What are the Consequences of Methane from Livestock?

Livestock Play An Important Role in Methane Production and Global Warming

It is undeniable that livestock plays an important aspect in nutrition. However, it also has major contributions towards global warming. The demand for meat and dairy products increases every year. It is projected that from 229 million tonnes of meat production in 2001, it will increase to 465 million tonnes by 2050. The same increase is also seen in milk production from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. As production increases, it also, directly and indirectly, contributes to climate change through emission of greenhouse gases including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 18 percent of the total release of greenhouse gases comes from agriculture. While there are different sectors of farming, FAO has identified that cattle-breeding contributes to the majority of greenhouse emission.

Consequences of Raising Lifestock

Methane emission takes place as part of the livestock’s natural digestive process as well as in manure management. Livestock generates 35 percent of methane or around 100 million tonnes every year. It should be noted that methane has 34 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide. Sheep, for example, produces about 30 liters of methane every day while milking cows produce up to 200 liters. The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA quantifies that one-third of the total methane emission in the United States alone comes from livestock. A study in Japan showed that a kilogram of beef alone can already produce as much greenhouse gases equivalent to the emission of an average European car every 250 kilometers.

Methane emission among ruminants is increasing dramatically due to human habits. As the consumption of meat and dairy increases, the demand for ruminant livestock and the resulting methane emission also increases. With newer methods in rearing designed to provide larger amounts of meat at dairy at lower prices, the consumer market also expands. This leads to a higher density of livestock and the addition of methane sources.

dairy cows

Global Meat Consumption is Increasing Greenhouse Gases

Even in Asian countries, methane emission has also increased significantly higher, as people are now adopting the Western diet of eating meat. According to statistics, the production of livestock in China is contributing to more than half of the greenhouse emission. After all, the country is now one of the biggest producers of pork, poultry, and beef, all of which contribute to the livestock-related greenhouse emissions. Annual meat consumption in China has quadrupled from 1985 to 2005. Aside from their meat-eating habits, another significant factor is the shift in the kind of meat that people are now consuming in China. While pork consumption has decreased, beef, poultry and sheep meat has all increased. Although it still needs more quantitative analysis, this change in diet is seen as a threat to the environment, primarily because raising and processing cows require more resources compared to pig production.

The rising meat consumption in China is not something that should be treated in isolation, as it has significant global impact. In recent years, China has ongoing contracts to buy feed crop worldwide. As the Chinese beef consumption increases, there is a high possibility that the supply might come from abroad given that the country has limited resources for livestock.

To address specific greenhouse gas emissions, China is now adopting a policy wherein direct release of animal waste, which is the main source of methane, is banned. Policymakers are also looking into the practice of international carbon trading. For example, giant livestock corporation Shandong Minhe Animal Husbandry Co. Ltd is now building biogas plants running on chicken manure and at the same time harvesting carbon credits. However, there is still concern particularly for small players which dominate the livestock industry if they are able to generate enough to operate and sustain an economical biogas plant. Another ongoing practice to reduce methane is in altering the composition of the feeds. With improved feed quality, there is a possibility that methane emission could be reduced while maintaining the quality of milk and meat produced.

Plant-Based Eating Reduces Demand for Livestock (and Greenhouse Gases)

However, the most powerful way to mitigate this problem really starts on an individual level. To quote Albert Einstein, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chance for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” The world needs a dietary evolution, or otherwise, it might be too late to thwart the predicted collapse of this civilization.

Earlier people subsisted on diets which are naturally made for their body, which is basically made up of plant foods. However, with the improvement in almost all aspects of food production and food transportation, people also abandoned this kind of eating habit. The generations before you have put off their responses to this problem, but as someone who has better choices, it is your responsibility to create change. A dietary revolution, which essentially goes back to plant-based eating, is the best way to address the growing threat to the environment.

Choose to eat for the environment by selecting foods that belong to the lower part of the food chain. By eating more vegetables, fruits, and grains, you are not only discouraging increased meat production, but you are also protecting yourself from the onset of chronic diseases. As much as possible, choose fresh, organically grown produce instead of commercial products. The process of cultivating, harvesting and transporting commercial produce also adds to the carbon footprint.

Cutting Down on Food Waste is Also Important

Another way to reduce methane release is by watching your waste products. According to the USDA, 27 percent of food being produced is thrown to waste. Discarded food, along with its packaging are brought to landfills where another round of methane emission takes place. Purchase fresh produce within the amount that you can consume in a week, otherwise, it might end up going to food disposal. If you have a garden, you can also create your own compost of food wastes, instead of buying synthetic fertilizer for your plants.

Little steps can come a long way. But you don’t have to do it alone. Encourage family and friends to choose a healthier way of eating, one that is not only beneficial for their own personal health, but more importantly for everyone living on this planet.

Is this important to you?  If so, what steps are you taking now to change your eating habits?  Please share them in the comments box below.

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Thriving on Plants is a resource for a whole food, plant-based way of eating and living. Here we celebrate all things plant and honor the power of informed awareness and a diet focused primarily of unprocessed vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains to support good health and happiness. Discover what a little more plant can do for your life!


This website is for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing presented here should be construed as a substitute for medical advice. Before beginning any type of new diet (natural or conventional), it is advisable to seek the advice of a licensed physician, nutritionist and/or healthcare professional.
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