There is a lot of conversation about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from animal agriculture, however, the U.S. is a global leader when it comes to the environmental impact of livestock production. Beef and dairy production is especially singled out as having a detrimental effect on emission levels, but the discussion often fails to incorporate a global perspective which shows that U.S. producers are leading the way in environmentally friendly production.
“In the U.S. – in the dairy industry particularly – there’s very efficient production systems,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Specialist at UC Davis. “A dairy cow in particular produces both meat and milk and typically a couple of calves as well. So, all of that kind of amortizes off her greenhouse gas emissions.”
The U.S. livestock production system has made tremendous strides in producing more for a growing population while simultaneously reducing emission levels over the past five decades. Proponents of vegetarian and vegan diets often use a quarter-pound burger patty as a unit of measurement for the environmental impact of beef production, but that metric often fails to provide a global context. It also neglects the versatility of beef production derived from dairy cows.
“You have to look at the production systems in different parts of the world,” Van Eenennaam noted. “A quarter pounder from a dairy cow has a very low environmental footprint in an efficient production system and that’s kind of the metric that these products should be compared to if we’re talking about America.”
From a global perspective, the U.S. is responsible for close to 20 percent of the world’s beef production and Brazil is responsible for another 15 percent. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s GHG emissions inventory, all animal agriculture accounted for 255.8 million tons of emissions in 2017. By comparison, a report from Imaflora and Observatório do Clima shows that cattle rearing alone was responsible for 392 million tons of GHG emissions in Brazil in 2016.