Breaking Down the Environment’s Beef with Meat (and Dairy)
No matter how you slice it (pun intended), animal based food products have a large environmental impact. Unfortunately, solving this issue is not as simple as not eating them. Meat, dairy, eggs and seafood are all good sources of protein and a host of other micronutrients essential to a healthy diet. And despite the rise in demand for vegan and vegetarian food options, it does not appear that Americans are planning to completely eliminate animal food items from their diet any time soon. In fact, global meat consumption is expected to increase in the coming years. Given this information, it’s imminent that animal protein sustainability be at the core of any push for global food sustainability. But in order to address sustainability, it’s important to know why animal products have such a big impact.
*this report will not include seafood and focus on livestock animals
To best understand the true environmental impact of any food, you have to understand its entire lifecycle from production to consumption or disposal. A good framework to do so comes from a methodology known as life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA utilizes the “cradle to grave” approach based around a functional unit that is chosen to help best conceptualize the relationship between functional use of an item and its environmental impact. While this post will not be a full scale LCA in itself, LCA will be used as the framework to best interpret what the environmental impact is for animal based food items. Since all animal food products are primary sources of the macronutrient – protein, a good functional unit for comparison between them is the environmental impact per gram/s of protein. The primary source of data for this report will be from the FAO’s Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), which was developed using an LCA approach to better understand the impacts throughout the livestock supply chain.
This blog will move through each stage of the food value chain (pictured below) and explain which processes cause environmental impact throughout.
Environmental Impact Throughout the Supply Chain
Raising livestock requires land and as the demand for animal proteins grows, some areas of the world have begun clearing grasslands and forest areas for agricultural use. This land use change results in losses to soil carbon storage, thus further increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.
It is estimated that 27% of all calories produced on agricultural crop land are designated for livestock animal feed. This means that total lifecycle impact for a livestock animal also encompasses all of the environmental impacts associated with their feed production as well. The primary source of those feed production impacts result from the use of synthetic fertilizers. Of the three most common nutrients in fertilizers, nitrogen is the main culprit. To keep the process simple, some nitrogen gets absorbed by the plants, some is released back into the air (as ammonia and nitrous oxide) through different reactions within the soil and the rest is leached into the soil as nitrate through percolating water. In addition to the gaseous emissions, the excess nitrogen in the soil can cause dangerous eutrophication in nearby water bodies through nutrient runoff. Eutrophication is when a water body has an imbalance of nutrients that leads to algal blooms which deplete oxygen levels in the water and can disrupt the ecosystem living there. Some of these fertilizers come from applying livestock manure to crops, a rich source of nitrogen itself. This alone accounts for 13.5% of the entire environmental footprint.
Land use change is also a factor to consider related to feed production. This is almost entirely because of expansion of soybean production, expansion of palm oil production and expansion of grazing land. This is a very region specific issue. GLEAM found Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to be responsible for 95% of soybean production expansion, and Indonesia and Malaysia responsible for 94% of palm expansion during the period studied. It also only found land use change for grazing to occur in Latin America during the period studied. Within Latin America, 97% of the deforestation for grazing land occurred in Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua and Paraguay. Feed production accounts for roughly 41.5% of the total animal agriculture footprint.
GLEAM Emissions Sources
Livestock usually produce more manure than can be utilized strictly for fertilizer and this manure is most commonly stored in an open pit of liquid called a lagoon. In addition to lagoons and crop application, other methods of manure management include, storing in solid stacks, burning for fuel, anaerobic digestion for fuel production and composting among others. When organic matter in manure decomposes in anaerobic environment, such as a lagoon, methane is released. Additionally, nitrous oxide is released when the ammonia in the manure decomposes. These processes ensure that manure management accounts for 9.5% of all emissions stemming from animal agriculture.
Additional methane is released by ruminant species (cows, camels, goats and sheep). This occurs because they contain an extra section in their stomach that allows them to digest coarse plant material that humans and other animal species cannot. This process is called enteric fermentation and it generates methane as a by-product. Enteric fermentation alone accounts for 44.3% of all animal based agriculture emissions. This is the primary reason that beef and lamb produce more greenhouse gas emissions than other animal based foods.
Farm production also requires energy. This demand occurs on farms for ventilation, lighting and cooling, and off farms to produce machinery and fertilizers to be used. Together, this accounts for less than 2% of total emissions. More details about energy usage will be discussed below.
Freshwater usage was not the focus of the GLEAM tool and is also not included thoroughly in this article despite agriculture’s high usage of it.
Post Farmgate – Processing, Retail, Consumption and Transport
These three stages of the food value chain as well as transport have all been grouped together because their emissions are all dependent on energy consumption. The amount of emissions relative to energy consumption is heavily dependent on what the energy mix is in a given location. What that means is that every area utilizes different methods and resources to produce energy. Their environmental impact can be explored below (data source).
Greenhouse Gas Emissions per Useable Energy Produced
World Nuclear Association. (n.d.). Comparison of Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Various Electricity Generation Sources.
So, with each source producing a different amount of emissions, the proportion of each that is utilized in a given area becomes the determining factor. Energy is required for processing and packaging of animal based foods as well as refrigeration in retail and households in the consumption stage. Additional energy is required for preparing foods as well.
Transport, whether by water, sea or air, also requires energy. The amount used is dependent on the transportation vessel, distance traveled and cold chain management as well. All of the energy consumption combined, post farmgate, accounts for 2.8% of all emissions in this sector.
Is that it?
Hearing 100% of emissions from the animal agriculture value chain come from four primary sources (animal feed, enteric fermentation, manure management and energy demand) probably sounds a bit too simple. And while all of this data is accurate, it’s important that these numbers represent food production, not consumption. Should the data have been calculated on environmental impact per calorie or amount of protein consumed, it would include another category that is important to note in terms of the livestock supply chain. In 2011, the FAO released a report that shared a staggering statistic, one third of all edible parts of food produced for human consumption were lost or wasted. The FAO is currently calculating more up to date numbers, but this inefficiency emphasizes the point that not all the food we produce is consumed. So when you frame animal based food consumption within the parameters of how much emissions are generated for every calorie or every gram of protein that we consume, waste becomes an equally important environmental impact to the other sources.
As of 2015 it was estimated that 20% of all meat and dairy products produced for human consumption were lost or wasted each year. A 2013 FAO study concluded that meat accounted for roughly 4% of all foods lost or wasted, but 21% of the carbon footprint of all foods lost or wasted. In general, food loss is more likely to occur in less developed countries, while food waste is more likely to occur in more developed ones. Meat production and consumption are dominated by a few countries of the world and consequently, socioeconomic status of these nations reflects why more downstream issues of waste are pertinent for animal based foods than upstream losses. The Countries with the greatest meat and dairy production can be explored below.
Data obtained from USDA Foreign Agriculture Service:
USDA FAS. (2020). Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade China Pulls Back on Meat Imports in 2021. Retrieved from https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDAFAS/subscriber/new
USDA FAS. (2020). Dairy Production and Trade Developments. Retrieved from https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/dairy.pdf
Reasons for this wastage vary greatly. Some wastage occurs due to the fact that many of these products have non-edible portions. Bones, egg shells and body parts such as feet are not consumed by most people, resulting in a portion of waste when measured by weight. Meat, dairy and eggs are also perishable products, meaning they must be eaten within a certain time period from production to be safely consumed. Further confusion often amounts from unclear food quality date labels. In the U.S., they are not required or federally regulated for most foods. The phrasing “best by”, “use by” often implies a date of food safety, when in fact they are intended for best quality. On top of this, most U.S. grocery stores make a habit of keeping their shelves fully stocked, which increases the likelihood of perishable foods going to waste should they not sell in a timely manner. Despite legal protection in countries like the U.S., there is still a fear of litigation for donating food that could potentially be unsafe to consume. Food waste is an issue complex enough for an entire blog post in itself, but the primary takeaway should be that the waste the occurs from animal-food products has a massive environmental impact.
How do the Animals Compare?
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
FAO. (n.d.). Results | Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/gleam/results/en/
Not all species are created equally, and neither are the animals within each species. GLEAM calculated the average emissions produced per species and gave a range for all that were considered. Given the proportion of overall emissions that result from enteric fermentation, it is no surprise that buffalo meat, beef and small ruminant meat generated the greatest amount of greenhouse gasses, on average. These species all graze as well, meaning they are more greatly attributed to the land use change associated with deforestation for grazing. Chicken and chicken eggs generated the lowest level of emissions per kg of protein, followed closely by pork. Interestingly enough, the production maps show that more chicken and pork is produced globally than beef, yet enteric fermentation still account for 44.3% of all emissions from livestock.
The Good News
Fortunately, there are solutions to help improve the environmental impact from each of these sources. Innovations related to technological improvements and climate smart agriculture practices are available today for each area that emissions occur. These solutions will be highlighted in detail in a future article, though it is important to note that they do exist and are being implemented on farms across the world.
Call to Action
Animal based foods are at the core of the environmental impact that results from our food system. And they can be part of a sustainable food future too. In order to develop solutions, it’s important to understand the specificities of where they can create the greatest impact. This requires effort from a policy perspective, scientifically in research, in practice on farms, in stores, at restaurants and in your home too. If one thing is clear, it’s that no one solution can solve every challenge, so improvements must be made everywhere they are possible.
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