On climate change and cattle

On Climate Change & Cattle Production

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The latest report coming from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is focused on climate change and land, but something must have been garbled in the translation from Geneva because much of the U.S.-media translation emphasized that people should eat less beef and quit wasting so much food. That unfortunate result comes from reporters unwilling to make the time and effort to read the report itself, which – at hundreds of pages and still in draft form – makes for an interesting but not-pleasant task.

The report has some important findings, such as this: “Policies that operate across the food system, including those that reduce food loss and waste and influence dietary choices, enable more sustainable land-use management, enhanced food security and low emissions trajectories. Such policies can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation, reduce land degradation, desertification and poverty as well as improve public health. The adoption of sustainable land management and poverty eradication can be enabled by improving access to markets, securing land tenure, factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action.”

But that’s not what made the headlines last week.

As the Sustainable Food Trust points out, “Contrary to some of today’s headlines that are calling for a shift to exclusively plant-based diets, the conclusions of the report actually find that balanced diets should include animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems, and that these present major opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”

“As the report highlights, diverse, locally appropriate mixed farming, which counters the damage done by years of continuous arable cropping reliant on chemical inputs, will have a transformative effect on the environment, climate and public health.”

The problem with a global report is simply that it’s global, and each locality/county/state/nation has its own issues that add to the global situation. When it comes to livestock emissions, the IPCC report notes: “All estimates agree that cattle are the main source of global livestock emissions (65–77%). Livestock in low and middle-income countries contribute 70% of the emissions from ruminants and 53% from monogastric livestock (animals without ruminant digestion processes …), and these are expected to increase as demand for livestock products increases in these countries.”

Most (90%) of the world’s cattle are not located in the United States. India has the largest cattle inventory in the world, at more than 300 million, or 30% of the world’s cattle population (domestic water buffalos are included in India’s statistics). While it’s legal to send buffalos to slaughter for human consumption, across majority-Hindu India (which views cattle as sacred) the slaughter of cattle is illegal and the country has enacted numerous cow protection laws. Poor people unable to afford to continue feeding and caring for unproductive livestock are unable to sell the animals, so many are simply abandoned.

Brazil is the number-two country for its cattle inventory, and has been widely criticized for its clearcutting of forest to accommodate more grazing, but that widespread practice has been substantially curtailed in the last decade.

Increasing cattle productivity, as we’ve been doing in the United States, has brought great gains in reducing GHG emissions. Although the cattle inventory in the United States declined over the last 40 years, cattle productivity has increased at the same time (providing more pounds of beef), and most importantly, total methane emissions from the nation’s cattle decreased during that same time. 

Cattle producers in the United States will continue to provide leadership in mitigating the impact of their animals through genetic improvements and selection for feed efficiency, and overall improvements in animal health, reproduction, and reproductive lifespans.

So while we should all strive to eat healthy foods, you don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying American beef – especially beef that comes from the western range {See Figure1: Livestock methane emissions}.

From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.
Figure 1.* Gridded (0.1° × 0.1°) livestock methane emissions (Mg/yr/km2) for the contiguous United States: enteric fermentation, cattle (panel A); manure management, cattle (panel B), manure management, cattle, swine, and poultry [panel C; swine and poultry emissions are presented on a county level for the top 5−6 producing states (see text) and on a state level for the remaining states], and cattle enteric and livestock (cattle, swine, and poultry) manure management (panel D, which is the sum of panels A and C). 

As the IPCC reports: “In contrast to the increasing trend in absolute GHG emissions, GHG emissions intensities, defined as GHG emissions per unit produced, have declined globally and are about 60% lower today than in the 1960s. This is largely due to improved meat and milk productivity of cattle breeds.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

* Note on Figure 1: From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.

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