One of the most common arguments made against consuming animal products is that the production of beef emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) and contributes to climate change.
For example, here’s an excerpt from The Game Changers, a recent film that advocates for a plant-based diet:
“The livestock sector is responsible for 15 percent of global man-made emissions. So, to put that in perspective, that’s about the same as all the emissions from all the forms of transport in the world, all the planes, trains, cars, vans and ships all added up.”
This 15 percent claim comes from commonly cited statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which found that GHG emissions from cattle are 14.5 percent compared to 14 percent for the entire transportation sector.
However, these statistics are misleading, because the FAO compared a full life cycle analysis (LCA) for livestock with only direct (aka “tailpipe”) emissions from transportation.
An LCA considers the environmental impact of a product through its entire life cycle, which includes everything from extraction and processing of the raw materials, to manufacturing, distribution, use, recycling, and waste disposal.
For livestock, that would include not just the methane emitted by burping cows, but also the carbon needed for feed, transport, and processing.
For transportation, it would include not just the gases emitted by cars, trucks, planes, and other vehicles, but also the inputs required for making the fuel (feedstock production and distribution, fuel production and distribution, and final use of the fuel).
It is ridiculous to compare the full LCA of livestock with only the direct/tailpipe emissions for transportation—yet that’s exactly what often happens.
The senior author of the FAO report that was initially responsible for these misleading statistics has since admitted his error. Unfortunately, few people are aware of this, and the numbers from that initial report have been repeated so often that most people just assume they are true.
A more accurate comparison would be the full LCA for livestock vs. the full LCA for transportation. This is not yet possible, since a full LCA for transportation hasn’t been done. (That said, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that industry, transportation, and electricity account for 80 percent of total GHG emissions, so it’s likely that the full LCA for transportation would be a very large number.)
What we can do is compare direct emissions from transportation with direct emissions from livestock. Here’s how that breaks down:
Transportation: 14.5 percent
Livestock (global): 5 percent
Livestock (U.S.): 3.9 percent
As you can see, emissions from transportation and livestock (especially in the United States) aren’t even in the same ballpark.
And keep in mind, these numbers are for conventional, feedlot beef.
Research has shown that holistically managed, regenerative beef operations not only don’t contribute to GHG emissions, they actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
So, as is often the case, the claims you hear in the media can’t be taken at face value. You have to dig a little deeper to get to the truth.
P.S. Regeneratively managed livestock may be the only hope we have to restore healthy soil and feed the world. If you care about this issue, consider lending your support to Sacred Cow, a new film I’m involved with that makes the case for more sustainable, ethical, and nutritious meat. It’s coming out in summer 2020, and we could use your help in the final push. This film is our best chance to counter the growing (and harmful) vegan/plant-based narrative. Click here to learn more and join the movement!