Are livestock responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions?

Conventional wisdom has it that meat production is responsible for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions — a shocking enough figure as it is. But lately a much higher number has been circulating, with some claiming that meat is responsible for an astonishing 51% of worldwide emissions.

Some skepticism is in order here, so I went looking for the source of the figure. It appears to be this recent report from the Worldwatch Institute. Long story short: I read about 2 pages into the report and then gave up, because its conclusions appear to be hopelessly addled.

Among several “overlooked” sources of emissions, the report attributes a whopping 13.7% of worldwide CO2 to breathing by livestock. This is odd, because breathing is normally considered part of the natural carbon cycle. That is, the CO2 we breathe out is constantly being recycled by plants, which we then ingest, and so on in a cycle that doesn’t add any net CO2 to the atmosphere.

Does the Worldwatch report expose some previously unseen flaw in this reasoning? No:

> Livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe.

Natural doesn’t enter into the picture here. The question is whether the CO2 comes from some previously sequestered source, such as a coal bed, or whether it was in the air to begin with. Cars run on oil. Cows run on plants. Enough said. (Before people rush to point out that industrial agriculture requires the use of lots of fossil fuels, keep in mind that these emissions are already accounted for in previous estimates of emissions from livestock. Adding breathing into the mix just double-counts them.)

> Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in pre-industrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared.

This is a non sequitur. Again, deforestation from livestock production was already accounted for in previous estimates. I took a quick skim through the rest of the report and saw nothing that inspired any greater confidence (in fact, just the opposite). For now, I’ll stick with the 18% figure.

Meanwhile, Nicolette Hahn Niman, of Niman Ranch fame, takes to the pages of the New York Times to launch an equally confused defense of beef — or at least grass-fed beef. The crux of her argument is that the problem isn’t beef so much as how the beef is produced.

Now, this is already a somewhat dubious claim. The greenhouse gas implications of grass-fed beef seem to be fairly difficult to tally, and Niman doesn’t grapple with the numbers in any way that clarifies. But her argument really goes off the rails when she looks askance at vegetarians who eat soy beans of unknown provenance:

> Unfortunately for vegetarians who rely on it for protein, avoiding soy from deforested croplands may be more difficult: as the Organic Consumers Association notes, Brazilian soy is common (and unlabeled) in tofu and soymilk sold in American supermarkets.

Although I happen to think the Niman Ranch does good work, this statement strikes me as almost sleazy in its implication that American grass-fed beef is somehow better for the environment than Brazilian-grown soy. Soy is a commodity traded on a global market. It doesn’t matter where you personally get your tofu from. What matters is the aggregate demand. In this regard, soy is like oil, which is also why it doesn’t really matter whether you buy gasoline that comes from U.S. well fields or from some nasty regime.

So what’s putting pressure on aggregate demand? Livestock, of course. The reason those Brazilian rainforests are getting mowed down is not because of unethical vegetarians, but because so much land is needed in order to feed cattle and pigs and fish.

So, yeah, if you’re in the mood for a burger, the environment is probably better off if it comes from a grass-fed cow. But given the reality of the global meat supply, the planet would probably prefer that you have a salad.

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  1. whit Rylee - November 11, 2009

    I agree with Nicolette Niman, it does matter in a major way how and where your beef is grown (and other foods for that matter). It strikes me as odd that it could be considered responsible to look at beef so closely but give the Soy Bean Industry a pass. Yes it is seen as a global commodity, that’s the problem, that and all the fertilizers and pesticides that go into it’s production (shipping not included)…
    Studies have also shown that the amount of green house gasses created by cows themselves is largely related to if they are eating the natural grasses or being feed corn. remember, long before we had cows we had giant herds of bison and elks in America, all eating grass and yet no global warming then, hmmm…

  2. Lisa - November 11, 2009

    Actually, Adam, the planet may have a wider perspective on the grassfed beef vs. salad argument. There is a lot of evidence that carbon sequestration of grass is greatly increased by its interaction with grazers, like cattle. Grass that is grazed properly grows much more vigorously, sheds and creates much more new root growth, and puts a lot of carbon into the soil. Grass that isn’t grazed (or burned, etc.) doesn’t pull nearly as much carbon from the atmosphere in its annual growth cycle. This is a complex issue, but the bottom line is that properly grazed (i.e. planned rotational grazing)grass-fed cattle cause increased sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. There is really no way to compare true grass-fed beef to feed lot beef, nor, I think, to any other conventional (petroleum-based) farming technique, regardless of what crop or animal is being raised.

  3. David Michael - November 11, 2009

    Interesting discussion, including the comments from Lisa on grass-fed beef. Perennial grasses used in rotational grazing systems are of particular interest because of their carbon fixing potential in the soil (big question is how can the carbon content in the soil be measured and monitored at a low cost?). But when it comes to the feedlot, cattle along with other ruminants have a problem because of their relatively poor feed conversion. Poultry and several other animal species have much better feed conversion performance records and are likely to emerge with a competitive advantage when carbon is priced fully.
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  4. Jake Brown - November 11, 2009

    Although I agree with your line of reasoning in general, let’s not forget that soil hold enormous amounts of Carbon, and the amount of Carbon stored in soil is variable and can be manipulated.
    Example – burying a ton of corn is going to result in a different amount of carbon in the atmosphere than feeding that corn would to cows. Feeding grass to the same cows would also have a different result (less methane, perhaps?).
    …At any rate, I remain a skeptic of the 51% figure.
    – Jake

  5. Chiquita Incognita - November 11, 2009

    Whatever happened to the impact of cars on the environment?
    According to Pacific Gas and Electric’s wonderful book, 30 Simple Energy Things You can Do to Save the Earth, cars account for more than 30% of the global CO2 impact.
    The book also lists in detail what percentage of environmental CO2 is released by which household utility you use. Thus, you can plan your carbon footprint accordingly, cutting back in a truly strategic way and based on reliable figures.
    Between PG+E’s figures, and that of the cattle impact at more than 50%, when we consider the remaining utilities above and beyond cars alone, we’re going to surpass 100% so this 50+ % figure for cattle’s environmental impact doesn’t make sense.
    We can blame the cows until they come home, but if we don’t take responsibility for our own impact—-like carpooling or ditching your SUV—-then we will get nowhere. Sure buying a new car and ditching (not selling) an old one is expensive, but sure as heck so is extinction! Okay, compromise: Carpooling is a simple and viable solution, eh?
    Two more excellent reads:
    The Californians for Integrated Waste Management website mentions that the methane gases from landfill account for more than 30% of the methane impact world-wide. Recycling really *Does!* help and really *Does* make a difference, contrary to popular belief that it’s just a token which will add up to nothing environmentally.
    See also the book World Changing: A User’s Guide which has excellent urban planning ideas and green homebuilding/remodelling ideas too. Example: A black or dark-colored roof will absorb more sun than a light-colored roof, thus the attic will be hot and the entire house will require more air conditioning than a home with a light-colored roof. I can’t remember the exact figures but it was something like 30-50% less air conditioning would be needed in a home with a light-colored roof than a dark one.
    Think globally, act locally!
    Big problems, simple solutions.
    Here we go, high ho silver! :-)

  6. Chiquita Incognita - November 11, 2009

    Here is the Californians Against Waste website URL:
    Here you can look up stats and facts which are very accurate and detailed.
    Let me add a note (since CAW attributes more than 30% of methane gases to landfill emissions, as above) that when we began to recycle, we found ourselves dumping half as much garbage as before. When we began to compost, our garbage again was cut in half. Now, between my husband and myself combined, we dump two small grocery bags of garbage this week and that’s it, unless we have had a party.
    Please spread word to encourage people who may believe that recylcing is merely a token contribution to the environment and that it will make no difference. It’s simple to do from home and really does make a significant impact!
    Writing a letter to the editor might be a very effective way to make your voice heard and to reach a large number of people. School newsletters couldn’t hurt either.
    Thank you.

  7. Jake Brown - November 12, 2009

    You’re right it is about holding ourselves accountable for the actions we take.
    Knowing that cows make a big impact, we can then decide whether or not it is worthwhile to continue consuming beef and dairy products. It’s the same thing as choosing whether or not to carpool.

  8. Samantha Smith - November 12, 2009

    Two things spring to my mind when reading this.
    Firstly, there’s the local food argument, which to me says it is definitely better to eat beef from a farm nearby (and being British, anything reared on the UK mainland counts as less than 500 miles) than to eat soya and tofu which *can’t* be produced here. If I can keep the meat part of my diet as low as possible, all the better, but not if that means relying on stuff from thousands of miles away, with all that entails in production values and travel costs.
    Secondly, the British Soil Association have also started looking into the issue of grass-fed animals being good for carbon reduction/turnover. I can’t find a link to the article online, but in their last member’s magazine they had a feature on how pasture-fed animals play a huge part in keeping carbon levels lower. It is, after all, how they and the planet evolved, whether we had a hand in helping them develop with more meat on their bones or not.

  9. Bill Layton - November 12, 2009

    You alluded to this in your article, but don’t vegetarians have to eat too? No matter what, they are eating something that took energy to produce, and they are themselves expelling carbon dioxide and some amount of methane… what’s the balance of this against being an omnivore?
    It seems that whoever wrote the article on livestock probably had an agenda that was focused more on stopping the production of meat than it did on global warming.

  10. Adam Stein - November 12, 2009

    Whit — I am not letting soybean manufacturers off the hook. I’m pushing back on Niman’s implication that this is an issue that individual consumers can influence, or that vegetarians are somehow morally compromised.
    Lisa — It seems plausible that grassfed beef might hold some environmental benefits. But I need numbers. I see a lot of potential wishful thinking at work here.
    Samantha — I encourage you to rethink your take on local food. It’s but one factor, and not the most important one, determining the environmental impact of your diet.
    Bill — the balance is well known: vegetarianism is better for the planet. Yes, everyone has an impact. But some people have less of one.
    All — these issues are discussed in greater detail here:

  11. Lisa - November 12, 2009

    Adam – I have various books (now in storage) with research figures on the measured increase in soil carbon levels of grazed land versus grassland in a nongrazed exclosure. In lieu of my accessing those books, a simple google search of increased carbon sequestration due to grazing will gather plenty of figures to start you out. I’m frankly a little surprised, given your line of work, that you aren’t more up to speed on this issue. However, you do show some bias against eating meat, which – although fashionable – may not be entirely justified. I hope this bias is not clouding your judgment and curiosity when it comes to possible ways to attack the climate change issue.
    I was also especially surprised at your advice to Samantha to “rethink” her views on local food. If Samantha can find any food that is locally produced, that is not the product of a corporate subsidy or petroleum-based farming techniques, and if her purchase of that food supports a local job, and likely, a small, sustainable, and quite possibly species-diverse farm, I find it hard to imagine how that food choice – whether it’s beef or figs or kangaroo – isn’t far superior to any long-distance-traveled choice she could make. In fact, even if the local food she’s eating isn’t raised particularly responsibly, it still must be superior to 2,000-mile lettuce, simply from an embodied energy standpoint.

  12. Anonymous - November 12, 2009

    We eat a lot of wild game, moose and deer especially, where does that stand in all of this?

  13. Anonymous - November 12, 2009

    Adam, off course consumers can influence the growers of soybeans. It’s simple and often preached by liberal activists: Use your buying power to influence production, in fact it is generally why things are produced and then why they are not.
    I can’t imagine how it is possible that soybeans produced using petro-chemicals in China is better for the planet than eating truly grass feed beef.
    I don’t think that vegetarians are morally compromised, but after working with a garden over the years I think vegetarianism is a luxury. Vegetables are grown with either an abundance of petro-chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides (besides carbon cost there is pollution and wars involved in supplying them..)or a significant amount of animal manure as fertilizer. It just can’t possibly be sustainable to use these animals just for manure and not food also. I like rabbits for this myself. Great manure and tastes like chicken (only better!).
    If managed properly the Iowa corns fields can be returned to natural grasslands, these used to sustain an abundance of grazing animals can again. Cows.
    I don’t think there is any easy answer to food issues, just a lot of hard work. Thanks for your work.

  14. Anonymous - November 13, 2009

    Unless you are driving a couple of thousand miles to hunt I think you are well ahead of the game here. Especially if the game is grazing on somebody’s soybean farm as their primary food source.

  15. Anonymous - November 15, 2009

    There seem to be several people here who strongly believe in grass fed beef and other sustainably raised livestock. How many of you will only eat meat from those kind of sources, and refuse to consume meat if it comes from feedlots, deforested rainforest, or some unknown source? Or is the desire to eat meat more important than the desire to be sustainable?

  16. Anonymous - November 15, 2009

    Tonight I was very fortunate enough to be able to afford some locally raised, grass feed beef. Yummie. I can not say however that is always the case, I am working on moving towards a locally raised meat supply (my side yard; rabbits, chickens, turkeys ducks and a goose).
    So I ask you, where did your veggies come from? What type of fertilizers where used on them? Was it a perto-chemical or manure? If petro-chemical-are you aware of the damage to the planet and cultures around the globe that is causing to use and supply? If manure, what do you suppose is happening to the animals providing it? How many times more would it cost if they were just being raised for manure and not being eaten by “less enlightened” people?
    These are all fair questions and not meant to offend anyone, just trying to bring the real world of food raising into the discussion about food… There is no easy answer to any of this.

  17. Lisa - November 16, 2009

    Hi, Anonymous. No, we don’t eat only sustainably raised meat. We don’t have enough land yet to do that. We do raise our own chicken, and also our own eggs. We also raise some of the pork we eat, and most of our vegetables. We use the manure and leftover hay and straw from the livestock to fertilize and mulch the gardens, and we use our garden surpluses and the end-of-season vegetation to supplement the animals’ feed. All is connected.
    Others have alluded to this previously in this discussion: Everything is connected, and hopefully as we work to mitigate the problems our world is facing, we’ll move toward holistic strategies that encompass this reality and that eschew dogmatic focuses, such as the blanket-idea that eating meat is inherently “bad” or eating plants is inherently “good”.
    In our case, we are on a trajectory of choice-examination and of working toward bringing our lives, in all ways, into alignment with our values and beliefs. So far, we have consciously simplified our lives to the point that I (39) no longer work. This has reduced my personal costs to the bare minimum – I do errands usually once a week, so I hardly drive at all. I don’t buy new clothes to support a work wardrobe, and I don’t spend money on work-related meals or socializing. I am so fortunate to have a partner who appreciates the work I do here at home; tending the animals and gardens, especially (and making his favorite winter squash cookies). He has a blue-collar job and is not particularly well-paid for the important work he does, but he makes enough money to comfortably support us in our simple, and peaceful, lifestyle.
    We heat with wood, and we are currently building (ourselves) a small passive-solar home that we anticipate will use very little energy, including the amount of money necessary to build it.
    One thing I hope all people realize (or remember) – and something I am continually reminded is not yet well-recognized nearly every time I see a popular example of a “sustainable” home – is that money is an expression of energy. Every dollar you spend (or earn) represents energy and other resources being used. Any so-called “sustainable” choice that is more expensive than necessary is, simply, not sustainable.
    I believe that if we truly want to make a difference for this planet and for each other, we need to honestly evaluate ourselves and our entire lifestyle. We need to look at our biases – such as the blanket bias against eating meat – and honestly scrutinize them. We need to venture outside of our comfort zones and, with open hearts and minds, seek for real answers. We may need to make what look, at the beginning, like “tough choices”. But, personally, our standard of living has risen since we have eschewed the pursuit of having – and spending – more money than is necessary. We have much less stress, fewer payments, fewer obligations, more time, more peace. More connection: To our land, gardens, animals, the seasons, the Earth, and to each other. We have more time for joy. And by some standards, we eat a lot of meat.

  18. Anonymous - November 16, 2009

    That was very beautifully said.

  19. Wonderer - November 18, 2009

    You may be right about individual consumers not being able to change the system, but groups – and growing groups – of consumers certainly can. One of the beauties of these blogs is that it can present alternatives.
    You are clearly very educated and very thoughtful, generally very impressive. My concern is that you are so concerned with being optimistic that you slip into pessimism so easily, and that that reaches so many people. When you say that you are waiting for the numbers before you get excited, it can come across as saying that you think it unlikely to have an impact.
    How many people will walk away with the message that something doesn’t make a difference because you’re can’t allow for optimism? Even if you’re right about it not making all the promising difference on the environment, there are numerous benefits to some of these lifestyle changes.
    Hallelujah local food! Hallelujah grass-fed beef!

  20. Original Anonymous from this thread - November 19, 2009

    I appreciate the replies, but I think you are in part responding to statements I didn’t make. I did not advocate a vegan lifestyle for everyone, nor am I a vegan. I do care deeply about sustainability.
    In my personal life, I research the environmental impacts (climate and otherwise) of different choices in life. Because of what I learned in that research, I am vegetarian, and eat as much organic food as possible. Local food appears to not have as much of a climate impact as once thought; transportation is about 11% of the climate impact of producing food and getting it to your table according to this research, for example. However local food is still something I opt for when possible.
    I don’t know what truly sustainable agriculture looks like in a world with 6+ billion people. It will probably have some animal agriculture, but a lot less than we have today. Right now, there is a lot more animal manure in the USA than is used for farming see this recent news article, for instance. There are plenty of other cases where we end up with too much manure from animal agriculture, and that causes other environmental problems. We could cut way back on the number of animals and still produce enough manure for our farms.
    Lisa: the connection between dollar cost and energy (or anything else) is lot more complex than you seem to indicate. There are so many distortions, subsidies and externalities in our economic system that I don’t think you can use dollars in any way to measure whether something is sustainable or not.
    And as far as a “blanket bias against eating meat,” I would like to point out that I haven’t always been a vegetarian. I happily ate meat for the first 25 years of my life. It was only after honestly scrutinizing my lifestyle against my environmental values that I became vegetarian. This was a big move outside the comfort zone of this midwestern boy. Most of my friends are not vegetarian, and I dine with them frequently, whether or not they choose to eat meat at that meal.

  21. Anonymous - November 20, 2009

    Absolutely, Anonymous. Any monoculture is bound to create problems – especially those huge CAFO operations that supposedly represent an economy of scale in livestock production. Their huge waste lagoons turn something potentially life-giving into something just plain shitty.
    I admire you and all people who make a good-faith effort to wade through the endless and contradictory ideas about food. Anyone who has arrived at a mindful conclusion is someone with whom I’m glad to share the responsibilities of being American. Someone who has the conviction and discipline to live by that conclusion is a person I’m grateful to share the planet with.
    And I’ll stand by my ideas about each dollar – earned and spent – representing energy and resources used. I think there is some minimum dollar amount by which we could each live “in harmony”, for lack of a better word. As our dollar consumption further surpasses that minimum, the rate of diminishing returns gets steeper, as does our impact (negative) on the world around us. Given that no one in power seems to want to look at the idea that our entire economic structure may not be sustainable or even remotely realistic, I’ll just hope that I’m wrong.

  22. Pedro - November 22, 2009

    Main reason to eat meat
    So you can’t say your a vegan and form
    another little club.I eat about 5 pounds
    of animal a year including 4 slices of pizza,
    down from about 250 lbs including dairy back
    on the farm.
    When you start doing the math unless you have access to free range or wild which is less then 1% of animal consumed in UK and USA
    factory livestock is not a good thing it is the #1 cause of cancer,heart disease etc which means its is the biggest heatlh care cost.The 51% report left out the energy it takes to run the irigation sytems and the water used.In California 50% of water is for livestock.(and the smell)
    And of couse you can feed about 8 times more people per acre on a vegan (big mac pizza hut once a year diet)
    We need to go back to mixed farming get off the drugs like my grandfather did and have about 10% of population back on the farm instead of 1.5% which would create millions of jobs.Sorry for bad English

  23. Jason - November 27, 2009

    Para poder repartir y diseminar la informaci