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Could Eating Less Meat INCREASE Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

By   /  February 29, 2016  /  3 Comments

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The Brazilian Cerrado is a tropical savanna three times the state of Texas. It's known first for its tremendous diversity of plant and animal life and more recently as a growing agricultural region. The discovery in the 1960s that adding lime and phosphorus to the soils could increase productivity, along with the development of a tropical variety of soybeans turned the region second largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Only about 22% of the original Cerrado remains untouched.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a tropical savanna three times the state of Texas. It’s known first for its tremendous diversity of plant and animal life and more recently as a growing agricultural region. The discovery in the 1960s that adding lime and phosphorus to the soils could increase productivity, along with the development of a tropical variety of soybeans turned the region second largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Only about 22% of the original Cerrado remains untouched.

OK – We’ve all heard it. Eating less meat is better for the planet. Why? Well, there’s research showing that 1) meat production has a big carbon footprint; and 2) ruminants emit lots of methane in farts, burps and manure and this is a problem because methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But like most things in life, this is a complex issue, and the results of recent research indicate that at least in one region of the world, eating less meat might increase global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to research by University researchers at Scotland’s Rural College and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, reducing beef production in the Brazilian Cerrado could increase global greenhouse gas emissions. Lead researcher Rafael Silva explains the reasons this way:

“Much of Brazil’s grassland is in poor condition, leading to low beef productivity and high greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. However, increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to recover degraded pastures. This would boost the amount of carbon stored in the soil and increase cattle productivity. It would require less land for grazing and reduce deforestation, potentially lowering emissions.”

The findings published in the January issue of the journal Nature Climate Change indicate that if demand for beef is 30 per cent higher by 2030 compared with current estimates, net emissions would decrease by 10 per cent. Reducing demand by 30 per cent would lead to 9 per cent higher emissions, provided the deforestation rates are not altered by a higher demand.

But there’s the rub. If deforestation rates increase along with demand, emissions could increase by as much as 60 per cent.

Why Do We Care?

Brazil Beef NumbersProfessor Dominic Moran says it best. “The message of our research is to beware of unintended consequences. In some production regions, shifting to less meat-dependent diets would help curb climate change, but it is important to understand the nature of different production systems before concluding that reduced consumption will have the same effects in all systems.”

This is just one example of the complexity of our food system and the kinds of things we might consider as we try to adjust the way we live on the planet. We’ll be sharing more in the future, including why eating lettuce might be bad for the planet.

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  • Published: 9 months ago on February 29, 2016
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  • Last Modified: February 26, 2016 @ 11:09 am
  • Filed Under: Consider This

About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

3 Comments

  1. Counterintuitive is what paradigm change is all about.

    It’s always great to see confirmation of what many researchers are finding: properly-grazed cattle is the most powerful ecological restoration and climate mitigation tool available to humankind.

    Here are some resources for those who wish to dig deeper into this crucial topic.

    California billionaire Tom Steyer, one of America’s best-known climate activists as funder of the Keystone XL pipeline protest, raises cattle to heal land and drawdown carbon to reverse the climate crisis. “We would continue raising cattle even if no one ever ate another steak,” said [Steyer’s wife, Kat] Taylor. That’s how beneficial she and Steyer think these large farm animals can be. They want the cows to mimic the ancient migratory patterns of wild ungulates and naturally fertilize and aerate soil to reverse the mass erosion believed to be accelerating climate change.
    http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-politics-steyer-ranch-20151002-story.html

    In Episode 2, “Plains,” of the National Geographic documentary series “Earth – A New Wild” (2015), eminent conservation biologist M. Sanjayan, former lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy, travels to Zimbabwe to meet with Allan Savory, then explains how regenerative, high-density grazing reverses desertification and restores wildlife habitat even during a time of drought, calling the results “spectacular.” View the first ten minutes at
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2i3gp0

    Meet Allen Williams, Gabe Brown and Neil Dennis – climate heroes and innovators! These ranchers now know how to regenerate their soils while making their animals healthier and their operations more profitable. They are turning ON their soils, enabling rainwater to sink into the earth rather than run off. And these turned ON soils retain that water, so the ranches are much more resilient in drought. It’s an amazing story that has just begun.
    SOIL CARBON COWBOYS on Vimeo

    description

    Join Soil4Climate at https://www.facebook.com/groups/Soil4Climate

  2. Chip Bouril says:

    The fewer cattle-therefore increased greenhouse gasses hypothesis does appear counterintuitive. Accepting that the subject is complex and the answers different in different contexts, the explanation offered by Rafael Silva seems speculative and likely specious. I suggest that applying some form of Kathy’s 10-step Bamboozlement Protection System may be appropriate.

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