Since 1990, the U.S. population has increased by 31 percent (from roughly 250 million in 1990 to 329 million in 2019).
That’s cause for excitement, and it also raises some important questions: How will we provide for our country’s growing demands for education, health care, and housing? How will we feed our population? And what kind of impact will a growing population have on our use of natural resources and the environment?
Of course, we can’t just answer one of those questions and ignore the rest.
So the question isn’t “Should we reduce greenhouse gas emissions or feed people?” Obviously, that’s ridiculous. As long as plants require soil, water and nutrients to grow and livestock require feed, water, and shelter, food production is going to use natural resources and have some sort of footprint.
A more reasonable question might be, “How do we feed more people while minimizing our greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental footprint?”
Fortunately, America’s farmers have a pretty remarkable, well-documented history of doing that. For example, the U.S. is producing 80 percent more pork, 48 percent more milk, and 18 percent more beef than 30 years ago.
Thanks to the technology and innovation that have led to that increase in productivity, agriculture’s GHG emissions per unit of food, fiber or energy produced have declined by approximately 24 percent during that period.
More simply – farmers have cut the GHG emissions required to provide each of your meals by 24 percent since 1990.
Is there still room for progress? Sure. Roughly 10 percent of U.S. GHG emissions come from agriculture (which is much smaller than the leading GHG sources EPA charts on its website, including transportation at 29 percent, electricity at 25 percent and industry at 23 percent).
So there’s room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean that every proposed “improvement” is actually a good idea.
Cows receive a lot of attention for burping methane (a greenhouse gas), but even if all livestock in the U.S. were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, researchers with USDA and Virginia Tech say that U.S. GHG emissions would only be reduced by 2.6 percent, and global emissions would only be reduced by 0.36 percent. That seems like a pretty small gain for all that we’d be losing, especially the nutrients we can only get from meat, milk, and eggs (like high-quality/complete protein and vitamin B12).
Yes, livestock are relatively small contributors to our emissions, but – hey – nobody’s perfect. Every sector can look in the mirror and find opportunities for improvement.
Livestock farmers agree, and their recent track record (over the past 30 years) shows that they’re taking that sentiment to heart.
And that’s just for starters. The road ahead includes even more on-farm carbon-capturing practices, from cover crops to anaerobic digesters. Each step forward makes a difference, contributing to a smaller environmental footprint for your next meal.