How Meat, Especially Beef, Contributes to Global Warming

Those who write for this blog don’t think, “beef, it’s what for dinner.”  If you care about the future of humankind, at least it shouldn’t be.

This from the Scientific American.

How Meat Contributes to Global Warming: Producing beef for the table has a surprising environmental cost: it releases prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. By Nathan Fiala



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  1. morgue9390 Avatar

    It’s not so much as the process of raising beef (though it is much more land extensive than crops) as the transporation of food from far away. Many times people do not consider how much gasoline they would actually save if they purchased local food.

  2. JimT Avatar

    This is nothing new; it just confirms what people who pay attention to huge livestock and feedlot operations have known for years. Cow as Point Source.

  3. brian ertz Avatar

    the land-use associated with livestock production takes a significant piece of the pie associated with Livestock’s contribution to climate change. the UN report cited in the article actually recommends intensified production over “free range” production. That’s because grass-fed beef produce significantly more global warming emissions than do grain/corn fed beef. Similarly, the land-use associated with production requires much more fuel as stock is reared in remote areas and must be transported long distances from pasture to pasture to CAFO to processing to market etc. Then there’s the widespread habitat degradation – whether you’re talking about rainforests burned ‘over-there’ or even grasslands/shrubb-steppe degraded in our backyard over vast landscapes – markedly reducing terrestrial carbon sequestration potential, even here in the US. Then there’s the associated land-use to cultivate, water & transport the feed.

    Another thing to note about the UN study is that it includes a significant indictment associated with Livestock’s culpability in being among the most significant contributors to loss of biodiversity on the planet.

    Indeed, livestock production is THE significant land-use, more responsible than any other, for species imperilment in the western US – responsible for almost more listed & extinct wildlife & plants than mining & logging combined. Livestock production is responsible for desertification of wildlife habitat in North America more than any other activity & is THE largest non-point source of water pollution in the country. It’s THE only(and most destructive) human activity that remains “acceptable” within big ‘W’ Wilderness.

    Ralph is right – beef ought not be for dinner. we’ve got a lot of work to do

  4. Mike Avatar

    I haven’t eaten beef in a long time. It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the environment.

    Amazing to find out just how bad it is for the climate.

  5. JimT Avatar

    IF we eat red meat in our home, it is bison, local lamb, or local beef humanely dispatched on site and then sent off to a plant for processing. And I am betting between the two of us, we eat less than 15 lbs of red meat in a year. One thing I will be interested to see is if the Coleman goat folks make inroads into our Whole Foods (Paycheck) monopoly we have here. Imagine..Boulder, Colorado, and there is no food coop here; just this megafood giant. Sad.

    I am surprised the UN study said better to have more animals on smaller areas than larger. I guess either choice is a bad choice, but one is the lesser of evils.

  6. Davina Avatar

    This is why I stopped eating red meat years ago (used to be total veg). It is nice to see more empirical data on the amazing effects of producing meat.
    Just imagine if everyone decreased their meat intake by half. The global impact would be substantial. I am not staying you have to stop eating meat, just reduce it. People always ask, what can I do about global warming? Well here is a easy way to help.

  7. Eric T Avatar
    Eric T

    I’ve never heard of a tofu knife.

  8. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    I dont know where anyone saw any “empirical data” in this article written by an economist primarily based upon a 1999 study by another economist. I am not a livestock as gas producer denialist, I just want the hard evidence based upon some real “epirical data” produced by biologists under a peer reviewed scientific process. Guess what folks, it does not yet exist. Just because the psuedo-science touted by all these sopurces agrees with your philosophical views, that is no reason to accept it on face value. More to the point, if any argument is to be won with government agencies and the beef industry, this is not the way to do it.

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    At the bottom of the article I posted, it says “His study of the environmental impact of meat production on which this article is based was recently published in the journal Ecological Economics.”

    I haven’t looked at Ecological Economics, but if it is a peer reviewed journal, it will have referenced data.

    Why isn’t this one way to win an argument with government agencies and the beef industry?

  10. Brian Ertz Avatar

    Mike Post –

    here is one original article that the science and economies are based on in this article :

    Livestock’s Long Shadow – United Nations Food & Ag Organization

    there are many others – including studies out of japan, canada, etc… it’s real – nobody’s claiming otherwise.

    furthermore, i don’t think anyone is claiming a “win” in that somehow, once ‘enlightened’, the government will force a prohibition on beef production… the idea is to elevate the reality of this industry’s contribution such that when national and international policy gets developed, this sector of the economy doesn’t get left out. for policy-makers this step of the policy-making process is called “problem identification” – elevating the awareness of the problem is the first step – and with agriculture in particular, it is all-too-often the case that exemptions to regulation and taxation of ag are handed out like candy because awareness of the problem is not frequently a priority (people don’t want to take on ag).

    it’s also important to inform people about actual/tangible behaviors that they directly have control over that they can engage in to help – i.e. reduce beef consumption.

  11. JB Avatar

    Scientific American generally publishes applied science for a non-scientific audience. The articles–as in this case–are usually derived from peer-reviewed work. Not sure you’ll have access, but I get one of the articles this piece appears to be based on here:

    The actual peer-reviewed piece was published last year in Ecological Economics; the citation and abstract follow.

    Fiala, N. (2007). Meeting the demand: An estimation of potential future greenhouse gas emissions from meat production. Ecological Economics, (67)3:412-419.

    Abstract: Current production processes for meat products have been shown to have a significant impact on the environment, accounting for between 15% and 24% of current greenhouse gas emissions. Meat consumption has been increasing at a fantastic rate and is likely to continue to do so into the future. If this demand is to be met, technology used in production in the form of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) will need to be expanded. This paper estimates future meat consumption and discusses the potential aggregate environmental impact of this production if the use of CAFOs is expanded. I first separate meat into beef, chicken and pig products and estimate the elasticities associated with each product in order to forecast the world demand for meat. Using research on the environmental impact of food production in the US, which uses one of the most efficient CAFO processes in the world, I then calculate the total potential greenhouse emissions of this meat production and discuss the impact of these consumption patterns. I find that, under an expanded CAFO system, meat production in the future will still be a large producer of greenhouse gases, accounting for up to 6.3% of current greenhouse gas emissions in 2030.

  12. JB Avatar

    Mike Post: Just a correction, the article was written by an economist based upon his own peer-reviewed study.

  13. SAP Avatar

    This all looks like pretty compelling stuff; we probably need to be reducing cattle numbers worldwide.

    One question I have about methodology relates to what cattle are actually eating in feedlots, and how the researchers were able to document that it all came from crops grown for no other reason than to feed cattle.

    Cattle on feed sometimes eat sugar beet pulp, apple cores, potato peels, and a lot of other plant-based byproducts. Granted, that doesn’t cancel out all the other greenhouse gases associated with beef production, but I wonder whether this research took that into account.

    Also, is it totally accurate to use pounds of beef as the metric here? We get a lot of other things out of bovine carcass besides beef (I’ll start to look like an industry apologist if I start to list things — use Google if you want to see examples). As an old Missouri cattleman told me, “You don’t get many baseball gloves out of a chicken.” Nor from a soybean.

    Plus, I shudder at the article’s assertions that feedlots (CAFOs) are better than cattle on pasture (or any meat animal on pasture, apparently). MAYBE from a climate change standpoint; even that’s a stretch because of the airborne particulate that blows out of feedlots. See this link regarding the effects of dust on speeding up snowmelt, which leads to greater warming:

    Feedlots are an un-natural environment and require the use of lots of antibiotics to keep cattle healthy. Industrial beef production also favors the use of artificial hormone implants to speed weight gain. Run-off from feedlots is a point source of water pollution — pollution that may contain residues of artificial hormones, antibiotics, and insecticides.

    Plus, does the report’s author think that cattle would live their entire life cycle in feedlots? Beef cattle don’t go to feedlots until they’re around 700 pounds; they’re not bred or born there. Putting cattle on feedlots merely frees up pasture for more calf production. Without feedlots, those cattle would all have to be finished on pasture.

    And let’s not forget the human health impacts of grain-fed beef. It’s full of bad cholesterol, which is the reverse of grass-fed red meat, which is actually a very healthy food choice. (see

    (For the record, almost all the red meat I eat is grassfed, organic, humanely harvested elk & deer, with some bison now and again.)

    Americans — 26 % of whom are obese ( need to change their diet. The rest of the globe ought not follow our example. We don’t need to be raising so many cattle, and we especially shouldn’t be turning them into a deathly unhealthy part of our diet.

  14. SAP Avatar

    PS: in Slide 5 of the accompanying slide show, we see that 54% of the greenhouse gases associated with beef production comes from feed crops or feed crop fertilizers. To me, this is further evidence against putting cattle into feedlots instead of letting them eat grass.

  15. Salle Avatar

    And it isn’t just in the cattle that are being grazed here, there are many of these American operations moving to other locations, like the Brazilian rain forests which are now in severe danger of being obliterated. This has been going on for quite a while now…

    Beef, it shouldn’t be anything more than an occasional and small part of anyone’s diet.

  16. brian ertz Avatar

    CAFOs represent an alternative that the UN FAO study cites as preferable because the inputs (& outputs) cab be controlled – supplements utilized to increase digestive efficiency, and retrofit anaerobic digesters to potentially mitigat methane emission. Confined/intensified production likewise potentially reduces the amount of fuel consumes managing the animals.

    Grassfed beef may taste better and/or be healthier (scoff), but they produce markedly more methane.

    From an animal-rights perspective there more are evils in one, from a conservation perspective more evils in the other: it seems to me like a good way to agree to agree would be to advocate for a radically different idea about what’s an ‘appropriate’ proportion of our diet that ought be beef. To do that, it seems like advocating for an honest accounting of the true costs of beef production (whether that be ‘health’ [scoff], conservation, or sentience) ought be incorporated into the market-cost.

    Shrimp isn’t cheap, lobster isn’t cheap – beef isn’t nearly as cheap as we’re led to believe at market. Perhaps consumers would make different choices if confronted with the truth at market.

    This public AUM fee is an agregious representation of this idea. I know for a fact that the beurocrats in this new administration were made aware of this discrepancy with regard to what ought be a fiduciary responsibilty per FLPMA – all other “uses” of public resources are expected, as a baseline, to achieve market value. It’s a looting of the public interest. It was asked that the fee be stalled until a better opportunity to evaluate might be made. That request was apparently denied – little doubt the signal of Salazar made this question less pressing than say, opportunities to funnel more dollars into welfare ranchers’ pockets via the Colorado model of “open space” conservation as mentioned in a previous post.


  17. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Beef is a lot like gasoline in the United States — heavily subsidized, so that consumers don’t see the true costs. These are paid but largely disguised.

  18. JB Avatar

    The obesity angle is a good one. Politicians have grown accustomed to ignoring conservation science except when it fits their agenda. The same is NOT true for research in public health. The organizations that fund and support this research have clout.

  19. JB Avatar

    Check out:

    In 2004, over 31% of their U.S. study sample were classified as “obese” and roughly 2/3 were either obese or overweight. These stats–and the associated problems (e.g. heart disease, diabetes) in the United States–get worse every year.

  20. mike post Avatar
    mike post

    I think the extensive dialog here is indicative that many do not find the data complelling from an empiral perspective. I have long looked for base line data like: what does one xxx lb steer, eating xx lbs of xxx type feed with xx% protein, in a mediterranean climate zone produce in methane in a 24hr period. If that kind of data was available, you could extrapolate all over the place and come up with reliable estimates on feed lot and grazing operation impacts, but you can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Until it exists, anyone can tell all of you that you are wrong, because you can’t prove you are right, no matter how intuitively compelling you find this kind of article.

  21. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I think those data are there — emissions per animal. We need to find them, and we are looking because its an obvious experiment. I think it has been done repeatedly, but could be wrong.

    In addition, the emissions from livestock are hardly limited to their rumination. There are emissions from their manure and urine and how is it collected and kept, emissions from the machinery that are used in operations, and the opportunity costs of carbon sinks that could exist, but don’t, because the land is trampled and the vegetation stripped.

  22. JB Avatar


    I think your skepticism is unfounded. I did a quick search on google scholar and came up with numerous articles that assessed emissions from livestock. For example, here (below) is an article that directly assessed methane emission from livestock in New Zealand that is more than 12 years old:

    Lassey et al. (1997). Methane emissions measured directly from grazing livestock in New Zealand. Atmospheric Environment, (31):18 p. 2905-2914.

    Abstract: We report measurements of methane emissions from individual ruminant livestock-both sheep and dairy cows-grazing pasture typical of New Zealand lowlands in the temperate southwest Pacific. These are the first measurements reported from grazing sheep, and among the first from grazing cattle. The measurement technique, developed at Washington State University, enables emission rates to be determined from analyses of “breath” samples collected while grazing. More than 250 measurements of daily methane emission from 50 sheep (8 months old) were made, with flock-mean emission 18.9 ± 0.8 g hd −1 d−1. Although emissions were weakly correlated with feed intake, they represented a 4.6 ± 0.1 % average loss of gross dietary energy. The corresponding mean emission based on 40 measurements of daily emissions from 10 lactating dairy cows was 263 ± 10 g hd−1 d−1, approximately 6.2% of estimated gross energy intake. A notable feature was the large inter-sheep variability in daily methane emission (factor of 1.4 range) that could not be attributed to variable intake. This would appear to suggest an appreciable diversity of methanogenetic response to digestion, and may be significant in the search for strategies to control emissions of this greenhouse gas.

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