Iowans care about the environment, and we all want to do more to conserve our natural resources for the next generation.

Maybe you’ve cut back on the amount of plastic you use, started buying second-hand clothes at thrift shops or grow an organic garden. Perhaps you are also taking a closer look at your diet and shopping habits, including your choice to eat meat.

Environmental and animal rights activists claim that you can adopt an environmentally friendly diet by reducing or eliminating meat from your plate.

However, livestock agriculture’s role in environmental and food sustainability is more complex than activists and social media influencers would have us believe, say animal science and nutrition experts.

Eating less meat or adopting “Meatless Mondays” won’t have much impact on climate change or our food system’s land and water usage, explains Dr. Sara Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

And by going meatless, our diets would lack many vital nutrients that beef, eggs, dairy and other animal proteins provide, dietitians say.

“There is definitely a lot of misinformation around the idea of sustainable nutrition ...,” Place says. “And it’s hard to explain in a tweet. So it requires people to dig a little, because there are so many things that factor into sustainability.”

Are cows contributing to climate change?

Activists often blame cattle emissions - or to put it bluntly, cow farts – for climate change. That’s because cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

But in reality, cattle account for only about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In comparison, our transportation system – including cars, planes and more – accounts for more than 25.3 percent 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, Place explains.

Research shows that removing all livestock and poultry from the U.S. food system would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.37 percent.  

“People want to act. I don’t doubt the good intentions. People want to make a positive difference,” Place says. “But if somebody does ‘Meatless Mondays,’ they are making no difference at all. Americans only eat about one-tenth of one bovine (cow) per year (per person)."

How does beef fit into an environmentally friendly diet?

As for beef’s role in a sustainable diet, Place explains that cattle are natural “upcyclers.”

Cattle can consume plant materials – such as grasses, corn stalks, ethanol byproducts and more – that are inedible to humans because of the animal’s unique ruminant digestive system

Even vegetarians benefit from cattle, Place notes. Cattle eat the inedible “leftovers,” such as pea pods, beet roots and wheat stalks, from the production of plant-based meat substitutes like pea-protein burgers. Beef is part of a complex food system, and an environmentally friendly diet can include beef. Without cattle to consume the "leftover" plant matter, it would produce its own emissions as it decomposed. Beef takes that unusable plant matter and cycles it back into the food system, reducing waste.

Place says cattle are raised in all 50 states, often on grazing lands that are otherwise unsuitable for growing food. One out of every three farms in the United States raises cattle.

“When you talk about nutrition and sustainability, cattle play a unique role as ruminants in the larger ag and food system,” Place says. “They are taking what we can’t consume, and taking grazing lands (we can’t farm), and upgrading those resources for high-quality beef for people.”

Cattle manure is also a high-quality fertilizer used in conventional and organic farming, Place adds.

In addition, cattle don’t just produce beef. Cattle provide byproducts used to make medicines and vital household goods, such as building supplies, tires and clothing. “Nothing (in beef production) is wasted,” Place says.

How much water do cattle use?

Another myth is that cattle are water “guzzlers,” requiring a large amount of water to produce beef.

However, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study found that it takes an average of 308 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of boneless beef. This number is much lower than previous estimates upwards of 2,400 gallons.

Additionally, water use by cattle is only around 5 percent of U.S. water withdrawals. And most of this water is recycled through the cow and returned to the environment, Place explains.

Is grass-fed beef better for the environment?

The USDA beef lifecycle study also found that only 10 percent of U.S. corn acres go toward feeding beef cattle.

Place says cattle raised in the U.S. spend most of their lives eating grass, hay or forage on pastures. Cattle are often fed corn or grain in the last few weeks to reach market weight more quickly, which also helps reduce overall feed, land and water usage.

Research shows that when cattle are fed corn or grain, their methane emissions decline, Place says. So grass-fed cattle actually have a higher carbon footprint than grain-fed cattle. If your goal is an environmentally friendly diet, you could consider grain-fed cattle. 

“If you want to eat grass-fed or grain-fed beef, then go ahead and eat whatever beef you prefer. It’s like everything in America; we are blessed to have so many choices,” Place says.

Is going meatless healthier?

As for our health, studies show that if we eliminated all livestock from U.S. farms, our diets would be deficient in the vital nutrients that meat provides. Going meatless removes our main source of iron, zinc, and many other nutrients from our diets. A balanced diet is important, but it can take far more fruits and vegetables than it's possible to eat to make up for what we give up with meat. Even when substitutions are possible, they often come with a high calorie cost.

“All the nutrients in steak and hamburger, including B12, iron and zinc, we couldn’t eat enough plants to get all of those things,” Place explains.

Beef is considered a high-quality, or “complete,” protein source because it contains all the essential amino acids that are easily digestible, says Rochell Gilman, a registered dietitian with the Iowa Beef Council.

Most plant-based proteins are “incomplete” proteins because they lack one or more essential amino acids and are less digestible.

For example, a 3-ounce serving of lean beef, at 150 calories, provides half your daily protein needs and nine other essential nutrients, Gilman says.

It would take about 6 tablespoons of peanut butter, totaling 564 calories, to equal the 25 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving of beef

“As a protein source, I really look at beef as a calorie saver. To get the same amount of protein as that 3 ounces of beef, you’re eating considerably more calories with plant-based proteins,” Gilman says.



How are cattle farmers improving sustainability?

Cattle farmers are listening and responding to our concerns about sustainability in food production, says Dr. Dan Loy, director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University.

Loy says farmers are adopting improved tools and methods to help make farming more effective, efficient and environmentally friendly.

In the last 40 years, the U.S. cattle herd has shrunk by one-third, yet U.S. farmers are producing more beef today than they did in the 1970s

Additionally, more Iowa farmers are planting autumn cover crops, such as oats, alfalfa and grasses, to prevent soil loss and protect water quality. And as ruminant animals, cattle can eat cover crops.

Cattle farmers also complete beef quality assurance training to ensure that they are raising safe, nutritious beef in a sustainable way, Loy says.

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and (farmers) want to be more transparent,” Loy says. “Farmers are always looking for ways to improve ..., keeping an eye on environmental quality in every aspect.”

How can I help the environment?

Of course, we all want to do our part to help the environment. If you want to make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Place recommends that you focus on reducing food waste.

Food waste in landfills is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. “That’s something you can actually have control over that makes a real difference,” Place says.