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In climate change, beef’s not the problem

Dr. Sara Place
Dr. Sara Place, chief sustainability officer with Elanco, spoke to livestock farmers at the Driftless Region Beef Conference Jan. 30 in Dubuque. She addressed beef’s impact on the environment. PHOTO / COREY MUNSON

While attacks on meat consumption continue, claims that ending animal agriculture will fix climate change aren’t based on reality, according to Dr. Sara Place, chief sustainability officer with Elanco.

Place spoke to a packed house at the Driftless Re­­gion Beef Con­­ference, held last week in Dub­uque.

“The U.S. has the most environmentally efficient beef production system in the world,” she said. “Beef production represents about 2.6% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which is about as much as landfills produce annually.”

Globally, the U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from cattle is 0.36% of the total amount of gases released each year.

Know the science

Place also discussed the science behind cattle’s greenhouse gas production. Cattle release methane, considered a greenhouse gas.

But unlike other gases, methane that is released into the atmosphere only sticks around 10 to 11 years before converting to carbon dioxide, which is reabsorbed by plants.

Some of these plants are then eaten by cows, which again produce methane from it. This is effectively a closed system, with methane from animal agriculture disappearing at a rate equal to its production. 

So beef production is basically methane neutral, creating as much as it collects, Place says.

Fossil fuels

Place put the blame for greenhouse gas production squarely on fossil fuels and energy production. She explained that gases produced through these processes have been trap­ped below ground for thousands or millions of year in the form of oil and coal. Once collected and burned, the gases are new to the environment. 

She used an ex­­ample of a bathtub. Animal ag­­riculture’s methane contribution is like running the faucet while leaving the drain open.  The bathtub fills at the same rate it empties. With the addition of fossil fuels, that faucet has been turned to the max, and the drain can’t keep up, so the bathtub is at risk of overflowing.

“I understand there’s going to be a lot of blowback against this message. It goes against the standard narrative of climate change,” Place said.

Share your story

She said livestock producers and the beef industry need to do a better job sharing their sustainability message.

“It’s important to be clear-eyed why this message exists — the beef industry left the door open,” Place said. “We need to do a better job saying, ‘No, we are sustainable.’”

In fact, she said, the U.S. cattle herd has actually decreased over the last 20 years and is producing less methane now than it was in the 1990s.

“It could be argued U.S. beef has had a slight cooling effect on our planet during that time,” Place said.


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