It’s my favorite time of year here in Tucson – backyard weenie roast season! One of my friends is vegan for health reasons, so, for our most recent gathering of friends, I bought a package of plant-based hotdogs. It was a great conversation starter for folks who hadn’t met before. Naturally, the discussion turned to what they’d heard lately about eating meat – that livestock are responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that it takes close to 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Then I explained why none of that was true and where those ideas had come from. Because I had good information to support my points, and because they’re my friends and they trust me, they accepted this new information. They’ll probably share it with others too and, over time, more people will have a better understanding of our food system.
I’ve written about this in the past, but a week or so ago, On Pasture reader Red Slusser shared a link to a video and I thought “On Pasture readers need this!” It’s thorough, and heavily researched and will give you the information you need when the topic comes up in friendly conversation.
You can watch above, or read the transcript of the complete video which includes links to materials cited. To get you started, here are the main points. You can click on the time marker to go straight to that part of the video. I recommend just keeping a few key points in your back pocket and being gentle in your presentation. That way you don’t overwhelm or turn off your audience.
Thanks for reading!
1:14 – How much would Americans going plant based actually reduce GHG emissions?
Accounting for everything – the methane from cow burps, the emissions from animal manure, emissions from transporting and processing meat and so on – if every American became Vegan, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 2.6%. The information comes from a study we covered at On Pasture, with a link to the full paper.
2:56 – Do cows really take all the water?
The majority of the water input assigned to beef, 94%, is “green water.” That’s the rain that falls on the land where the cattle graze, growing the grass that they eat. That’s rain that would fall whether cattle were there or not, not in the form of water that they drink or is used to process meat.
4:53 – The real water use issue?
“The real worry,” according to UC Davis’ Dr. Frank Mitloehner, “is over using our freshwater reserves for irrigation and 70% of the world’s freshwater reserves go to irrigating crops. 53% of the groundwater for crops goes to rice, wheat and cotton. The video adds that while beef may use more water in production, it’s also way more nutrient dense. A quarter pound of beef requires 122 liters, while a quarter pound of rice uses only 90. But the rice provides only 1/5th of the protein and much less vitamins and minerals.
7:01 – Do Cows really take all our Food?
Not really. Globally, 84% of all livestock feed is non-human edible. So no, they’re not taking our food.
7:53 – Livestock make the whole food system more efficient.
Livestock help us manage otherwise useless crop byproducts. Almond hulls, soybean skins, oat hulls, bakery scraps, cottonseed, brewers grains and more – all of these would be disposal problems if we didn’t have livestock to eat them. According to the research, livestock take 43.2 billion kilograms of stuff that we can’t eat and turn that into edible meat and dairy.
10:17 – Do Cows really take all our Land?
Two-thirds of all agricultural land in the world is “marginal” or two rocky, hill or arid to grow crops. Livestock eat the grass that grows on these places and turn it into something we can eat.
13:54 – Why Global numbers are Misleading
Globally, livestock make up 14.5% of emissions. But that number includes developing countries that contribute 80% of the emissions, and countries like the United States where they only contribute 3.9% of emissions.
15:45 – United States cattle are super efficient
The U.S. produces 18% of the world’s beef with 6% of the world’s beef herd. India has 300 million dairy animals to produce the same amount of milk as 9 million dairy cows in the U.S. That means a much smaller GHG footprint as well.
16:48 – What about methane?
Methane makes up 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, only 27% is from ruminant livestock. That means only 2.7% of greenhouse gas emissions is from ruminants, and that’s all livestock, not just cattle.
20:52 – Something more worth talking about than meat
Fossil fuel emissions contribute 75% of total GHG emissions. Reducing that number is important. In addition, according to the FAO, if methane producing food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitting country in the world. Maybe instead of Meatless Mondays we should have No-Waste Wednesdays.
Sure, folks have tried to debunk this information. And “What I’ve Learned” has responded. You can find their responses in the information below the video on Youtube.
Joseph Everett is the brain behind “What I’ve Learned.” and he’s done a lot of great videos along these lines. His goal is to give you novel information that is useful to daily life, based on what he’s learned from experience and research into different topics. The concepts are intended to challenge conventional wisdom from an unbiased and logical perspective. To see more, visit his Youtube channel. If this kind of work is valuable to you, you can support it, as well by becoming a patron on Patreon.
Great info, however struggle with the methane maths: 27% of 27% = 2.7% ?
Ah – the result of a typo. I fixed it.
Wow, this is awesome, this gives a lot of education to disseminate to our friends that are confused.
Funny though, it shows how iconic the Holstein cow is, not exactly for meat but every dairy farmer is a beef producer, just thought it was funny to use a dairy cow in a beef cow setting…
Does the amount of greenhouse gasses from livestock take into account the amount of methane that would be produced if the plant material was left to simply decay rather than pass through a ruminant? What is the actual net increase as a result of livestock over what would be produced on the land without livestock?
Interesting question, Ben. And I looked for and found an answer. Christine Baes, associate professor in the department of animal biosciences at the university of Guelph, says it’s important to note that methane is not released by the cows themselves, but the bacteria in their gut. Similar bacteria also exist in the environment and produce methane in wetlands, rice fields and landfills.
The actual amount of methane released from a single blade of grass wouldn’t change if it was just left to decompose, or if it was eaten by a cow and then digested by the bacteria in their gut.
The only difference is that the methane would be released more quickly by a cow or other ruminants (animals that acquire nutrients from plant-based foods with the help of microorganisms).
The amount of methane that different bacteria release (whether in a cow’s gut or in the field) is still unknown at this point, but is an area of ongoing research. (Source: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/mar-2-2019-the-goodness-paradox-secrets-in-poop-converting-carbon-to-coal-and-more-1.5037008/do-cows-produce-more-methane-than-rotting-grass-1.5037019)
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