beef cattle on the planet.

In the last 70 years, U.S. cattlemen have reduced land and water use and carbon dioxide (CO2) production by two-thirds while also doubling total beef output.

What About Cattle Emissions?

One oft-repeated data point says that livestock production creates about 18% of all CO2 emissions. But more recent studies have disproven this, putting the actual amount of CO2 released by animal agriculture at less than 3% — with much of this total coming from overseas where animal production practices are less efficient.

In the U.S., all agricultural activities account for about 4% of the nation’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Almost 80% of GHG emissions in the U.S. come from three sources: transportation, energy production and industry.

Sides points to studies from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) that showed the limited impact giving up meat would have on total GHG emissions.

“If everyone in the United States were to give up meat once a week, it would result in a mere 0.3% decrease in GHG emissions. If Americans were to become 100% vegan, we would see a 2.6% reduction in GHGs,” noted UC Davis’ Frank Mitloehner. “The message should be clear. Eat meat if you want to — reduce or eliminate it if you want to. But understand that any choice you make in regard to meat will likely not make a measurable difference in GHGs.”