Date of this Version
Op-Ed from ENSC 230. Energy and the Environment: Economics and Policy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Agricultural Economics, Fall 2016
In the first two decades after its release, methane, a green house gas, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Historically, atmospheric concentrations of methane remained fairly stable at around 750 ppb, significantly less than today’s levels of 1,800 ppb. Unfortunately, agricultural activity accounts for about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions, while the current production of ruminants contributes nearly 80% of these emissions due to their large populations, body size and appetites, and the anaerobic microbial fermentation that occurs during digestion. Because of methane’s severe impact on the climate, methane emissions, specifically due to the production of ruminants, needs to be reduced on a national, and international, scale.
While it would be unrealistic to expect the population to completely exclude meats from their diets because of the environmental effects, there are some meats that have far lesser environmental consequences. The farming of cattle causes approximately 120 kg of methane to be released into the atmosphere each year, an extreme number compared to the only 0.26 kg of methane released by poultry per year. Replacing ruminant consumption with meats such as poultry, vegetarian fish, and mono-gastric mammals would severely reduce the green house gas emissions related to food production.
The global population is expected to grow by 40% by 2050, with the global middle class, who are most able and likely to consume meats, doubling by 2030. Just to stabilize the emission of greenhouse gas emissions from the meat industry, global meat consumption would be required to fall to 90 grams per capita daily, versus the current 173 grams per capita globally. These numbers are frightening to the average American, who consumes an average of 381 grams daily. The combination of the exponentially higher number of people needing to be fed, with the extent that the rise in meat demand will have on greenhouse gas emissions requires a decrease in the amount of meat consumed. Livestock consume over a third of world cereal output. In addition, the transfer of energy from plant to animal is very inefficient. The efficiency from the cereal to be eaten by the livestock to our dinner plates would be greatly increased by the direct consumption of cereals, for example, and therefore a greater number of people around the world would be able to be fed. That being said, as the population of those with disposable incomes continues to rise, it would be unfair to expect that their consumption of meat protein should remain static in order to reduce total environmental impact, while first world countries continue to consume significantly higher levels of meat. Therefore, we must take this expected increase in consumption into account when considering our share of global meat reduction.
Many governments, including the US, are hesitant and resist international agendas and agreements that reduce the beef market, and methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in general, due to the effect it would have on the economy. The US in particular has been persistent in supporting the promotion of the beef industry through policies such as the Beef Research and Promotion Act of 1985, because of it’s impact on our economy. Fortunately, we can reduce our methane emissions without destroying our economy. Reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation not only helps control pollution, but increases the efficiency in which the ruminants consume their food. Methane emissions alone account for 2%-12% of gross energy loss of feeds during consumption. Through altering the livestock’s nutrition such as increasing the amount of grains, including leguminous forages, supplementation of low-quality feed with protein and readily fermentable carbohydrates, and adding fats to feed not only reduces methane emissions, but improves the efficiency in which the food is utilized, therefore increasing livestock feed efficiency.
In May of 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency enacted the first national policy to directly control methane emissions for oil and gas operations, but as Environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt stated, “Policy makers’ attention to...meat eating is as close to zero as it is possible to get.” Policies controlling methane emissions throughout the meat production process, and sustainability motivators such as carbon credits, would bring us a leap forward. First, the government will need to redirect current policies that encourage beef consumption into utilization of funds towards research on reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation. They should also reduce subsidies, direct or indirect, for animal feed, such as the production of corn, so that the natural increase in retail prices will reduce meat consumption, and redirect grain production to expanding number of humans who need to be fed around the world. In addition, this will leave room for policies encouraging sustainable food consumption and educating consumers regarding the environmental and health benefits of a reduced meat diet.