Grazing livestock are linked to climate change. They can boost the sequestration of carbon in some locally specific circumstances. At the global level, they are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, directly linked to global warming. The conclusion: Eat less meat and dairy products.
These startling findings were made public on Tuesday after two years of a collaboration study by researchers led by Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford. Cecile Godde at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, is one of the authors.
The study, which aims to help minimise carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through grazing actions, holds relevance for India too as it supports one of world’s largest populations of grass-fed livestock, ranks number one in milk production.
The report, “Grazed and Confused?”, says grass-fed livestock are not a climate solution. They are, in fact, net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock.
The cattle emit gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, and contribute the majority share of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use.
Ultimately, if high-consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution.
“Eating less meat, of all types, is (a solution),” advocates report lead author Garnett.
Published just ahead of the Bonn UN Climate Change Conference, the report places emphasis on the need to consider animal production and meat consumption if the world aims to keep a global average temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius.
“When thinking about different livestock production systems, there are many important aspects to consider: people’s livelihoods and jobs, animal welfare, biodiversity, nutrition and food security and more,” Garnett said.
“Grazing systems and grass-fed beef may offer benefits in these respects, benefits that will vary by context. But when it comes to climate change, people shouldn’t assume that their grass-fed steak is a climate change-free lunch. It isn’t,” she added.
The 127-page report estimates the livestock sector as a whole is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global human-related global greenhouse emissions, making the increasing demand for meat and dairy foods extremely problematic “if we are to limit global warming to below the internationally agreed goal of 2-degrees”.
However, both consumers and policymakers have a much looser grasp on the differences in climate impact among different types of livestock.
“The big question that needs answering is whether farmed animals fit in a sustainable food system, and if so, which farming systems and species are to be preferred,” said environmental and agricultural scientist Godde.
“Of course, there are many dimensions to sustainability and this report only considers one of them — the climate question. But the climate question alone is important to explore and in doing so, this report takes us a step further towards understanding what a sustainable food system looks like,” she said.
The report concludes that although there can be other benefits to grazing livestock — solving climate change isn’t one of them!