2.4 The Environment

Does the beef industry heavily contribute to greenhouse gas production?

The myth of the beef industry being large contributors to greenhouse gas production has stemmed from the release of the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, released by the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO).  The report claimed that meat production was responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and stated that this was more than global transportation.

The meat production figure was derived by adding all possible greenhouse gas emissions (fertilizer production, land clearance, vehicle use on farms, etc.), while the transport figure only included the burning of fossil fuels.  This resulted in an unfair comparison, admitted by the authors of the report.  The meat figure had been reached by adding all greenhouse-gas emissions associated with meat production, including fertilizer production, land clearance, methane emissions and vehicle use on farms, whereas the transport figure had only included the burning of fossil fuels.

In 2013, the FAO revised the livestock industry’s contribution to GHG emissions to 14.5 per cent global, with beef cattle providing 41 per cent of total agriculture emissions on a global scale. According to the latest data released from the industry environmental footprint study, the Canadian beef industry accounts for 3.6% of Canada’s GHG production and 0.072% of global production

It is a fact that the beef industry does contribute to GHG emissions, however it also needs to be considered that carbon can be sequestered by forage plants as organic matter in the soil, through plant root growth.   One hectare of rangeland contains 50-200 tonnes of carbon in soil organic matter, or the amount of 150 cars over one year.  Canadian grasslands sequester carbon emissions of 3.62 million cars per year.

News Release: Industry Environmental Footprint Study

BCRC blog post: Environmental Footprint of Beef Production

Does the beef industry heavily contribute to greenhouse gas production?


How much water does beef production really require?

Water use numbers have a large range, and many models are simplistic and don’t take into account contributions to the hydrologic cycle.

The best estimate to date is that it takes 3680 L to produce a kilogram of boneless beef or 417 L to produce a ¼ lb hamburger.  However, this is a U.S. estimate, which reflects the higher degree of irrigation used in the United States.  Only 7 per cent of Canadian farms reported irrigation in 2005.  A current research project is in the process of determining the water footprint for the beef industry in Canada.  In comparison, a five minute shower takes between 38L and 95L of water4, depending on flow rate.  A running toilet can waste up to 757L per day4.

Beef production also contributes to the recharge of groundwater aquifers and generation of runoff to surface waters.

How much water does beef production really require?


How much waste does beef production create?

The Natural Resources Conservation Board regulates manure management for intensive operations including storage and spreading.  Manure produced by beef operations is recycled as natural fertilizer for both conventional and organic crops.  1000 humans produce as much total coliform bacteria as 1,300 feeder cattle and as much total waste (including dilution liquid) as 11,000 feeder cattle.12

How much waste does beef production create?