The internet is awash with the chatter about saving the planet by limiting the amount of red meat (beef) Americans eat. The discussion may be minor to most people, but it is highly significant to farmers and agriculture. The clash is about how much greenhouse gas is created by farm production practices.
The false assertions in this chatter have been debunked. But consumers may be left wondering how to react. Relying on facts, and gaining understanding of the farm production process, can guide us to truth.
Animal rights advocates magnify the extent of resource use for producing meat animals — beef in particular. They quote the partially true, but misleading statistic that 10 pounds of grain is required to produce one pound of beef. They cite fuel consumption by equipment, artificial fertilization of land, and the requirement for herbicides and pesticides used to grow the grains as the culprits.
The tune plays well with activists and crusaders. Even consumers who like juicy hamburgers and marbled steak may feel twangs of guilt.
Stat out of context
The 10 pounds of feed for one pound of beef statistic, taken out of context, paints a fake news portrait. Cows, sheep, goats, and large wild animals are ruminants with four-stomach compartments.
Grazing animals consume grasses, hay, cornstalks, silage, bushes, and weedy plants that are unappealing and indigestible for humans. Ruminants harvest the materials, regurgitate “cuds” to rechew, and harbor stomach flora that release the food value of forages.
The meat and milk that animals produce are nutritious and tasty for humans. These foods provide essential enzymes that are often deficient in vegan diets.
A combination of forage and a grain ration is the typical beef production process.
A baby calf grazes beside its mother the first year of its life. At weaning it is placed on hay or silage feed for the winter. In the spring, it continues grazing another summer and grows to be a 1,000-pound beast. At that weight, it is usually placed in a feedlot to gain the remaining 200 pounds.
It is during this last phase that it consumes 10 pounds of grain per pound of beef gained.
Over all of its lifetime, it consumed 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of grain. That amount translates to 5.6 pounds of grain per pound of beef which becomes juicy hamburgers and marbled steaks that consumers enjoy.
By comparison, chickens convert at 2.8:1 ratio and hogs at 3.8:1.
Animal meat and milk can be produced without any grains by utilizing intensive grazing practices. A grass-fed pound of beef can be produced with zero pounds of grain, not 10 pounds. Grass fed beef is available from farmers selling directly to consumers.
Penn State researchers provides us with facts about greenhouse gases. In the U.S., carbon dioxide makes up 84.5 percent of all emissions. The major sources of CO2 emissions are fossil fuel consumption, iron and steel production, cement manufacturing, and municipal solid waste disposal.
In 2004, fuel combustion accounted for 95 percent of CO2 emissions.
Methane makes up 7.9 percent of emissions. The major sources are landfills, natural gas systems, coal mining, and animal ruminant fermentation (dairy and beef cattle primarily). Agriculture contributes about 6 to 7 percent of the total carbon and methane emissions. (The estimates range widely; EPA quotes it at 10 percent.)
Methane from ruminant fermentation represents a small part of agriculture’s contribution; it is estimated to be one-tenth of 1 percent of total greenhouse methane.
Methane from livestock differs from that produced from other sources. Livestock methane in the atmosphere is recycled back into the land during the carbon cycle. The cows eat the grass, distribute their droppings across the field, they fertilize growth of the plant, and through photosynthesis grass fixes carbon back into the soil.
A study in Michigan calculated that one steer per acre mob-grazing grass paddocks recycled one ton of carbon.
Carbon and methane from livestock is a short lived climate pollutant. And as long as the number of livestock is constant, the amount of gas produced equals the amount recycled and the level in the atmosphere is balanced.
On the other hand, fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal are stored as carbon in the ground for millennia. When extracted and burned the process creates additional carbon into the atmosphere.
Some authors estimate that it may remain there for 1,000 years. The gas produced by a cow in a day is comparable to the pollution by a car in a day.
But, comparing cows to cars is a flawed comparison.
Another bit of information in the farming picture is that 29 percent of farmland in the U.S. is utilized in forage production. This land exists in areas that are too steep, too wet, too dry, too buggy to permit crop production.
This land extends across the country from prosperous Kentucky bluegrass hills, to the arid deserts of Arizona, and from nematode infested soils of Florida to bone chilling summer nights in Wisconsin and mountain pastures in Montana.
The intensity of animal usage varies from 2 or 3 acres per animal unit to 75 acres per unit in Arizona. In severely arid areas in west Texas, sheep and goats can make a living where cattle cannot.
Without forage production and ruminant animals, 29 percent of U.S. farmland would be only shelter for rabbits and coyotes, and thus removed from contribution to the human food chain. Why eliminate what this land can produce by not utilizing its production through animals?
Nonetheless, in the challenge of producing enough food to feed the world, agriculture should do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible. And it does.
An animal scientist in California reports that “the U.S. has the lowest carbon footprint per unit of livestock as any place in the world because we have an improved veterinarian system, we’ve improved the genetics of both plants and animals, and we have learned to feed more energy dense diets to animals. This has allowed us to shrink the number of animals to produce food.”
In 1950 there were 25 million dairy cows in the United States, and today that number is around 9 million head. Earlier milk production per cow was 5,000 pounds per year; today production is approaching 30,000 pounds per cow. We are producing more milk with fewer cows.
A glass of milk has shrunk its carbon footprint significantly. The beef herd has gone from 140 million head to 90 million head today. Still, we are producing the same amount of beef as in 1970. The U.S. produces 18 percent of the global beef with only 6 percent of the cattle.
Professors in agriculture and ecology at Cornell University say that “farmers wield a unique capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere through practices known as carbon farming. By using soil-like rock dust, compost and biochar, rotating crops, planting tress and shrubs alongside crops, reduced tillage, and mob grazing intensive pastures, farmers can capture and store atmospheric carbon in soils”.
The scientists estimate that if farmers adopted carbon farming practices, they could not only reduce their greenhouse contributions but actually capture and store the equivalent of 15 percent of all the annual U.S. emissions.
The problem is that farmers cannot afford to develop and embrace the practices as of yet. The authors argue that USDA should establish a 10-year financial incentive program through direct payments, loans, subsidies and tax offsets for defining and adoption of carbon farming practices.
Sustainability means producing more with less.
Agricultural technology will equip farmers to maintain an abundant food supply with less environmental impact.
Dr. Donald Chafin is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.