'Climate-friendly' diets can include meat
Learn how the carbon footprint of your 100% beef burger is much less than climate activists claim.
We all want to make the world a better place to live and thrive for our children, grandkids and future generations.
And we all want to do more to benefit the environment and, if possible, reverse climate change.
Yet it’s OK to admit it: You don’t know where to start.
After all, we’re time-crunched, budget-limited and overwhelmed by all the information available to us today at the touch of a smartphone.
Sometimes, it seems like the easiest step to take is to give something up — like switching out your plastic kitchen containers for recyclable glass or drinking water from the tap instead of buying bottled water.
One of the latest trends you may have seen in the media or online is a “climate-smart” diet. Often, this eating pattern encourages consumers to reduce or cut out meat from their diet.
Now there isn’t anything wrong with being a vegetarian, if that’s what you prefer.
But what is wrong is the headline-grabbing claim that eating beef contributes to climate change — because cows emit (or rather, burp) methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
In reality, cattle farmers have achieved significant progress in reducing their carbon footprint, says Dan Loy, an animal scientist and director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University in Ames.
“Certainly, there’s no question that the carbon footprint (of cattle farming) has decreased dramatically,” Loy says.
For example, total U.S. emissions of methane per unit of beef declined 10% from 1990 to 2016, according to recent American Farm Bureau Federation analysis.
Thanks to improvements in genetics, animal care and housing, and technology, U.S. farmers are producing as much or more beef today as they did in the 1970s, but with one-half as many cattle, Loy notes. And fewer cattle means a smaller carbon footprint.
And thinking back to what you learned in high school science class, cattle also play a vital role in the Earth’s carbon cycle.
Cattle are ruminant animals, meaning they can digest grasses, cornstalks and other vegetable scraps that are inedible to humans, Loy says.
Cattle then turn those inedible plants into beef, which provides complete proteins and essential nutrients for human health.
“A lot of the forages and feed that cattle consume are on land that’s not suitable for producing other crops,” Loy says. “So without ruminant livestock, those plants ... would be fuel for wildfires.”
In turn, cattle manure is then used to fertilize crops and pastures, so the carbon cycle repeats, Loy notes.
“(Cattle) aren’t taking new carbon out of the ground, which — for example — we do with automobiles,” Loy says. “So it’s comparing apples to oranges. Cattle aren’t creating additional carbon; it’s just recycling existing carbon.”
Indeed, cattle account for only about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency.
In comparison, our transportation system — including cars, planes and more — accounts for more than 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Even extreme dietary changes — such as switching to a vegan, all-plant diet — won’t have much impact on climate change and global temperatures, experts say.
Research shows that removing all livestock and poultry from the U.S. food system would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.36 percent.
Iowa cattle farmers are listening to their customers and are more focused than ever before on sustainability, Loy says.
Many companies are now paying farmers for agricultural practices to sequester, or retain, carbon in the soil to offset the companies’ carbon emissions, Loy explains. Some of these carbon-sequestering practices include planting cover crops and other forages that cattle can eat.
Loy also notes that more than 4,000 Iowa cattle farmers have achieved Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certification, a program administered by the Iowa Beef Center and the Iowa Beef Industry Council.
To achieve BQA certification, cattle farmers must meet or exceed science-based animal care, food safety, meat quality and farm sustainability standards.
“If you sit down and talk with most Iowa cattle farmers and ask them what’s important to them, it sounds cliché, but most of them will say that they want to leave the land better than they found it,” Loy says. “That’s part of the culture of not just animal agriculture, but farming in general.”
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