OP-ED: The TRUTH About Animal Ag Emissions
It takes a community of people to bring beef from pasture to plate including farmers and ranchers, feedlot operators, livestock auction market owners, and packing plant workers. As a cattleman, I take great pride in being part of that community.
According to both the USDA and EPA’s own estimates, beef cattle production in the U.S. accounts for only 3.3% of total greenhouse emissions.i Transportation and electricity generation together make up 56%, by comparison.ii
It has been suggested that reducing beef consumption would make a significant reduction in greenhouse gasses. When in fact, cutting back on beef consumption does not impact environmental sustainability as much as some groups have led consumers to believe. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found if all livestock in the U.S. were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6 percent, or 0.36 percent globally.
Despite the minimal reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, The Beef State would face serious consequences. Thousands of lost jobs, skyrocketing unemployment that would devastate Nebraska’s rural communities, and severe harm to the state budget given livestock’s $12 billion economic impact. Think less money for schools, roads, NRDs, health and human services, etc.
There has been significant progress in overall sustainability achieved by the U.S. cattle industry, and we are doing more with less than our forefathers. Compared to 1977, the U.S. today produces the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle. We are dedicated to continuously improving and becoming even more sustainable.
Cattle play an incredibly important role in our food system as upcyclers, which refers to their ability to consume human inedible forage and plant leftovers and turn it into high-quality protein.[i] [ii] In fact, 90% of what cattle eat is forage and plant leftovers that people can’t eat,iv and more than 40% of the land in the contiguous U.S. is pasture and rangeland that is too rocky, steep, and/or arid to support cultivated agriculture – yet this land can support cattle and protein upcycling. [iii]
Additionally, those who oppose eating beef likely have not considered that research is beginning to show how proper grazing management can actually sequester carbon in the soil and help reduce the impacts of climate change.vi Partnerships between groups like the Nebraska Cattlemen and Rainwater Basin Joint Venture are helping restore ecosystems and provide critical habitat for millions of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wildlife.
In the face of a growing global population, we need ruminant animals, like cattle, to help make more protein with fewer resources.iii History and well-established research consistently shows that science-based advancements and practical, balanced dietary patterns promote health and sustainability, not eliminating single foods, like beef.[iv] [v]
Everything we eat requires the use of natural resources like land, energy, and water—it is what we do with those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. But conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to feed a growing population, while, at the same time, working to reduce water use, care for the land, and protect the environment.
Written by: William H. Rhea III, Nebraska Cattlemen President
[i] Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 1999. Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply. Task force report N. 135 July 1999, Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis, CA, USA. Available at: http://agrienvarchive.ca/bioenergy/download/anag.pdf
[ii] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle: Eighth Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/19014
[iii] USDA, Economic Research Service using data from the Major Land Use data series. Available at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses.aspx
[iv] Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2015. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/PDFs/Scientific-Report-of-the-2015-Dietary-Guidelines-Advisory-Committee.pdf
[v] United States. Department of Health and Human Services., United States. Department of
Agriculture., United States. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Dietary guidelines for
Americans, 2015-2020. Eighth edition. ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2015.
viMichigan State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists. 2018. “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.” Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338