US Beef- Let’s talk emissions.

There’s been a lot of push back from the EAT-Lancet report. Especially from the meat industry, but also from a lot of meat-friendly US citizens. This is not surprising of course, and it makes sense- their industry and way of life is under attack, and it’s natural to get defensive. Often, the argument goes that the United States beef sector only contributes a small percentage to US emissions. However, there’s already several faults in that comparison.

  • EAT-Lancet is a global analysis, not focused on the United States (guys, its not always all about us)
  • EAT-Lancet focuses on all environmental impacts of the food system, not just GHG emissions, and not just livestock (i.e, land degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, nutrient pollution, water use, over-fishing, etc.). Though livestock is a big part.

Here’s a sentence from EAT-Lancet: “Food production is the largest source of environmental degradation, and has the greatest effect on the Earth System.” Period. Talk about a wake-up call.

And while the report has some major drawbacks, the main message of “eat less meat, eat more plants” couldn’t be more clear. And correct. Emissions aside (14.5% of global carbon emissions), livestock- of all agricultural sectors- is the largest contributor to deforestation (land conversion to pasture), biodiversity loss, and nutrient pollution. This is both directly, and indirectly through crop production used to feed livestock.

But alright, people want to focus on emissions. Let’s. The most complete (and recent) analysis I’ve seen of livestock in the United States is of the beef industry. This study found the beef sector emits 243 Tg CO2e (CO2 equivalent- aka all carbon emissions, including methane, etc.). Or 3.7% of US emissions.

Cattle represent 65% of livestock sector emissions, according to FAO. This is a global estimate but let’s say that reigns true for the United States. This puts total US livestock emissions at 374 TgCO2e, or 5.7% of total US emissions.

Yes, true, that seems small..but don’t forget, the US emits a lot. TONS. 6,511 tons CO2eq to be exact. With a population of 325.7 million, that’s 20 tons per person a year. That’s almost 3 times the global average: 7.2 tons per person. If the average US citizen emitted the same as the world average, that 5.7% would increase to 16%. Pretty significant.

Now these are rough estimates, but it shows how the story changes depending on how you look at the numbers. Sure, 5.7% of US emissions seems small but not when you compare to how much the United States emits in total.

Another argument is that cattle can do great things, especially in the United States where we have huge amounts of grazing land. And when sustainably managed, they can restore the soil, promote biodiversity, and provide valuable forms of nutrition where crops wouldn’t be able to grow. All facts, and good things. This is especially true of developing countries, where a lot of poor would greatly benefit- both in livelihood and nutrition- from increased production of meat, especially these kinds of systems.

However, since grass-fed beef only constitutes 5% of the US market, this “cattle do great things for the environment” argument cannot be used in favor maintaining levels of US beef production. Cattle can do good in theory, yes. But at current numbers, the destruction far outweighs any kind of environmental or health benefit.

So for now, skip the beef. And if you just have to have that steak, buy in small quantities and most importantly from local farmers and ranchers who are using sustainable grazing methods and maintaining the health of their land- they need the support.