Nutrition: What’s true about cows and global warming

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian nutritionist.

In the U.S., cows and other ruminants account for just 4% of all greenhouse gases produced. (Dreamstime/TNS)

I keep coming upon this statistic that states livestock are responsible for 14.5% of global gas emissions.

Some designate ruminant animals — cows, sheep and goats — as the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. Others then go on to offer a solution: Switch from beef and lamb to chicken and pork … and consume fewer dairy products.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality expert at the University of California at Davis.

“Forgoing meat is not the environmental panacea many would have us believe,” he states.


Here are some of his reasons.

It’s true that around the world, cattle are the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases, says Mitloehner. That’s where the prevailing statistic of 14.5% emissions from cattle comes from.

It’s a different story in the United States, where cows and other ruminants account for just 4% of all greenhouse gases produced. Beef cattle specifically are responsible for 2% of direct emissions, he states.

What is the source, then, of the higher greenhouse gas emissions from cattle in the rest of the world?

“India is one hot spot,” says Mitloehner. “That country has more cattle than anywhere else on earth, yet the lowest consumption of beef. As a result, cows live longer and emit more methane over their lifetime. In addition, cows in tropical regions produce less milk and meat, so it takes them longer to get to market (and thus produce more gas emissions)," says Mitloehner.

On the U.S. side, better animal breeding, genetics and nutrition have increased the efficiency of livestock production.

“We’re feeding more people with fewer cattle, which creates a much smaller carbon footprint,” says Mitloehner.

That conclusion is backed up by the Environmental Protection Agency.


They report that all of agriculture to produce food in the U.S. accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation contributes 29%, electricity 25% and industry 23%.

This is not an argument to make everyone a meat eater. Our human diet varies from person to person and culture to culture.

What doesn’t vary are the basic nutrient needs of every human on this planet. And as our world population grows, the importance of all types of agriculture will become more and more apparent.

That means we need a system that is not only good for the environment, but sustainable for the long term. I invite you to read more about this at .

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian nutritionist affiliated with the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at to ©2020 The Monterey County Herald. Visit The Monterey County Herald at . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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