Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Cattle

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)

Animal Agriculture Emits Nearly 60% of Greenhouse Gases From Food Production: Study

"To produce more meat you need to feed the animals more, which then generates more emissions. You need more biomass to feed animals in order to get the same amount of calories. It isn't very efficient."

Brett Wilkins

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.

"If people are concerned about climate change, they should seriously consider changing their dietary habits."
—Atul Jain, study co-author

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."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Incredible': Omar and Khanna Staffers Join Levin's Office in Unionizing

"It is long past time the United States Congress became a unionized workplace, and that includes my own staff," said Rep. Ilhan Omar. "I am proud of all the people on my team who have played a leading role in the staff unionization effort. Solidarity forever."

Jessica Corbett ·


Destructive Hurricanes Fuel Calls for Biden to Declare Climate Emergency

"Mother Nature is not waiting for the president or Congress to declare a climate emergency. She's showing us in real-time here in the United States—with wildfires, floods, heatwaves, hurricanes, and drought."

Jessica Corbett ·


Spain Approves 'Solidarity' Tax to Make Nation's Top 0.1% Pay a Fairer Share

The country's finance minister said that looming changes are bound to make the tax code "more progressive, efficient, fair, and also enough to guarantee social justice and economic efficiency."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Time to Take to the Streets': Working Class Hold 'Enough Is Enough' Rallies Across UK

"Does a CEO need an extra zero at the end of their salary—or should nurses, posties, and teachers be able to heat their homes?" said one supporter ahead of the #EnoughIsEnough National Day of Action.

Julia Conley ·


Ukraine Responds to Putin Annexations With Fast-Track NATO Application

Lamenting the lack of any progress toward a diplomatic settlement, one anti-war campaigner asked: "Will the world stand idly by as we careen towards nuclear apocalypse?"

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo