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20 Quick Facts: The Impact Of Beef And Dairy On Climate Change

Big Meat and Dairy is heating up the planet at an alarming pace. Here are some facts focused on cows primarily raised in the large-scale factory farm system that most people are not aware of when it comes to just how much beef and dairy contributes to the climate crisis.

Spoiler alert. The impact is massive in scale, which is why I am focused on helping to normalize plant-based eating for climate action, and help people make the shift to going vegan or plant-based.

1. Total emissions from global livestock is 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions, and of that cattle represent a whopping 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. [FAO]

2. The world’s top five meat and dairy corporations combined are now responsible for more annual greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP. [GRAIN]

3. In 2018 in the U.S, large-scale livestock farms aka factory farms were exempt from reporting air emissions to federal authorities when Congress passed the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act. [Mother Jones]

In 2019, the EPA exempted these same factory farms from reporting air emissions from animal waste to local agencies. This is an example of systemic environmental racism as many factory farms are located in rural areas among communities highly populated with people of color and low incomes. [Civil Eats]

4. Cows raised for beef emit the most greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain. The largest portion of emissions originates on the farm, so what you eat is more significant than where the food is grown. Locally raised or not, transport is miniscule in comparison. [Our World in Data]

5. Beef (49.89kg) emits 25 times more carbon per 100 grams of protein than tofu (1.98) does. [Our World in Data]

6. Beef has emissions equivalent to coal. In comparison, tofu has emissions equivalent to wind and solar, and plant-based burgers from brands Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have emissions equivalent to hydropower. [Economist]

7. Covid is not the last pandemic. Climate change could spark a rise in zoonotic animal to human pandemics as factory farms are ripe breeding grounds for pathogens, and more species migrate due to changing habitat conditions impacted by global warming creating more inter-species connections. [Axios]

8. Globally, the biomass of cows alone is greater than the biomass of 7.9 billion humans. The total biomass of livestock and pets is 62%. [Our World in Data]

Chart Distribution of Mammals on Earth

9. About 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of Methane which has 80 times the warming potency of Carbon over 20 years. Nitrous Oxide makes up 29%, and Carbon Dioxide makes up the remaining 27%. [FAO]

10. From 1900 to 2000, atmospheric methane doubled driven by the growth of the factory farm system and higher demand for beef and dairy products. [Stacker: History of America's Meat Processing Industry]

Chart Global Atmospheric Methane Concentration 1750 to 2021

11. "If the Amazon is to die, it will be beef that kills it...and America will be an accomplice." Cattling ranching is the primary source of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. JBS is the world's largest meat producer and their headquarters is in Brazil.

The biggest problem in Brazil's cattle industry is “cattle laundering," - indirect ranchers that shuffle cattle who are not tracked individually from ranch to ranch concealing the cattle's illegal origins, and then selling those cows off. The U.S. currently has a loophole in country of origin labeling laws exempting beef raised in other countries from labeling. [WaPo]

Washington Post illustration of Amazon rainforest with quote, "If the Amazon is to die, it will be beef that kills it."

12. In the United States, you might be eating beef labeled, "Product of the USA," when that beef was actually raised in the Amazon rainforest.

In 2015, Congress partially repealed the "Country of Origin Labeling" law eliminating country of origin labeling for beef and pork products enabling those products to be labeled "Product of the USA" or "Made in the USA" as long as the beef and pork was processed in the U.S. [Food & Wine]

Big Meat

13. Monopolies much. Four corporations control 85% of the U.S. grain-fattened cattle market. [Reuters]

  • Tyson Foods - biggest overall US meat company by sales.

  • JBS SA - based in Brazil with US operations is the world's largest meatpacker.

  • Cargill - In 2019, named by Mighty Earth as the “Worst Company in the World.

  • National Beef Packing - controlled by Brazilian beef producer Marfrig Global Foods SA.

14. In terms of percentage of revenue expenditure, in the 21st century, Tyson Foods—the largest emitter of U.S. meat and dairy companies—has spent twice as much on political campaigns and 20% more on lobbying than ExxonMobil did. [Civil Eats]

Science denial. Big Meat is a top purveyor of climate misinformation. "All 10 of the top agriculture companies in the U.S. have contributed to efforts to downplay how agribusiness is linked to climate change." [Gizmodo]

15. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent almost $50 billion in subsidies for livestock operators since 1995 including:

Chart USDA livestock and alternative protein subsidies

16. One recent study found that high-income countries—especially the U.S., France, Australia, and Germany—could cut their agriculture emissions by 2/3 through a diet change reducing meat consumption.

"Animal-based foods drive 70% of food-system emissions in high-income countries but only 22% in low–middle-income countries." [Carbon Brief]

17. Regenerative Agriculture sounds really good I know. The narrative of humanely raised cows roaming vibrant grassy lands sequestering carbon and nourishing the soil is intentionally meant to pull at your heartstrings. But who is bankrolling the regenerative ag narrative push? If you follow the money, you'll find Big Ag. [Jacobin]

18. Besides having the largest carbon footprint, beef also has the largest water footprint.

It takes about 1,847 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef which is enough water to fill 39 bathtubs all the way to the top. In comparison, it takes about 39 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of vegetables. [Denver Water]

Chart Gallons of Water to Make One Pound of Food

Water Pollution and Factory Farms and Slaughterhouses

19. In the U.S, 96% of slaughterhouses are in violation of waste water regulations. [The Mercury News]

In 2019, the U.S. EPA decided not to update the federal water pollution standards for meat and poultry processing plants despite Clean Water Act requirements to do so. The EPA last updated pollution standards for the largest agribusiness facilities in 2004 - 15 years ago! [Environment America Slaughterhouse Fact Sheet]

20. An estimated 38% of meat and poultry facilities are still allowed to discharge pollution under EPA standards set in 1975. In 2018, slaughterhouses in the U.S. released more than 55 million pounds of toxic substances directly into the nation’s rivers and streams.

Here is an interactive map that contains information about water pollution data from large-scale beef, pork and poultry slaughterhouses obtained from the USDA. [Environment America]

US Map of Slaughterhouses and Pollution


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