Is eating meat bad for the environment?

It’s no secret that mainstream media and popular authority figures, celebrities, and governing bodies are pushing for a move away from meat to reduce the negative impact on climate change. 

Everyone and everything from the Green New Deal Guidelines singling out red meat as a major climate change culprit, to world-renowned body-builder and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claiming his plant-based diet is the best thing for his health, it seems that raising and eating less meat is the way forward.

But are these claims backed by science or is it just an artifact of pop culture's oversimplification? Are these claims not even more sinister as they act as a sort of propaganda to carry out an agenda that only benefits the pocket linings of those touting beyond meat and meatless Mondays for schools as the only moral, ethical, and healthy option for the world? Are the claims made by founding figures such as Bill Gates, the opposite of the epitome of health, founded in science and backed by studies, or the exact opposite?

The simple answer is no. Meat isn’t bad for the planet. In fact, it’s just what the world needs to maintain balance and sustain diverse and thriving ecosystems. The complexity lies in the way we rear and raise our meat in the modern day.

Let’s take a look at some of the mainstream common claims and misconceptions made around meat’s negative environmental impact, and shed some light on the truth.

Misconception #1: There is a major methane problem produced by farm livestock that contributes to a dangerous rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Cows And Methane

The common conception is that greenhouse gas emissions (methane) produced by livestock, are a significant contributor to the global emissions that negatively impact the planet. Specifically villainizing ruminant animals that produce red meat. Cows are blamed for creating too much methane which leads governing bodies, climate activists, and mainstream media to promote the decrease in cattle farming and consumption of red meat. 

The problem with this particular notion is that agriculture as a whole only accounts for a small percentage compared to other industries. Taking the United States Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGE) by industry as an example, a 2019 overview states that only 10% of emissions come from the agricultural industry. This is further reduced by the breakdown of livestock agriculture emissions compared to crop agriculture emissions, where livestock contribute just shy of half with 4.2% and beef cattle being even less at 2.2%. 

GHG Emissions Chart 2021

Total Emissions in 2019 = 6,558 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent. Percentages may not add up to 100% due to independent rounding.

If you were to deep dive into GGE management suggestions from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2019 overview, better soil, crop, and livestock management would help to mitigate and reduce overall GGE from the agricultural industry. While we touch on improved agricultural management practises later on in this article, there is something to be said about the relatively small percentage of GHG emission produced by livestock compared to the rest of industries contributing to climate change. 

Take healthcare for example, it accounts for 10% of GHG emissions by industry at the time of the study. Any decrease in cattle exponentially hurts the planet as evaluated by GHG emissions. This happens as humans decrease the amount of nutrient dense food consumed, which has to be made up for in larger volumes of plant food that creates a bigger footprint on the land and degrades human health.

Misconception #2: Raising livestock destroys the land used to raise them and the amount of water it takes to keep these animals alive is egregious when compared to plant agriculture. 

Cows & Non-Arable Land

Water Use in Agriculture 

There are claims made by popular news articles and climate activists that the amount of water it takes to sustain livestock agriculture compared to plant food by weight is considerably more (take this Washington Post article for example. The claim that you need “48 times as many litres of water to produce the same amount of beef as veggies” is a concerning statistic at face value. This statistic indicates that it is better to turn to plant-based agriculture to reduce the amount of water used during production.

While it may be true that particular animals or crop types may need more water during production, this article and many others fail to mention the type of water being measured in these comparisons, which uncovers the illogical basis of this claim.

When it comes to measuring water usage, there are two different types of water to measure to focus on:

  • Green water: This is rain water that is stored in soil and plants, and either evaporates or transpires through plants.
  • Blue water: This is water that is found at surface level, including fresh bodies of water.

According to this post by The Sacred Cow, a comparison is shown that it takes 280 gallons of water (all types) to produce beef, 50 - 100 gallons to produce grass-finished beef, and about 410 gallons for monocrops. Since cattle live on pasture and are therefore grass-fed for the majority of their lives, the amount of green water used to produce beef is more than 95%, which means the amount of blue water displaced or used in production is significantly small. While the same logic applies to plant-based agriculture, the notion that water use and displacement of fresh water (blue water), or negatively impacting reserves of fresh bodies of water is senseless in comparison. Rain will fall, regardless of its final destination in agricultural production. 

Land Use in Agriculture 

While the comparison in water usage between beef and crop production is senseless, the tables do turn when it comes to land use.

Plant-based crop production harvested for human consumption is largely based in mono-cropping agriculture. This is the practice of growing one type of crop on the same farming land over multiple years. Mono-cropping is a sure way to deplete nutrients from the soil as plants must pull nutrients from the soil in order to grow. Chemical fertilizers which contribute to GHG emissions are used to add nitrogen back into the soil. When these man-made fertilizers are used, they release nitrous oxide, which is 300x more potent compared to GHG emissions that would come from sources like cattle. Depleting soil nutrients also means yielding crops that are less nutrient dense and an ever-increasing lack of micro-nutrients vital for human health. To boot, methane-oxidizing bacteria can sequester not only carbon, but free-floating nitrogen in the atmosphere back into the soil, increasing soil and carbon stores. This is called methanotrophic induced nitrogen fixation.

Manure and urine spread by cattle throughout a pasture as they graze is the best natural fertilizer there is. Urine and manure adds nutrients and nitrogen back into soil, increasing water retention and food for microorganisms to thrive. These microorganisms also sequester carbon dioxide back into the soil through photosynthesis and reducing GHG emissions. 

Cattle also stimulate native forage growth through grazing, and disturb soil via hoof tracks, where still water collects and allows for seed germination of new forage. 

Ultimately, the health of soil and its ability to create nutrient-dense forage for cattle or plants for human consumption heavily relies on repletion of nitrogen. The best source of nitrogen and the least potent fertilizer comes from cattle manure and urine. 

Cattle grazing land and consumption of beef is not only better for our soil, it’s better for human health.

Cows for The Carnivore Bar: We source our grass-fed, grass-finished beef from Joyce Farms. Their heritage beef has no added hormones, antibiotics, animal by-products, or artificial ingredients of any kind. You can learn more about Joyce Farms here.

Misconception #3: Cattle farming takes up too much land that could be used for planting more crops to feed more people or used to preserve the natural habitat instead of destroying it with cattle. 

Monocropping

There is a widely-accepted notion that the land farmers are raising cattle on could be put to better use, specifically to produce more crops to feed more people or given back to nature to preserve ecosystems and natural habitats. While we’ve already addressed the misconception about GHG emissions when it comes to cattle vs. crop production, this third misconception about land use ties into the environmental impact cattle have on the land they are raised on versus the impact crop has. 

First, we have to understand the type of land being used for cattle versus crop production. Most people think that you can cultivate crops on any land, but the truth is, there is only a small percentage of the world’s land that is suitable for growing crops. Any land that is hill or mountain terrain, doesn’t provide easy access to water, and is rife with rock and/or dry and cracked will simply not grow crops. This is the majority of the land in the world, including continents like Africa where cattle are vital for survival and even much of the US. 

The difference really comes down to arable versus non-arable land:

  • Arable land: Land that is suitable for cropping on a regular basis.
  • Non-arable land: Land that is not capable of supporting crops due to terrain and soil constraints and quality. 

On a global scale, 11% of the world’s land is currently being used for crop production which is 1.5 billion hectares and a total of 2.7 billion hectares is suitable for crop production according to the Food and Agricultural Organization. With a total of 13.4 billion hectares, 36% is suitable for crop production (not including other factors such as how much of this land is blocked by forest and how much is being used by humans for residential and industrial purposes). While a whopping 75% is not arable land suitable for crops, it does mean that this land can be used for grazing cattle and other ruminant animals. Cattle are perfectly designed to eat and digest hearty grasses and forage inedible to humans, and create manure and urine full of nitrogen which improves topsoil quality, reduction of water run-off, and increased biodiversity (noted in section two). Exploring the biodiversity of grasslands, they are home to thousands of other species as well – notably pollinators and birds vital to healthy ecosystems. The land cattle graze (known as rangeland) is vital for many species, while a sea of GMO, mono-cultural crop does not. 

The Way Forward

The Way Forward - Regenerative Ranching

So, what’s our way forward with cattle and crop production when it comes to the environment?

In our previous post on the origins of pemmican, we highlight estimates of ruminant animals (bison in this case) in the ranges of 30 - 60 million that roamed the plains of North America prior to pioneering and the fur trade. Bison were an integral part of the ecosystem and a primary contributor to the quality of topsoil and biodiversity of the flatlands, which makes the case for an increase in cattle production, not a reduction.

If we were to take this a step further, raising cattle on millions of hectares of land previously used for crop production but degraded by modern mono-cropping and agricultural practices would help with land restoration and revive topsoil quality. 

Of course, it’s important to highlight that raising cattle and land management isn’t a black and white issue or solution in itself. Being stewards of our earth and taking care of our land through regenerative ranching, rotational grazing, and raising grass-fed, grass-finished cows complementary to a more natural approach to crop production is the way to go. The current practices of feedlots, separating cattle and crop instead of bringing them together on land, and other traditional agricultural practices also need to be addressed in order to positively impact and sustain our environment.

Please know, while there are many more nuanced claims and misconceptions we could cover with the impact of cattle production and the environment, we aimed to address the primary concerns regularly touted by activists and media. As well, there is so much more when it comes to the case for cows and the ethical and health-bases benefits of meat consumption, but those are topics for future articles. 

In the meantime, we encourage you to support the environment, support your health, and find out which grass-fed, grass-finished Carnivore Bar is right for you!

Shop The Carnivore Bar Collection

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published