Posts Tagged ‘Livestock’

By Robert Goodland[1]

Climatic change is fearsome.  The National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2013 explaining how 1,700 American cities – including New York, Boston, and Miami – will become locked into some amount of submersion from rising sea levels unless expensive new dykes and levees can hold back the rising waters.  In fact, the International Energy Agency has warned that major action by 2017 may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late.

Rising sea levels

Elsewhere, the last chance for major action is said to be 2020.  Even with that more generous timeframe, it’s too late to reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure.  That’s because doing so is estimated to require at least 20 years to implement at the necessary scale.  Indeed, large-scale implementation of renewable energy infrastructure was the general basis for the Kyoto Protocol when it was drafted in 1990.  But the Kyoto Protocol did not yield a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as intended; to the contrary, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen shockingly by 61% from 1990 to 2013.

Gestation_crates_5Now, there seems to be only one remaining pragmatic way to reverse climate change before it’s too late – and that’s by taking quick and large-scale actions in food, agriculture, and forestry.  When Jeff Anhang and I estimated in 2009 that at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock, we calculated that replacing 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives could almost fully achieve the objective of the Kyoto Protocol.

However, as greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon have continued to rise, now almost 50% of today’s livestock products must be replaced with better alternatives by 2017 – or by 2020 at the latest – in order to achieve the objective of the Kyoto Protocol and avert catastrophic climate change.  No other pragmatic worldwide action to reverse climate change has been proposed by anyone.

One reason why worldwide action is needed is that climate change is one of a relatively small number of environmental issues that are transboundary.  This means that greenhouse emissions and atmospheric carbon don’t respect borders – so a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted in China can affect someone anywhere in the United States just as much as it will affect someone in Beijing.

CO2 Emissions By Country in Metric Tons as of 2010 (Source: US Dept of Energy)

The transboundary nature of climate change means that everyone in the United States could go vegan with virtually no climatic benefit if the consumption of livestock products continues to increase in China and elsewhere.  In other words, it’s as important to be concerned about what happens with food and climate change elsewhere as it is to be concerned about what happens with food and climate change in the United States.

In fact, the average global concentration of atmospheric carbon continues to increase after it recently rose above 400 parts per million, far above the safe level of 350 parts per million.  The only known way to draw down atmospheric carbon on a large scale in a relatively short timeframe is by growing more trees, which is uniquely possible through our recommendations.  That’s because replacing a substantial amount of today’s livestock products with better alternatives will free up a vast amount of land to permit large-scale reforestation and greenhouse gas sequestration – at the same time as it will massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock production.

The dual benefits of reducing emissions and absorbing atmospheric carbon on a large scale at the same time are the key aspect of what makes our recommendations the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change before it’s too late.

0611_soy_foodsTo be clear about what we mean by “better alternatives” to livestock products:  We mean everything from grain-based meats to soy milk, nut butters, as well as whole grains and legumes.  This is because any food that comes directly from a plant rather than from livestock will generally be responsible for a much lower level of greenhouse gas emissions than are livestock products.

We recommend against framing what’s needed as less “meat” and less “milk,” in part because producers of vegan foods often use terms such as “grain-based meat” and “hemp milk.” Moreover, dictionaries define “meat” and “milk” as essential food products that include vegan versions.  So we suggest that it is not the soundest of strategies to cede the terms “milk” and “meat” to livestock producers, and to press people to sacrifice those items.  Indeed, the livestock industry perceives that consumers see milk as such an essential beverage that some livestock producers have filed lawsuits to prevent vegan food producers from using the term “milk.”

One of the reasons to focus attention on livestock and feed production is that such production is estimated to occupy 45% percent of all land on earth – that’s all land, both arable and non-arable, including ice caps and mountaintops.  Most of the land used for livestock and feed production was once forested, and can be forested again.  In fact, there is documented potential for agricultural change to bring atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years.


To provide as much scientific information on this as possible, we’ve developed a website where we’ve posted updated versions of our assessment and links to many prominent citations of our work (and our site has attracted a lot of attention since its high-profile launch, which was reported on by Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign).

533px-Sheep,_Stodmarsh_6For decades, activists have urged that people reduce their consumption of livestock products in order to reduce environmental impacts in general, to be more compassionate to animals, and to improve human health – yet global consumption of animal-based foods has risen dramatically, instead of falling.

In contrast, emergencies normally motivate major action – and since major action to reverse climate change is said to be needed by 2017 or no later than 2020, activists may find it most compelling and effective to cite reversing climate change as the key goal for people to act upon.  Indeed, there is surely no more compelling motivation to act than the knowledge that replacing livestock products with better alternatives may be the only pragmatic way to stop catastrophic climate change from imperiling much of life on earth.

[1] The late, renowned ecologist Robert Goodland served as Lead Environmental Adviser at the World Bank Group, after being hired as its first full-time professional ecologist. Among his many accomplishments, Dr. Goodland co-authored (with Jeff Anhang) the ground-breaking study finding that livestock is responsible for at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gases. This article is excerpted and edited from the last public presentation made by Dr. Goodland (in September 2013).



Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. In the mad race to the dinner plate, the scarce resources needed to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy simply can’t keep pace with the demand for these foods. Some commentators propose “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, on pastures, or in fish farms. But it’s unclear whether these proposals are really viable or are just so much hot, greenhouse gas wafting into the sky.

This is the second installment in a three-part series which seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably? In the first segment, we learned that determining the carbon effects of local consumption can be about as complex as planning a seven-course meal. Simply put, locally raised animal foods can easily be less carbon-friendly than those from a distant continent, and local consumption thus does not make animal foods sustainable. In the third segment, we learn that fish farming may not be silver bullet of food production to feed the world sustainably.  In this piece, we look at another key issue: whether farmed animals’ carbon footprint can be improved by raising them organically.

Manic for Organic

Is organic food really as good for the environment as we’d like to think? Despite Prince Charles’s claim that organic farming provides “major benefits for wildlife and the wider environment,” a 2006 British government report found no evidence that the environmental impact of organic farming is better than that of conventional methods.[1] In fact, because of large differences in land needs and growth characteristics between organic and inorganic animals, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the environmental benefits of one production method over the other. As Table 1 below shows, considerably more land is required to produce organic animal foods than inorganic—in some cases more than double. This higher land use is associated with higher emissions of harmful substances like ammonia, phosphate equivalents, and carbon dioxide equivalents. Further, denied growth-promoting antibiotics, organic animals grow more slowly—which leads to higher energy use for organic poultry and eggs. Thus, as Table 2 shows, when the overall effects of organic and inorganic animal production are compared, the results are notably mixed.

Table 1
Land Use Needs of Organic and Inorganic Animal Food Production (in acres)[2]

Table 1

Table 2
Organic or Inorganic Production—Which Is Better for the Environment?[3]
table 2

O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference

We can see that poultry and eggs are mostly more eco-friendly when raised inorganically, while it’s generally more eco-friendly to raise pigs organically. As for cattle, factors like methane emissions and water use make the comparison more complicated.

it_photo_93667Take methane. Besides figuring prominently in many a fart joke, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas (although in its natural state, it’s actually odorless). A single pound of it has the same heat-trapping properties as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.[4] Organic cattle must be grazed for part of their lives, which means that unlike feedlot cattle, they eat grass. However, cattle rely more on intestinal bacteria when digesting grass than grain, and this makes them more flatulent—and methane-productive—when eating grass. The result is that grass-fed, organic cattle generate four times the methane that grain-fed, inorganic cattle do.[5]

Then there are the water issues. On a planet where water is not only the origin of all life but is also the key to its survival, animal agriculture siphons off a hugely disproportionate share of this increasingly scarce resource. It can be hard to picture the quantities of water involved, so consider a few examples. The 4,000 gallons required to produce one hamburger is more than the average native of the Congo uses in a year.[6]

battleship_003And the 3 million gallons used to raise a single, half-ton beef steer would comfortably float a battleship.[7]

Pound for pound, it takes up to one hundred times more water to produce animal protein than grain protein.[8] Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter? Looked at another way, if Fred litters ten times a day while Mary litters only nine times, is Mary’s behavior really good for the environment? The value of such comparisons is dubious.

These factors lead to one conclusion: we must treat as highly suspect the claim that organic animal agriculture is sustainable. Organic methods are an environmentally-mixed bag—sometimes slightly better, sometimes a little worse, and often the same as inorganic. But since animal protein takes many times the energy, water, and land to produce as plant protein, any modest gains from raising animals organically are largely irrelevant.[9] Shocked that organic production isn’t the silver bullet of sustainability? Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll look at another favorite of those who advocate “green” animal agriculture: pasture farming. For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).

[1] C. Foster et al., “Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs,” Eldis (2006).

[2] Data expressed in hectares converted to acres. A. G. Williams, E. Audsley, and D. L. Sandars, “Determining the Environmental Burdens and Resource Use in the Production of Agricultural and Horticultural Commodities” (2006), Main Report, UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Research Project IS0205.

[3]Williams, Audsley, and Sandars, “Environmental Burdens in Production of Agricultural Commodities”; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, (Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press, 1996).

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Methane: Science” (2010).

[5] L. A. Harper et al., “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Grazing and Feedlot Cattle,” Journal of Animal Science 77, no. 6 (1999): 1392–1401.

[6] ChartsBin, “Total Water Use per Capita by Country,” accessed December 23, 2012,

[7] Assuming the animal weighs 1,200 pounds; metric units converted to imperial. T. Oki et al., “Virtual Water Trade to Japan and in the World” (presentation, International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Netherlands, 2003).

[8] Pimentel and Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society.

[9] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Clinical Journal of Nutrition 78, no. (3) (2003): 6605–-35.