Treating beef like coal would make a big dent in greenhouse-gas emissions – The Economist

Treating beef like coal would make a big dent in greenhouse-gas emissions – The Economist

In an article published in The Economist, it has been empahsised that cattle are a large producer of greenhouse gases. Few dishes whet more palates than a juicy cut of beef. One poll in 2014 found that steak was Americans’ favourite food. Unfortunately, by cooking so many cows, humans are cooking themselves, too.

The impact of food on greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions can slip under the radar. In a survey in Britain last year, the share of respondents saying that “producing plants and meat on farms” was a “significant contributor” to climate change was the lowest among ten listed activities. Yet two papers published this year in Nature Food find that food, especially beef, creates more ghgs than previously thought. Forgoing steaks may be one of the most efficient ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

In 2019 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the global food system was responsible for 21-37% of GHG emissions. This March researchers from the European Commission and the un’s Food and Agriculture Office released a study with a central estimate near the top of this range. It attributed 34% of GHGS produced in 2015 to food.

This elevated share stems in part from accounting choices. The paper assigns the full impact of deforestation to the agriculture that results from it; includes emissions after food is sold (such as from waste and cooking); and counts non-food crops like cotton. But even when the authors excluded embedded emissions from sources like transport and packaging, they still found that agriculture generated 24% of ghgs. According to the World Resources Institute, a research group, cars, trains, ships and planes produce a total of 16%.

Another recent paper, by Xiaoming Xu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and eight co-authors, allocates this impact among 171 crops and 16 animal products. It finds that animal-based foods account for 57% of agricultural ghgs, versus 29% for food from plants. Beef and cow’s milk alone made up 34%. Combined with the earlier study’s results, this implies that cattle produce 12% of GHG emissions.

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