Livestock partially responsible for drought conditions

With severe drought gripping much of the Mid-West and West, the federal government is promising relief from this “natural disaster” for agricultural producers.  Soon federal funds will be flowing for “disaster relief” in the farm belt.  Already farmers are permitted to graze and hay Conservation Reserve Program lands which are supposed to be, among other things, left un-grazed to provide wildlife [forage and] cover. But in a drought, the government typically relaxes that restriction—at a time when wildlife most needs the grass to remain un-grazed for both food and cover to hide from predators.

However, there is good evidence to suggest that the drought conditions in the Mid-West and West are not “natural disasters”.  This so-called natural disaster due to climate change is largely precipitated by human activities.

The irony of all these efforts to financially assist farmers and ranchers is that they are among the main culprits responsible for the climate-induced drought conditions now affecting their bottom line.

According to the UN FAO report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 18% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions in CO2 equivalent is from livestock production—more than all global transportation combined. Yes, that is right. More than all the cars, trains, trucks, airplanes, and boats combined.  Part of the reason for this astounding figure is that livestock, cattle in particular, release tremendous amounts of methane. Methane is many times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

A World Watch paper puts the contribution of livestock even higher—at more than 50% of all GHG emissions in CO2 equivalent arguing that livestock respiration and other factors were underestimated and should be included in any calculation of GHG emissions.

In either case, the point is that livestock production is a major contributor to GHG emissions and one of the easiest to eliminate since there is no physical or biological necessity for humans to consume meat or milk products.

Providing assistance to Mid-Western farmers makes matters worse because a good portion of the grain grown in the “farm belt” is used to feed livestock. Very little of our rich agricultural lands actually grows food for direct human consumption; rather a large proportion is fed to cattle.

So a positive feedback mechanism is in place. The more meat and milk products we consume, the more corn and soybeans that are grown to feed livestock. The more livestock we sustain, the more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, contributing to even more climate change and warming.

I don’t expect any politician, especially in an election year, to say to America’s farm belt that they are culpable for the weather/climate changes that threaten their own livelihood.  But the threat goes far beyond the loss of feeder corn and potentially higher beef prices. Climate change could affect agricultural production everywhere, including the food that everyone depends upon—whether they eat meat or consume milk products.

Perhaps one of the best ways to both sustain the financial viability of the Ag sector as well as reduce global greenhouse gas emissions would be to buy out farms and ranches rather than maintain Ag production.  For the same amount of money (billions of dollars) we are spending annually on price supports, Ag disaster relief, Conservation Reserve Program, and numerous  other agricultural support programs, we could buy up millions of acres of Ag land and permanently retire them from production.

These lands could be restored and dedicated to other public benefits like protection of watersheds, wildlife habitat, and public recreation. We have done this in the past. During the 1930s Dust Bowl days, the US government purchased millions of acres from willing sellers throughout the Great Plains. These lands are now part of our national grasslands administered by the Forest Service, as well as national wildlife refuges overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management holdings.

At the same time as we would reduce environmental degradation resulting from Ag production, a retirement of Ag land would increase the financial security of the remaining farmers and ranchers since over production in many years results in low product prices.

Finally, to the degree that this Ag land retirement results in less cattle and other livestock production, we may see some reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions


  1. Craig Avatar

    Are the emissions from Wildlife(Elk,Deer, ect) different from cattle because of the different food sources? Does organic pasture feed beef differ from cattle farms,feed there own shit mixed with Molasses and corn stalks?

  2. Savebears Avatar

    Methane is methane, virtually every single activity emits methane, travel, farting, etc. I enjoy reading George’s stuff most of the time, but there are times when things get a bit out of hand.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Really? “Virtually every single activity?”

      Craig and Savebears,

      It is not so much that something emits methane, it is the total amount emitted that counts. As is usually the case, the size of the dose makes the poison.

      1. Savebears Avatar


        I would expect you would know, I was exaggerating, just as George is, in his article!

        1. birdpond Avatar

          I would think that the millions of crowded feedlot cattle and the horrendous, dirty conditions they are kept in, contributes too – as well as he over-grazing and plant community depletion caused by domestic herds grazing on public lands that had been in balance with native species before the introduction of our livestock.

          In the wild, Bison, Elk etc roam or migrate and disperse their waste before it builds to toxic levels, so it breaks down pretty fast, but on a feedlot or factory farm, doesn’t it get highly concentrated and persist in a vile state longer? Landfills produce toxic gasses, too –

          Yes we should buy back the land and return it to our native species – In this way we might yet save the world.

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I like the part about buying out marginal agricultural lands instead of paying all of the subsidies etc.

  4. George Wuerthner Avatar

    If you are skeptical of the amount of emissions from livestock production.

    Here’s a couple of references: Livestock’s Long Shadow

    And the World Watch Paper

  5. timz Avatar

    George, Savebears is never skeptical, he just a know-it-all and is an expert on everything thumbing his nose at everyone else.

    1. timz Avatar

      And if he does fart I’m sure he;d be the first
      to tell you they don’t stink.

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar


    Cattle rumen are dramatically less efficient than native ruminants’. This creates for dramatically greater emissions.

  7. Salle Avatar

    I posted this a week or so ago. It certainly is pertinent to this conversation. It originated on Earth Island Journal but Alternet has reinserted it into the world so I will do it also. I strongly suggest that everyone watch the video, it’s short, entertaining but most importantly, it’s very informative…

  8. CodyCoyote Avatar

    All other sources of methane , whether manmade, agricultural , or natural will pale if global climate change reaches the point where the Siberian permafrost sublimates. There is massive lode of methane lying just below the rotting bogs and frozen tundra. Hydrates of methane and more importantly the clathrates exist in a staggering quantity, held in place for now.

    A huge amount of methane in the atmosphere is man-caused in a secondary way : Slash and Burn agriculture worldwide.

    Were it me I would make mandatory the capture and reuse as fuel all the methane evolved from landfills, which is also significant. We allegedly civilized and somewhat technologically savvy humans need to start closing some open loops in our hellbent consumption of planetary resources. Talk to your local solid waste district people about methane capture for starters. Or regional plasma chambers.

    1. Salle Avatar

      At least someone with governing authority has a clue. Maybe it’s because he has a trophy home under threat.

      Hickenlooper: Colorado drilling regulations need more work

      Hickenlooper: Colorado drilling regulations need more work

  9. Salle Avatar

    In the Yukon, climate change is making buildings fall down

  10. Dan Lynch Avatar
    Dan Lynch

    I don’t doubt that cows emit methane, but before there were cows, there were millions of deer, antelope, and bison. Didn’t they emit methane, too ?

    Cows eat grass. If they didn’t eat the grass, it would eventually die and decay — giving off greenhouse gases in the process. Seems to me that the amount of carbon released is going to be the same ?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Hi Dan,

      We have discussed this on this thread. Cattle emit more methane per pound of animal than these other animals. How much cows emit varies because most cattle do not eat grass primarily. Cattle are most often fed various proprietorial feed formulas. Grass eaten by ruminants releases far more methane than grass that is eaten by insects, rodents, and/or merely decays.

    2. Keith Akers Avatar

      Livestock emit a whole lot more methane. According to Vaclav Smil, over 90% of all mammals (by biomass) are humans and their livestock. That means less than 10% for everything else.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner