To celebrate Earth Day, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted an article and video on its Web site with claims that meat production is the leading cause of global warming. According to PETA’s “Meat’s Not Green” video, the most effective way individuals can reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and help reduce pollution and habitat destruction as well — is by switching to a vegetarian diet.

You can view PETA’s propaganda and video here.

Predictably, PETA sources the much-debated 2006 United Nations report that claimed cattle raising produces more greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation. The report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow — Environmental Issues and Options,” claims that 18 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide comes from cattle. However, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests otherwise. According to Karen Batra, director of Public Affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, EPA data says animal agriculture does not contribute significantly to U.S. production of carbon dioxide. “EPA data shows that livestock contribute less than 2.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse emissions, while fossil fuel combustion contributes 80 percent.”

Although the EPA’s data is specific to the United States, Dr. Martin J. Hodson, principal lecturer in environmental biology at OxfordBrookesUniversity, Oxford, England, says cattle are directly responsible for a relatively small proportion of global warming. However, indirect effects from cattle production coming from fertilizer manufacture, land use changes and processing are much greater. Still, Hodson says cattle’s global warming footprint is not as heavy as environmentalists claim.

  • Methane is responsible for 24 percent of anthropogenic global warming.
  • Of that, ruminants are responsible for 26.4 percent of methane.
  • So, ruminants are directly responsible for 6.3 percent of global warming.

Hodson says that a major problem is that the largest share of methane production is from poor countries and livestock fed on poor-quality feed. Methane from cattle can be reduced by:

  • Tweaking diet and genetics.
  • Increasing the digestibility of feedstuffs.
  • Advanced technologies in development, such as stimulation of certain bacteria to decrease hydrogen production, decreasing certain protozoa and vaccination to reduce methanogens.

So, how would cattle raised in the United States compare with cattle from those poorer countries Hodson mentions? The folks at PETA might be interested to know that cattle fed grains — such as those raised in the United States — actually produce less methane than cattle raised on grass.

Ki C. Fanning, a livestock nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc., Eagle, Neb., told Drovers,  “Grain is higher in digestibility than forages, and as a result, grains produce about four times less CH4 (methane) than forages. Cattle lose about 8 percent of the energy from grass to CH4 production, but only about 2 percent of the energy of feedlot diets to CH4 production.” 

Fanning says U.S. livestock producers can limit methane production by lowering the amount of forages in feedlot diets to a minimum level. “This increases grains and lowers daily CH4 production so it decreases CH4 production per animal fed. Another way we reduce CH4 production is by feeding an ionophore such as Bovatec or Rumensin. Fat supplementations from distillers’ grains will also limit CH4 production,” Fanning said.

Hmmm. I’d say the next time the United Nations issues a statement about the evils of livestock production, they should consider including somebody on the investigative panel such as Dr. Fanning. You know, somebody who has actually worn boots through a feedlot and knows the smell of methane firsthand. As for PETA, well, I’m not sure even Dr. Fanning can help those folks. — Greg Henderson, Drovers editor.