The Impact of Beef on the Environment

May 10, 2017

By Contributing Author : Janeal Yancey, Ph.D., University of ArkansasJanealYancey

As a meat producer and a mom, I hear a lot of information about animal agriculture and the environment. Some groups claim that meat production is one of the main driving forces hurting the environment. They claim that we need to go ‘back to the start’ in food production, insinuating that we should go back to producing food the way we did decades ago.

According to Dr. Capper, animal agriculture contributes to 3.1% of the total US carbon footprint. I love the analogy she uses to explain the environmental impact of animal agriculture. She compares two vehicles; the first gets 5 miles per gallon, the second gets 35 miles per gallon. You automatically think that the first vehicle is an environmental nightmare and the second is a much more environmentally-friendly choice. But wait… the first vehicle is a bus carrying 50 passengers and the second is a car carrying 4. That means, that for a 350 mile trip, the bus can carry 50 passengers, getting 250 people miles per gallon, whereas the car only carries 4 and gets 140 people miles per gallon. Now, which one is better for the environment?

The same rules need to be applied to animal agriculture. The more productive an animal is, the smaller its impact on the environment.

Dr. Capper goes on to compare animal agriculture of today (her data is based on numbers from 2007) to that of 30 years ago (1977). One cow of today produces 131% of the beef that one cow would have produced 30 years ago, and each pound of beef produced requires only 81% of the feed, 86% of the water, and 66% of the land a pound of beef required thirty years ago. Using our modern practices, farmers today are producing more beef and using fewer animals and less natural resources. She goes on to say that a pound of beef today results in 80% of the manure, 80% of the methane, 89% of the nitrous oxide and has 82% of the carbon footprint that a pound of beef had in 1977.

The carbon footprint of animal agriculture will decrease when animals breed and have babies as often as possible, when they are healthy and free of disease, and they will produce much more food with improved genetics. (In animal agriculture, when we talk about improving genetics, we are not talking about creating GMO animals. We are simply talking about breeding the best to the best and getting babies that are even better. Some scientists can use the animal’s DNA to tell them which animals carry the best genes and use them to decide which animals to use for breeding.)

Dr. Capper is a big proponent of using technologies to increase the amount of food each animal produces, including feeding animals in feedlots as well as utilizing antibiotics, hormones, and beta agonists. These have such a positive impact on productivity that one cow raised using them would produce enough extra beef to feed seven children with school lunches for a whole year! Some of these technologies are banned in Europe, but that decision results in 244 million metric tons of extra beef that must be imported to European countries each year.

Many people think that producing animals using all grass systems would be better for the environment, but that is terribly inefficient. Animals fed only grass need about 7 more months of growing time to be ready for harvest and they are about 175 pounds lighter than those fed grain. If all US beef was produced on grass, we would need 131 million more acres of land (75% of the size of Texas) and 468 billion more gallons of water (equivalent to that used by 53.1 million US households).

When you consider how large the global food supply is and how diverse the farming practices are, it’s easy to see how small changes to improve productivity can make huge differences in the amount of total food produced. Just controlling parasites in a small, 35-cow herd can result in enough extra beef to supply 19 families with their annual beef demand. Worldwide, disease in animals causes a 20% loss.

I hope this post was helpful. I really think that the impact of animal agriculture on the environment is something that is largely misunderstood. Please comment if you have any questions. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

Dr. Yancey is a mom of two fabulous little girls and an advocate of the meat industry. She has a passion for providing education and information to anyone who has questions, follow her blogs to stay informed!

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