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Brett Wilkins: Animal agriculture emits nearly 60% of greenhouse gases, according to new study

“If people are concerned about climate change, they should seriously consider changing their dietary habits.”

Global food production accounts for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy responsible for twice as much planet-heating carbon pollution as plant-based foods, according to the results of a major study published Monday.

According to research published in Nature Food, 35% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food production, “of which 57% corresponds to the production of animal-based food,” including livestock feed.

“The global population has quadrupled over the last century,” the study notes. “Demographic growth and associated economic growth have increased global food demand and caused dietary changes, such as eating more animal-based products. The United Nations projects that food production from plants and animals will need to increase 70% by 2050, compared to 2009, to meet increasing food demand.”

“Increased food production,” the paper continues, “may accelerate land-use changes (LUCs) for agriculture, resulting in greater greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduced carbon sequestration, and further climate change.”

Beef production—which according to the study contributes 25% of all food-based greenhouse gas emissions—is by far the biggest culprit, followed by cow’s milk, pork, and chicken. Among plant-based foods, rice production is responsible for 12% of food-based emissions.

The publication notes that the provision of adequate grazing land and food for livestock fuels deforestation, while the animals also produce tremendous quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas found to be up to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“To produce more meat you need to feed the animals more, which then generates more emissions,” University of Illinois researcher and study lead author Xiaoming Xu told The Guardian. “You need more biomass to feed animals in order to get the same amount of calories. It isn’t very efficient.”

The paper notes that while it only takes 2.5 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions to produce one kilogram of wheat, producing the same quantity of beef emits 70 kilograms of emissions.

“I’m a strict vegetarian and part of the motivation for this study was to find out my own carbon footprint, but it’s not our intention to force people to change their diets,” study co-author Atul Jain told The Guardian. “A lot of this comes down to personal choice. You can’t just impose your views on others. But if people are concerned about climate change, they should seriously consider changing their dietary habits.”

Jain added that “this study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions.”

The new study’s findings closely mirror those of separate research published last week by Friends of the Earth Europe, its German arm Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz, and the Berlin-based Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which concluded that worldwide food production accounts for up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with animal agriculture responsible for more than half of that amount.

Noting that “industrialized meat and dairy production are killing the planet, poisoning rural communities, and hurting independent farmers,” the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said Monday that the Farm System Reform Act—legislation reintroduced in July by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)—”would end some of the worst practices and begin building a just food system for people and the planet.”

“Meat and dairy production in the United States is based on heavily subsidized factory farming—a leading contributor to climate change, pollution, pesticide use, biodiversity loss, wildlife killings, and worker exploitation,” CBD explains in a petition supporting the proposed legislation, which is endorsed by more than 300 diverse advocacy groups. “This broken system is the result of the unequal power that multinational meat corporations wield over federal farm policy.”

First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under Creative Commons. 
Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

Cattle line up to feed at a trough at a feedlot in LaSalle, Utah on April 19, 2017. (Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

3 comments on “Brett Wilkins: Animal agriculture emits nearly 60% of greenhouse gases, according to new study

  1. Marcus WC Tipton
    September 15, 2021

    Just curious, how much land would be required with modern limitations on agriculture, to provide a strictly vegetarian diet to the world population?

    I would also contest this claim “Brett Wilkins: Animal agriculture emits nearly 60% of greenhouse gases, according to new study”

    Perhaps this is the greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural security including livestock production? One cargo ship emits more greenhouse gases than all of the cars do in a single year. Mt. Pinatubo ejected more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than humanity has for its entire existence.

    Water vapor has always been and will always be the largest greenhouse gas, but is completely omitted from all of the computer models. Methane has always been the secondary most prevalent GG, and results from anything and everything that dies including plants. Further, methane does, at higher elevations in the atmosphere, convert to CO2. Many of us have long been aware of the urgency to tackle methane but have been largely ignored, and even ostracized by people wanting to focus on a distant tertiary cause in the form of CO2.

    Mind you, I am all about solutions, but would prefer solutions that do not totally disrupt the ability of people to provide for their basic needs today, much less in the future. Large scale food forests could be integrated as part of reforestation efforts. Semi-hermetically sealed housing for livestock and plant life, as yes, even hay can be grown in food forests, though it may not be a good idea to allow the livestock to run free in the food forests. CO2 can then be trapped and injected into semi-hermetic facilities allowing for the introduction of increased CO2 levels into greenhouses increasing production and growth rates. Methane from the livestock can be trapped and used for NG use as a fuel, for refrigeration, and other uses.

    There are solutions, but it has been my experience that blanket solutions rarely fix anything, and generally tend to exacerbate many of the underlying or corollary issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      September 15, 2021

      Thanks, Marcus. I do admire your blog, especially the article on earth ships in the Philippines. I haven’t read the study which Wilkins’ news report references, but I have studied the issue and factory farming in the US and Britain, as well as rainforest clearance to make pastureland in Brazil are major causes of greenhouse gases.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Vox Populi
        September 15, 2021

        By the way, the headline is somewhat misleading on this post. Instead of adopting the headline from the previous source, I should have revised it to something like “Animal agriculture contributes over 20% of total greenhouse gases.” If you read the article, you can see that the scientists claim that 35% of all greenhouse gases are due to food production, and of that number 60% is from animal agriculture. My apologies.

        Liked by 2 people

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