No, I am not a vegan. 

But conversations need to be had about the possible effects that beef farming has on climate change. This article will focus on the unreported world of beef farming and what we can do today to make it more sustainable. It will also talk about how to manage this crisis without risking the lives of farmers worldwide. 

My goal with this article is to help more people become aware of the little-known and rarely talked about issues in our world—the shadows that we refuse to see. It must be emphasized that I am in no way blaming anyone for climate change, nor am I calling for people to lose their livelihoods. 

As someone who lives in a country where onions are more expensive than meat1, I know how it feels to care less about the world and more about surviving. Still, knowing that these topics exist helps us make better, more informed decisions for our lives and the lives of future generations. 

The status quo

In a recent article in The Guardian 2, it was found that over 800 trees were cut down in the Amazon rainforest in just 6 years to support beef farming in Brazil. The author stated the beef industry in the area has contributed to the rapid deforestation in the Amazon, which consequently has contributed to climate change and more species becoming endangered as they search for places to live. The article further states that between 2019 and 2022, cattle ranching was the number one cause of deforestation in the country. 

But it’s not limited to Brazil. More and more research3  suggests that any form of beef farming is detrimental to the general environment. This is because cows need more land to graze, which requires us to cut down more trees to create suitable pasture lands for them, and also because the gasses that come out of their stomachs contribute to global warming. 

Quite literally, cow burps are warming the Earth. 

All jokes aside, however, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)4 has estimated that the total annual emissions from beef production, including all land changes caused by beef farming in 2010, were over 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and that was for that year alone.

To put it into perspective, beef farming in 2010 was on par with the entire carbon dioxide emission of India, which was about 7% of total global greenhouse emissions for that year. 

This was 13 years ago, and the global demand for beef and other ruminant meats has continued to grow. As demand continues to rise, more (tree-less) land is needed to accommodate a higher supply, which is also (unintentionally) contributing to more burps, farts, and other gasses being produced. 

Experts have stated that the resulting deforestation and methane gas production could increase global temperatures by more than 2 degrees Celsius—more than the UN goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (SDG 13)5

The challenges with beef farming 

The main challenge with beef production is that ruminant animals require far more resources than, say, pigs or poultry. Cows require a higher amount of feed per unit of meat, and this feed requires more land to grow, which has a carbon cost associated with it. It has created a vicious cycle where we need more land to produce more meat from animals that produce more methane gas. 

All told, beef farming is a resource-intensive activity, requiring 20 times more land6 than other types of farming, according to estimates. This does not even include the water and energy needed to manage a beef farm. 

Nevertheless, we must address other research that says that beef production only contributes to methane gas emissions and thus plays no role in overall climate change. In particular, a 2019 study in Agricultural Systems7 estimated that emissions from beef production only total 3% of total U.S. emissions—hardly the global crisis everyone is claiming. 

Other research, however, has found that this study (and others like it) does not consider the emissions associated with devoting land to agriculture. When we consider the overall impact of beef farming, it is highly probable that beef production contributes to climate change, especially since global beef demand is on the rise.

The ripple effect of deforestation

There has been much talk about the Nipah virus8, a zoonotic virus (meaning that it is spread from animals to humans) that is currently affecting the southern part of India. The outbreak is currently being examined by experts. But one thing is clear: fruit bats, the main carriers of the virus, are losing more and more of their land and are rapidly coming closer to humans. 

There is a reason why the Nipah virus and even the recent COVID-19 pandemic are happening. While there are nuanced reasons for their spread, it is obvious that humans and animals are coexisting uncomfortably (and sometimes dangerously) because of deforestation9

Thus, while the Nipah virus is not directly associated with beef farming or climate change, it does represent the interaction between wildlife, livestock, and human populations. Beef farming is a major contributor to deforestation, especially in regions like the Amazon. This deforestation can indirectly impact disease dynamics.

Can beef be produced more sustainably? 

I mentioned at the beginning of the article that I do not want to negatively affect the lives of many beef farmers who are genuinely just trying to do their jobs. This feeling is shared by many environmentalists, who are now looking into ways to produce beef more sustainably. 

One of the more practical ways is to implement better management practices, such as rotational grazing10. This not only boosts productivity for milk but also improves soil health and reduces emissions. Beef farmers may also consider integrating trees and grasses into the pasturelands to lessen the effects of deforestation. 

An intriguing study of dairy farms in Kenya11 found that supplementing the typical cattle diet with higher-quality feeds can hasten cattle growth and promote greater milk production. This alone can reduce methane emissions per liter of milk by up to 60%. 

All the same, most research agrees that beef production will always be resource-intensive to produce. Ruminant animals require far more feed and land than other animals and more than vegetables. But we can significantly reduce its effects by implementing more sustainable practices 

Conclusion: do I need to stop eating beef to stop climate change? 

No. Helping reduce climate change does not require everyone to become vegan or even stop eating beef altogether. In fact, one study12 showed that by simply decreasing your caloric intake

by about 50 calories a day, or 1.5 burgers per person per week, you would be reducing the need for additional agricultural expansion by half. 

You can start small, substituting your favorite meals with plant-based burgers or even blended meat alternatives13. Because the change is not drastic, it also allows beef farmers to maintain their livelihoods or start shifting to other forms of farming over time. 

Ultimately, there is no magic bullet that we can use to eliminate the effects of beef farming and climate change, but we can take the first few steps today to mitigate them. Beef production is undeniably linked to climate change, but with concerted efforts from farmers, policymakers, and consumers, we can help make life on Earth easier, not only for ourselves but for our children as well.

1  https://time.com/6245568/philippines-onions-shortage-inflation/

2  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jun/02/more-than-800m-amazon-trees-felled-in-six-years-to-meet-beef-demand

3  https://www.wri.org/insights/6-pressing-questions-about-beef-and-climate-change-answered

4  https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

5  https://datatopics.worldbank.org/sdgatlas/goal-13-climate-action/

6  https://www.wri.org/research/shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

7  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X18305675

8  https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/nipah-virus

9 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02341-1

10 https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/making-cattle-more-sustainable

11 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-012-0640-0

12 https://www.wri.org/data/animal-based-foods-are-more-resource-intensive-plant-based-foods

13 https://www.wri.org/insights/flavor-packed-burger-saves-many-emissions-taking-2-million-cars-road

Raine Grey is an experienced content writer from the Philippines. A profound lover of books, she believes that life is meant to be enjoyed without encroaching on the rights and liberties of others. Raine is passionate about mental health initiatives, having been diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder herself. She is the mother of her adopted rescue cat, Cuapao.

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