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Pasture cattle: not as environmentally friendly as you thought

Pasture cattle are considered higher quality, but they are not beneficial to the environment: a new report found that switching to pasture cattle will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions and will even increase soil and water pollution

The new report denies the claim that switching to raising cattle in pastures will allow a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Illustration:
The new report refutes the claim that switching to raising cattle in pastures will allow a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Illustration:

By Edva Ofir and Likson, Angle, Science and Environment News Agency

Connoisseurs of meat lovers prefer to buy meat from cows that were raised in free pastures and were given natural and organic nutrition, personal attention and open spaces. Such an increase surely benefits the living conditions of the cows, but is it also good for the environment? A new and comprehensive report Published by the Institute for Food and Climate Research at Oxford University examines the question of whether switching to traditional grazing-based cattle breeding methods will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the beef industry compared to industrialized methods, thus helping to combat the climate crisis.

In the breeding methods prevalent today, the animals live crowdedly in industrialized facilities and feed mainly (or only) on grains such as soy and corn. This is a more efficient method compared to grazing in the open areas in terms of the amount of food received per unit area, but it has a severe impact on the environment: the animal food industry is currently responsible for 14.5 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions emitted into the atmosphere and has a significant contribution to climate change. 80 percent of the greenhouse gases originating from livestock are attributed to cattle (alongside other ruminants such as sheep, whose share is significantly smaller).

In 2006, the UN report was published "The long shadow of livestock" which deals with the considerable share of the animal food industry in the emission of greenhouse gases that accelerate the climate crisis, and since Many studies have been conducted that confirm the claim. In the professional literature, in the media, and over time also in public awareness, the understanding took root that raising animals for food, and especially raising cattle, has serious environmental consequences: greenhouse gas emissions of methane and nitrogen dioxide, alongside the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which affect global warming, but not only; Raising animals for food is also responsible for soil and water pollution, overuse of antibiotics leading to the formation of resistant bacteria, and many other consequences related to public health and animal welfare.

According to OECD data, the global average consumption of beef or lamb is 6.5 kg per person per year. In 2016, the consumption of beef and lamb in Israel was about 20 kg per person, which places us in seventh place in the world in beef consumption after Australia, Paraguay, the USA and Brazil, where the meat consumption is between 20 and 25 kg of meat per person per year. The two highest consumption are Argentina and Uruguay, with double the amount of about 43 kg per year. In India, which is in the penultimate place (the last is Sudan), the meat consumption per person per year is 0.5 kg.

An alarming statistic also published in the UN report from 2006 predicts that by 2050 the consumption of rising meat will double due to the growth of the natural population in the world and the increase in the standard of living in developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and more.

Move to pasture or settle for chicken?

In light of the environmental damage caused by raising animals for food in the way that is practiced today, there are different approaches to finding solutions that will reduce this impact. The prevailing and conventional approach in the last decades is to streamline the food industry, by imprisoning the animals in more crowded facilities, changes in the way the animals reproduce, genetic changes in the animals themselves (so that they grow faster and contain more muscle, for example) and in the food they are given and in breeding methods the food. It is understood that this approach means a serious harm to the welfare of the animals, but it can also have negative effects on public health.

When economic considerations are at the top of the meat industry's set of considerations, consumers are also exposed to serious diseases that end up on the plate. For example, the mad cow epidemic (brain drain) that broke out in Britain in the nineties after the meat producers replaced the expensive soy with ground meat made from cow carcasses as food for the farm cows. The plague spread among hundreds of thousands of farm cows, and the humans who consumed infected meat products contracted a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a disease that is sometimes diagnosed many years after infection.

Other alternatives to raising cattle for food propose adopting a policy of a significant reduction in meat consumption in general and moving to a diet based on plant food - a policy that is increasingly receiving the support of many countries. In 2014, the UN Environment Organization released A report in which he calls for cutting meat consumption by 60 percent, to the level that was customary in the XNUMXs. The Chinese Ministry of Health, for example, Recommends to its citizens to halve the consumption of meat per person, which has increased significantly in China in recent years following the improvement in the economic situation, from 13 kg of meat per person on average in 1982 to 63 kg of meat per year as of 2016. The expectation is for an increase of another 30 kg per year per person until 2030, if dietary habits remain as they are today in China.

The environmental advantage inherent in a significant reduction in cattle consumption, beyond the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions emitted during the production and transportation of cattle, is the possibility of reforesting large areas of land that are currently occupied for raising cattle or food for them. Reclaiming the land areas and reforesting them will allow the absorption of the emitted greenhouse gases and will even leave room for the production of renewable energy on these areas and the restoration of the variety of animal and plant species.

The animal food industry plays a significant role in the emission of greenhouse gases, which accelerate the climate crisis. Illustration:
The animal food industry plays a significant role in the emission of greenhouse gases, which accelerate the climate crisis. Illustration:

Another school of thought considers the ideal solution to go beyond eating non-ruminant animals, such as chickens and pigs, which emit less greenhouse gases in the process of digesting food and consume less land to grow them or to grow food for them. This trend is happening in practice in an unprecedented manner due to the efficiency of raising these animals. Israel for example is Number one consumer of chicken meat in the world per capita, with an amount of 57 kg per year per person, and in China there is a clear preference for pork. China consumes 28 percent of all the meat eaten in the world, half of which is pork.

Less carbon, more methane

Another alternative is moving to different methods of raising cattle, which rely on grazing in open areas. The assumption is that by grazing the herds in the open areas, the herds return to the soil the carbon and nitrogen in their excretions in a way that balances the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for. Also, these breeding methods currently support the nutrition of 200 million shepherds around the world, and make it possible to feed the world's poor for whom industrialized beef is not available. This is what the British publicist and environmental activist George Monbiot claims, for example, who advocated environmental veganism until the publication of his article "I was wrong about veganism, that they will eat meat - but only pastured meat". In this article he argued that reducing meat consumption by half of the amount consumed today, while switching to pasture crops, is an ecological way to feed the world.

The recently published report Examine the popular claim that switching to pasture-raised cattle will indeed allow for a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere - but it was found that this claim does not stand the test of reality, except in places where there are optimal conditions for this, and in any case it will not satisfy the amount of meat consumed today.

According to the report, today pastured cattle are responsible for a tiny supply of one gram out of 27 grams per person per day of animal protein in the world. While cattle derived from grazing alone provides only one gram of protein per person per day, it has a contribution of 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions for which the livestock sector as a whole is responsible.

Indeed, according to the report, raising cattle in pastures can help maintain the carbon cycle and prevent its emission into the atmosphere - but under very certain conditions, and depending on factors in the field such as the quality of the soil and vegetation, the climate, the way grazing is managed so that the soil and vegetation can regenerate, and more. In any case, in the quantities consumed today, the report claims, it is not possible to maintain sustainable grazing of cattle in a way that improves greenhouse gas emissions compared to existing methods. Such a large amount of animals in the pasture will cause the destruction of the lands and will not allow their regeneration.

Methane gas, which is emitted by animals from ruminant leaves, has a shorter lifespan compared to carbon dioxide, but it is much stronger than it (30 times) in its effect on global warming. Therefore, the report claims, as long as livestock farming continues in the current quantities, the significant methane emissions will cancel out and even exceed the savings in carbon dioxide emissions as a result of switching to grazing.

As for the claim that grazing cattle preserves the nutrients in the soil, especially nitrogen, the report emphasizes that animal excrement can indeed return nitrogen to the soil, but they do not provide "new" nitrogen - and the big problem is the damage caused to water sources as a result of the leaching of these excrements.

"Finding the delicate balance"

The conclusion obtained from the study is that the transition to grazing has no ability to help in the fight against global warming and that the carbon footprint is not necessarily smaller than that of current farming methods. Significantly reducing meat currently appears to be the main option for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from the animal food industry, at least until we can assume A juicy piece of cultured meat on the plate.

Alon Shpon, who studies the environmental consequences of animal food at the Weizmann Institute and is one of the founders of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition, refers to the report and says that "this is an important report that provides an answer to the widespread perception that grazing cattle in pastures can both feed the world's population and help in the restoration of land areas and the fixation of carbon in a way that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report shows that the trend to encourage a shift to meat in pastures for environmental reasons is not scientifically based and is only correct in certain areas and conditions.

"As we found in the research we did on the subject which was recently published in the journal Nature", Shapon adds, "If we switch to raising cattle in pastures, without competition in the agricultural areas where food is grown for humans, we will reach an amount of 45 percent of the amount consumed today. The preservation of agricultural areas for food production is important in every country in order to maintain food security (currently on about a third of all agricultural areas in the world food is grown for the animals in the food industry). These areas can be used to grow food directly for the local population and it is important to preserve them. The method of raising cattle in pastures may have an advantage in maintaining open areas and biodiversity under certain conditions, but it has many disadvantages including higher greenhouse gas emissions than those set by industrialized cattle, especially in light of the longer growing time of pastured cattle until slaughter. The delicate balance must be found between maintaining pastures in quantity and in a sustainable management manner that will optimize the environment and at the same time encourage the reduction of meat consumption in developed countries in light of the limitations in resources and also due to health reasons"

So how should the meat be grown anyway? According to Shpon, "one must think outside the box and switch to ecological growing systems that have all the ingredients: trees, bushes, grass and animals. In this approach, which is under the category known as 'ecological agriculture' (agroecology), the most research and attention must be invested in order to understand how much they can provide, what is the goal to be aimed for in terms of production quantities. The amounts of beef consumed today in the Western world cannot continue to be the target."

In Israel, most of the beef eaten in the country is imported as well as the seeds from which animals are fed in the food industry. "We don't have the land resources that would allow us to satisfy the consumption by grazing cattle," says Shpon. "The question is what is our responsibility for the natural resources found in other countries and what is our responsibility towards ourselves in case it is no longer possible to import food due to various reasons such as economic crisis, epidemics, droughts and so on".

The main conclusion obtained from the report dealing with the environmental consequences of the transition to cattle grazing and a host of other studies in the field, as well as recommendations from many health ministries in the world, is that meat consumption should be significantly reduced, and in any case meat other than beef should be preferred - and this in any breeding method. Indeed, also in Israel, Recommended by the Ministry of Health for a significant reduction in the consumption of meat in general and beef in particular and encourages a Mediterranean diet based mainly on plants (vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes).

See more on the subject on the science website:

2 תגובות

  1. I just have a question about section 3, how did you arrive at this number that you are so angry about? If I click on the link, then I get to a place where the report cannot be downloaded... but according to Wikipedia, the report talks about 18%. So where does the number 51% come from? Probably from a review by two people in 2009 against this report itself claiming that the number is too low. Details on Wikipedia:

    Secondly, the report specifically refers to the plants that the livestock eats. The thing is that these plants come at the expense of other plants that fix carbon and the livestock does not eat. Again, details on Wikipedia

  2. The article "forgot" to mention some important things:
    1. You can't really compare the effect of methane and FD&C gases to the greenhouse effect because their effect on time scales is different. The methane emitted from burning stoves has a large but short-term effect because it decomposes in the atmosphere. PADH has a long-term effect. If the goal is to prevent the future environmental consequences of global warming on the emerging apocalyptic climate change, the effects of a greenhouse gas that operates in the long term and has cumulative damage - the PADH - are much greater.
    Regardless, it seems that the article overestimates the importance of greenhouse gas emissions in relation to much more important issues such as preserving biodiversity. In general, the main reason that global warming should worry us is damage to biological diversity, so why not discuss it mainly?
    2. The article rightly noted the high area consumption of livestock, but what about the significance of the area consumption? For raising farm animals in the pasture, the area experiences the effects of grazing on its ecosystem, of course this is a disturbance to the ecosystem that has a negative effect on biodiversity, but despite this it is still an area where a disturbed ecosystem exists. For field farming, any type of plant or animal that is not the plant being grown is completely extinct. The ecosystem is not disturbed, it is completely destroyed. So it is true that field farming requires less land, but its impact on the occupied land is much greater. Field agriculture has an impact on an area that is not even in the agricultural area as fertilizer and pesticide residues continue into rivers, lakes and oceans. The plowing of the soil also affects the rate of erosion. When you look at these, it is clear as day that growing wheat in pasture is better than feeding them from crops grown in field agriculture.
    3. The long shadow report of the livestock that the article praises is full of twists and biases. Especially the claim that livestock emits 51% of greenhouse gases. The report reached this shocking conclusion when it calculated the PAD emitted from the breath of farm animals but did not offset the carbon fixation of the plants these plants ate, even though these are the same carbon atoms!

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