By Garrett Hawkins
My sons farm thousands of acres, or at least that is what they say when they have their farm toys set up in our basement. They love to haul cattle, build fences and bale hay as they dream about the future. They are always in growth mode, eying Angus and Hereford cows any time we are in a farm supply store with a toy aisle.
Colton and Tate are too young to understand that conversations are happening every day that may very well impact their dreams of being the sixth generation in our family to farm and raise livestock. I’m talking about the great “climate change” debate and misguided policies like the Green New Deal.
We’ve all heard it. The claim that, globally, meat production produces more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than the entire transportation sector (cars, trucks, planes and trains). The assertion was central to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report titled, “Livestock’s Long-Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” report published in 2006.
Since then, countless pieces have been written decrying cattle production and asserting we should all consume less meat and more protein alternatives if we want to save the planet.
That’s a bunch of hot air.
When the “Long Shadow” report was first published, it claimed that animal agriculture generated 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This share was larger than the entire transportation sector. That finding was a head-scratcher, until folks figured out that the authors had used completely different methods to determine GHG emissions for the livestock and transportation.
For livestock, the study took an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. Analysts tallied up emissions from fertilizer use, crop production for animal feed, forest-to-pasture-land conversion, and cow farts and belches from birth to death. For the transportation sector, they did not use a comprehensive life-cycle method that would have included the vehicle manufacturing process and fuel supply chain. Instead, they only studied tailpipe exhaust coming from cars, trucks, planes and trains once they were in use. This certainly doesn’t make for an apples-to-apples comparison.
After re-evaluating its methods, the FAO lowered livestock’s share of global GHG emissions from 18 percent to 14.5 percent. Even with this correction, the global average is extremely misleading. In reality, livestock production varies dramatically around the world. In the United States, animal agriculture is extremely efficient and accounts for only about four percent of total emissions. Even though the U.S., Brazil and the European Union produce about half of all beef, 80 percent of livestock emissions come from developing countries.
Improvements in livestock genetics and management practices have made the United States the global leader in livestock production. Since 1961, meat production has more than doubled while direct emissions from U.S. livestock declined 11.3 percent. Today, we produce 18 percent of the world’s beef with only six percent of the world’s cattle herd.
Environmentalists and the food elites assert we should all do our part to curb climate change by reducing or eliminating meat from our diets. However, researchers at the University of California, Davis estimate that even if 10 percent of Americans adopted a completely vegan diet, the impact on GHG emissions would be so small it could not be measured.
Here’s the deal. As much as 70 percent of all agricultural land globally is range land that is only usable for grazing. Ruminant animals such as cattle, goats and sheep can use that land because they have a superpower. They take plants humans can’t eat and turn them into nutrient rich meat and milk. They’re “solar-powered bioreactors on legs,” as animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D. described to me in a recent conversation.
Naysayers ignore this awesome superpower and focus on cow belches and farts. However, the methane produced by ruminants’ digestive systems really isn’t new. It’s methane produced as a by-product from the cow eating grass that contains carbon—a natural process and cycle that has occurred since ruminants first roamed the Earth.
Next time you’re at the grocery store or in a restaurant making a decision about what to buy, please know those of us who raise livestock work hard every day to provide a healthy product for you and your family; one rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. We are committed to caring for our land and water, and think every day about how we can be a little better tomorrow. We, as farmers and ranchers, are problem solvers—and that’s not a bunch of hot air.
Editor’s note: Garrett Hawkins, a farmer from Appleton City, Mo., is President of Missouri Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization.