How Animal Farming Contributes to Methane Emissions and What You Can Do About It
November 16, 2023
You might not be aware of it, but your diet choices and the food you consume have a more significant impact on the environment than you might think. According to the good people at Project Drawdown, the top two ways an individual can reduce their personal emissions footprint involve making decisions around their relationship with food.
And while November is World Vegan Month, you do not necessarily go fully vegan or even vegetarian to achieve positive climate outcomes. Even more, increasing plants in your diet will many other benefits, such as improving your health, saving you money, and improving how you feel. So let’s dive into how animal farming affects the climate.
How Animal Farming Produces Methane
Imagine a serene pasture with cows grazing peacefully. While this might be picturesque, it's also a place where methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is being produced. Methane is generated during the digestive process of certain animals, especially ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats.
When ruminants eat, the food they consume enters a specialized stomach with a fermentation chamber. In this chamber, microorganisms break down the food. As a natural byproduct of this process, methane is produced and expelled through burps and, to a lesser extent, flatulence. This methane production in the digestive system of ruminants is known as enteric fermentation.
What is worse, most animals in industrial agriculture do not live the idyllic pastoral life of our imaginations and frequently now spend much or all of their lives in feed-lot systems. In these setups, the methane production is further increased through richer, more gas producing feed and through the handling and storage of animal waste.
Finally, there are the greenhouse gases associated with the production of feed for animals. For a single pound of meat to reach the dinner table, it takes between 4.5 pounds of feed for chickens and as much as 25 pounds for beef (source). In dairy, a cow will produce a little over six gallons of milk per day and consume about 100 pounds of feed, which leads to almost 16 pounds of feed per gallon. If you convert that milk into cheese, it takes about 20 pounds of feed, or 5 quarts of milk to make a pound of cheese. Ignoring the animal welfare components of the existing system, this is also just a highly inefficient system of energy and protein conversion for human wellbeing.
Why Methane Is a Climate Pollutant:
Now, let's get into why methane is such a concern when it comes to climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it has the ability to trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. In fact, methane is much more efficient at this than the more famous greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide (CO2) – on a molecule-by-molecule basis. While it doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2, methane is approximately 27-30 times more effective at trapping heat over a 100-year period. This makes it a significant contributor to global warming.
Methane not only contributes to rising global temperatures but also leads to the formation of ground-level ozone, which can have adverse health effects. So, reducing methane emissions is not only a crucial step in mitigating climate change, but also is a key to improving public health.
Ways to Reduce Your Animal Farming-Related Emissions Footprint:
Now that we've covered how animal farming produces methane and why it's a climate pollutant, let's focus on what you can do to reduce your own animal farming-related emissions footprint. Here are some practical steps you can take:
Reduce Meat and Dairy Consumption: One of the most effective ways to lower your impact is to consume less meat and dairy. You don't need to become a vegetarian or vegan overnight but opting for plant-based meals a few times a week can make a substantial difference.
Reduce Red Meat Consumption: When you do choose to eat meat, consider avoiding red meat. Lighter meats like chicken and pork generally result in less methane production during digestion and require less feed to raise. Poultry and pork typically produce fewer methane emissions compared to beef.
Support Sustainable Farming Practices: Seek out products from farms that implement sustainable practices. Sustainable agriculture can reduce the overall emissions from animal farming. Though labels like "organic" and "grass-finished" are better than nothing, the best thing you can do is know your farmer and buy directly from them. Recognize that “grass-fed” labeled beef can be misleading – all cows are technically grass fed and wouldn’t survive without grass in their diet.
Fight Food Waste: Food waste is a huge problem, and it contributes to higher emissions from agriculture. When food is wasted, all the emissions associated with its production, including methane from livestock, go to waste as well. Be mindful of food waste and try to reduce it at home.
Change Business Practices: You can do a lot by yourself, but you can do more with others. One of the places you have an outsized effect is in your work. Does your company use any animal products in its supply chain and are there ways to reduce or eliminate them? Can you eliminate animal based products from snacks and catering at your company and its events? Can you advocate for the events you attend for work to eliminate animal products?
Educate Others: If you're passionate about climate education like me, use your platform to raise awareness about the environmental impact of animal farming and encourage others to make sustainable choices. Share articles, statistics, and information to help people understand the issue.
Consider Carbon Offsetting: Explore supporting projects that capture or reduce methane emissions from agriculture through carbon offset programs. This can be a meaningful way to mitigate the impact of your diet choices.
Advocate & Vote: The power of individual choices multiplied across many is incredibly strong, and while your food choices will have an impact on the climate and the way others act, leveraging the power of democracy to improve food labeling, climate policy, and industrial agriculture regulations can magnify your impact well beyond what you can do alone.
In conclusion, your food choices have a significant impact on the environment, particularly when it comes to methane emissions from animal farming. By reducing your consumption of meat and dairy, choosing leaner meats, supporting sustainable farming practices, and advocating for methane reduction technologies, you can play a vital role in reducing your animal farming-related emissions footprint. Remember, every small change counts, and collectively, we can make a big difference in the fight against climate change.
So, let's all work together to reduce our carbon hoofprint!