About agriculture and climate change

What does farming have to do with climate change? Well, a lot more than you may think...

Agriculture accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of even the transportation sector. In other words, what you choose to eat can potentially have a greater impact on climate change than what you choose to drive, and choosing to eat meat might be more damaging for the environment than trading your compact for an SUV.

Meat accounts for only 14 per cent of what humans eat worldwide but is responsible for roughly half of agriculture related greenhouse gas emissions, and beef production is the worst culprit by far. When all of the activities and consumption required to serve a cut of beef are taken into account (producing cattle feed, managing the animals’ manure, getting the livestock to market, slaughtering the animals, processing and packaging the meat, disposing of the part of the carcass that won’t be human food, marketing the retail cuts, transporting them from the store, refrigerating until dinner time, and then cooking the beef), serving one kilogram of beef will have pumped the equivalent of 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s a carbon footprint 68 times greater than potatoes (280 grams/kg).

Obviously, the best dietary decision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to forgo meat altogether. But what if you simply can’t imagine life without a porterhouse steak or filet mignon every now and then? Well, even among carbon-venting cattle, there are certain steaks that in environmental terms, are simply a cut above.

Grass-fed beef

Certainly, eating locally-raised beef is an easy place to start, but for those looking for the most environmentally-responsible steak on the market- organic, grass-fed pastured beef is the way to go. It also happens to be the healthier and tastier option as well.

Most of the beef found in your local supermarket came from a concentrated animal feedlot operation, or CAFO. Cattle finish their lives on these feedlots which may house as many as 100,000 animals in crowded holding pens. Because pasturing is impossible under these conditions, the cattle are fed a diet of corn and other grains rather than grass. Producers favour this diet because it shortens the time required to fatten beef cattle for slaughter- but a diet of grains, and the feedlots themselves, both contribute more greenhouse gasses than pasture-finished cattle. Feedlots also present environmental and health issues that are not associated with pastured cattle.

From a climate change perspective, studies have demonstrated that carefully managed grazing of pastured cattle can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil by as much as 40 per cent. Furthermore, pasturing cattle reduces soil erosion by half or more, decreases fuel consumption, and improves water quality.

So the next time you want to indulge that urge for a fine steak or juicy burger, make it a less guilty pleasure and reduce your carbon footprint by choosing beef that wasn’t finished on a feedlot. It’s a better choice for you, and the planet.

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