Can the meat industry become more environmentally friendly?

Millions of people rely on animal agriculture for their livelihood, yet this is the main source of emissions causing climate change.
Photo: Marchmont Communications /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/ Flickr

According to a 2009 study by environmental experts Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, 51 % global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, the practice of breeding animals for the production of animal products. The industry is responsible for the emission of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shown that animal agriculture is globally the single largest source of methane emissions as farm animals produce methane during digestion as well as from their excrete. To compare, Methane is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere and Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The environmental cost of animal farming cycle

Farm animals consume large amounts of grain and water, they’re then killed, processed, transported, and then stored.

Production and processing of animal feed include land use and enteric fermentation which are the two main sources of emissions, representing 45% and 39% of total emissions respectively.

Enteric fermentation is the digestive process for ruminant animals where food is fermented in the digestive tract producing compounds that are absorbed by the animal that releases methane as a byproduct.

Manure storage and processing represent 10% of total emissions. The remainder is attributable to processing and transportation of animal products. The whole chain is energy intensive.

How much do you consume per day?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations (FAO), cattle alone represent majority emissions of the livestock sector at 65%.

Emission intensities vary from commodity to commodity as well as from region to region due to the different practices and inputs to production. Note that animals raised by “organic” methods emit even more methane than animals on factory farms do. About 44% of livestock emissions are in form of methane.

This makes meat-consumers responsible for almost twice as many dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day as compared to vegetarians and vegans. Vegans generate nearly 42% fewer greenhouse gases than meat-consumers.

Should animal farming be stopped altogether?

All things considered, vegan food seems to offer the best solution to reducing animal emissions. However, doing away with animal farming altogether is not a viable option, at least for now.  This is because animal farming not only employs millions of people, but it is a source of livelihood for many. According to FAO, livestock contributes to 40% of the global value of agricultural output, as well as supporting the livelihood and food security of almost 1.3 billion people.

Additionally, FAO says that livestock keeping is a multifunctional activity, and that other than their role in generating food and income, livestock are a “ valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit and essential safety net during times of crisis”  they state on their website.  

Therefore advocating for the total eradication of animal farming is to deny many a means of livelihood.

Can animal products be sustainably consumed?

The intensity of emissions produced is directly linked to the efficiency with which animal farmers use natural resources and production systems.

There is a wide variability in production practices, even within similar production systems. These variations create “an emission intensity gap” in animal farming.

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FAO estimates that reducing this gap within existing production systems could cut emissions by about 30%. Mitigation interventions, therefore, need to be tailored to individual farmers’ objectives and conditions since interventions to reduce emissions are dependent on technologies and practices of farmers.


Available mitigation options discussed in FAO’s assessment include improving animal breeds to enhance production efficiency.

This can be done by using better feeds and feeding techniques which reduce methane generated during digestion as well as the amount of methane and nitrous oxide released by decomposing manure. Farmers should also consider shrinking their herd sizes in favour of less but improved animal breeds with better health to facilitate more production.

Management of animal excrete ought to be prioritized to ensure recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy. This should be done alongside the use of energy saving devices to reduce carbon emissions.

Mitigation efforts should be directed towards grassland carbon sequestration. Proper management of grazing lands would improve productivity and create carbon sinks with the potential to offset livestock sector emissions. Forests/trees should be planted around pasturelands to absorb more emissions.

Dung Beetles to the rescue

Good agricultural support services and technologies facilitate the change of practices enhancing mitigation and production by building farmers’ capacity to implement them. This can be done through communication, training, establishing producers’ networks for knowledge sharing and demonstration farms, primarily used to show and teach a group of people or a community what a perfect model of the same should technically look like.

For example, Warren Catchments Council, an organisation in Western Australia, has been working with local farmers in analysing effects of feeding cattle small portions of hardwood biochar and using dung beetles to bury charcoal infused manure. Immediate reduction in odours from the dairy was realized, suggesting anti-methanogenic bacteria in the rumen may be assisting in the conversion of methane to energy and the reduction in emitted methane.

Other methods?

Investment in research and development by governments and various institutions builds an evidence base for mitigation, intervention and technologies. This will refine existing technologies and practices to increase their applicability. It will also increase the supply of new and improved mitigation technologies and practices.

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Financial incentives like subsidies, carbon credit markets or emissions tax like a carbon tax, a tax based on greenhouse gas emissions,  will cut farm animal emissions. Economically, efficient mechanisms for incentivizing the adoption of mitigation technologies and practices like soft loans for initial investments will motivate farmers.

Market friction instruments involving measures that seek to increase the flow of information about the emissions associated with different livestock commodities like labelling schemes can be another mitigation method. For example, information put on packages of goods to enable consumers and producers know their consumption and production preferences with the emission profiles of these commodities.

Also, appropriate mitigation actions for livestock a the national level should be developed to enable countries to develop sectoral mitigation policies that integrate other development objectives, and seek international support towards their implementation.

Binding international agreements such as with UNFCCC that provide high-level incentives to mitigate animal emissions and ensure mitigation efforts are shared between various sectors of the economy will facilitate emission reductions.

This goes hand in hand with raising awareness about how animal agriculture contributes to climate change through its emissions. It will influence and promote the various mitigation policy development for the sector.

Agodo Shabella Patience

Agodo Shabella Patience is a Ugandan Lawyer with keen interest on the Environment and Climate change. She is the founder and Executive Director of Green Teso Initiative a climate change Advocacy NGO based in Eastern Uganda.
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