Here’s My Beef: Thoughts on How the Cattle Industry Is Deceiving You

In response to a recent article released by the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, titled Feedyards are Part of the Climate Change Solution, I start by agreeing that cattle can play an important role in healthy ecosystems. Anyone who has not seen Savory’s Ted talk on the implications of ‘mob grazing’ should do so, and presents an important part of the conversation on the global challenge of raising enough food for a growing population in a sustainable way.

That being said, the simplistic manner in which cattle are claimed to be part of the solution to climate change and that “modern beef production is good for the planet” while only addressing feedlot production in the vacuum of the United States, distorts the complexity of cattle production and presents a damaging perspective on our appetite for beef. I am not an anti-cattle activist, but I am uncomfortable with the way this article encourages the increased consumption of meat to otherwise unknowing readers by linking cattle production to a solution for climate change.

For starters, the statistic cited in the article states that cattle produce 2% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) may seem low. But against what total? This number does not include the emissions from the livestock production chain and the emissions/resources used to grow food which is fed exclusively to cattle. The article also does not mention any of the negative environmental impacts from feedlot cattle production, such as local water and air pollution. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock produce 14.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, cattle make up roughly 65%. That is around 5 gigatons of CO² equivalency per year, or the same as the CO² emissions to provide electricity to 3.1 billion homes for 1 year. After considering the global implications, the statistics become more alarming. With these levels of emission, do we need to eat less meat?

Yes, global scientists overwhelmingly say. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of 100 scientists from 52 countries unanimously agree that a healthy and sustainable diet is low in animal-sourced foods. In their Special Report on Climate Change and Land, reduction of meat in diets ranges from moderate emission reduction, to “under the most extreme scenario, where no animal products are consumed at all, adequate food production in 2050 could be achieved on less land than is currently used.”

Most concerning to me is the assertion that Americans, as consumers, “have choices.” The author states, “There is not a single vegan or vegetarian in the world I’ve convinced to eat beef based on these words alone. And that’s not my intent. The great thing about America is that we, the consumer, have choices.”

I must reject the idea that our personal liberties are to be held above the implications of them. The decisions about what we put on our plate, especially those foods that have high greenhouse gas emissions, have a direct impact on the rest of the world.

Emissions from food production (including livestock) contribute to climate change and create an unnerving cycle of more severe weather patterns, making farming more challenging. Numerous factors exacerbated by climate change are making it increasingly hard to grow and buy affordable food in many parts of the world. The impacts of this disproportionately affect the world’s most vulnerable women and children, with little access to nutritious food and other resources. The cost of these “choices” are real, severe, and need to be considered in the amount of meat we are consuming.

Although there is valuable research being done to increase the efficiency of feed-lot cattle production, and I applaud the farmers who are doing so, I don’t believe this can be categorized as a solution to climate change. At best, it is a mitigating factor to the damage that is already being done. I think we would be remiss to talk only of efficiency without considering what is being reformed. We will never be able to eliminate the environmental impacts of livestock production entirely, meaning there will always be a cost-benefit analysis at hand. There is potential for cattle to be used in providing actual solutions to climate change, such as including livestock in existing land use systems, but it must be held with the expectation that we have to reduce the meat on our dinner tables if we are to ever stop the negative impacts of our overconsumption.

Kansas native. Avid snacker. I’m interested in the intersection of climate change, global agriculture, and economics.