The Beef Burden: How Cows Greatly Hurt the Environment

[Listen to this Crap (in bold text)]

by Brian Stallard

According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beef cattle require 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, eggs, poultry or even diary.

“We have a sharp view of the comparative impact that beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs have in terms of land and water use, reactive nitrogen discharge, and greenhouse gas emissions,” lead author Gidon Eshel, from Bard College in New York, told BBC News.

To reach their findings, Eshel and his team collected and analyzed data on five edible livestock industries from 2000 to 2010, as provided by the US Department of Agriculture. Based on consumption models, they then calculated what kind of burden each of these industries placed on the environment.

Being exceptionally inefficient energy converters and a hugely popular source of food, cattle have long been known to have a greater environmental impact compared to other livestock. However, this is the first time that their impact has been quantified.

According to the report, land and irrigation burden aside, the emissions from cattle alone nearly make up the ten-fold impact seen, compared to other livestock.

Methane gas (CH4) has increased in average world volume by an estimated 50 percent compared to pre-industrial levels, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Alarmingly, this gas is far more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

“Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period,” the EPA reports.

“The result is that the researchers estimate that over 60 percent of the environmental burden of livestock in the US results from beef,” commenting expert Mark Sutton, from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, told BBC. “Although the exact numbers will be different for Europe, the overall message will be similar: Cattle dominate the livestock footprint of both Europe and US.”

10405311_308608659330466_3235603653435958062_nBut don’t go thinking about veganism just yet. A past Nature World News report detailed a new proposed solution for the environmental burden of sheep in Europe – genetically tweaking the animals to reduce their methane footprint. If a similar technique could be used in cattle populations, we all can keep munching on hamburgers even as the “beef burden” is lightened.

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20 thoughts on “The Beef Burden: How Cows Greatly Hurt the Environment

  1. Of course. Don’t give up meat to help the environment or the animals–just modify the genes so we don’t have to give up anything. We did it with milk, removing the lactose, and eggs, reducing fat. Actually maybe there is a better avenue for gene manipulation. Studies at Stony Brook College, the University of California, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine have suggested that empathy may have a genetic basis. Would be nice to insert some of the right genes into the hunters and trappers. Of course, they would probably refuse, not wanting to give up their hobbies.

  2. I agree with Chris. I also question the study made on the cattle. Before we populated the earth great herds of bison roamed in this country and other herds of mammals roamed in numbers far greater than the number of cattle today. Perhaps we should stop putting them in feed lots where all they can do is eat and create methane.

    • I have not seen any estimates of the number of ungulates millions of years ago, before we humans populated the Earth. However, clearly there were no cows in the Americas until they were introduced by humans 500 years ago.

      • Yes. The cattle as we know today are recent in terms of geological time. But wild cattle and other ungulates that roamed the earth caused no great influence on the atmosphere. What I am trying to say is that our industrialization and factory farming is the problem not the cattle. It is as silly as saying that trees are causing the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We don’t eat meat because we choose not to eat meat for various ethical reasons. The existence of cows is not one of them.
        Best regards

      • The cows and sheep (livestock) that roam about in wild places (put there by ranchers), are not wild animals. They are domestic. They have no place on wild lands, where native wildlife belong. Yes, they are victims, because of humans, and, in this modern time, they do tremendous ecological damage, because they are not, repeat, not wild. They really should become extinct, along with us humans.

      • I think we are on the same side of this issue. I was not defending ranchers but critical of the popular view circulating the Internet that cows are contaminating the atmosphere.

      • If you are critical of the view that cows are contaminating the atmosphere, but do not defend ranchers, are you saying that there is a better way to raise cattle?

      • and I’d like to know the total number of cows on this continent (for comparison to the 50 million bison who once roamed here). It seems to me it’s well over 1 billion. That’s a lot of methane to keep track of.

  3. Domesticated cattle are Not wild animals. That wildness was bred out of them centuries ago. They do not have the same hoof action on the ground, move differently from wild ungulates, and are literally helpless in the wild. Bison are not cattle, and cattle or sheep do not belong out in the wild.
    To say that the problem is that they are all in “feed lots” is missing the whole point of the cattle grazing discussion. The impact of Domestic Livestock on the Earth involves damage of wild ecosystems because they are not only in animal factories, but millions of them on the wild lands that should be populated by wild animals, not Domesticates.
    Grazing here in the west is destroying rivers, streams, native grasses, and thousands of Wild Species. If this planet is to survive at all in an semblance of what exists today, we humans cannot continue turning out wild lands (National Forests, wilderness areas, Wildlife “Refuges,” BLM and other natural areas which remain, into Domestic Feed Lots. By that I mean, replacing wildlife, which is happening everywhere now, with Domesticated animals. National Forests are grazed to the bone, by Domesticates, which do not behave as wild animals do, which is an evolutionary process. We humans are disrupting this process. Please read: John A. Livingston’sBook: “The John A. Livingston Reader, including “The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance.”
    This read is a must for any of us who truly care about what is happening to Planet Earth. Too many people still do not understand the impact on Nature (The Wild) that domestication has inflicted. The planet is losing thousands of wild species at an alarming rate. While I. too, abhor what is done to animals who are eaten (I do not eat them), we also must be at least as outraged about the slaughter of the Earth’s wild species–fauna and flora, for it is in in Preservation of the Wild that the Earth might stand a chance as this planetary crisis worsens.
    Humans are the worst of the domesticates.

  4. This just came in from Center for Biological Diversity: “America’s deadliest government program, Wildlife Services, just released its latest kill tally. In 2014 their guns, traps and poisons snuffed out 2.7 million animals.

    Their slaughter included 322 gray wolves; 61,702 coyotes; 580 black bears; 305 mountain lions; 796 bobcats; 454 river otters; 2,930 foxes; 1,330 hawks and 22,496 beavers. The program also killed 15,698 black-tailed prairie dogs and destroyed 33,309 of their dens.”

    This killing machine is paid for by us taxpayers–mostly to appease the destructive Public Lands Livestock Industry, grazing all over our forests, grasslands, and wilderness areas. Most wildlife populations are in severe decline. If we don’t save The Wild, we won’t save the planet.

  5. genetically tweaking the animals to reduce their methane footprint.

    Besides being ridiculously impossible to any great extent with a biologically functioning being, the more humans keep swarming breeding, any minimal progress will be lost because of more cattle being raised to feed our every increasing numbers (much like emissions with our ever increasing automobiles.) I just don’t see how meat-eating can be sustainable in the future – we just don’t want to face facts.

    Much like the California drought (and is it really a drought in a semi-arid region where the majority of the water has to be brought in by damming and changing the course of rivers, basically stealing it from other areas?) – we won’t address these issues until it is too late.

    Our nation has perverted the concept of freedom to mean doing whatever we want to and creating disordered chaos.

    • So I guess that means these alchemists will have to genetically tweak livestock into needing less water too! They’d have a better chance of turning lead into gold.

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