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The U.S. livestock industry continues to meet growing demand for its products around the world while reducing its carbon footprint.

This despite an onslaught of claims to the contrary, including a recent study from the University of North Carolina that attempts to link agricultural emissions with health issues and fatalities around the country.

“Science does tell a different story than what this academic study claims,” Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, told the RFD Radio Network.

What has the livestock industry done to become greener at a time it also faces increased demand? Tirey described monumental progress in the hog industry the past 50 years.

“We’ve doubled production from 12 billion to 24 billion pounds, yet we’ve been able

to reduce our land use by

76 percent, water usage by

25 percent and our overall carbon footprint by more than 7 percent,” she said.

Greenhouse-gas emissions from the U.S. pork industry currently account for about 0.4 percent of all emissions nationwide, compared with 29 percent from the transportation sector and about 25 percent from electricity usage, Tirey noted.

“I think there are a lot of stories not being explained clearly. It’s almost like they’re trying to put fear into consumers,” Tirey noted of anti-livestock claims. “That study also encourages consumers to choose a plant-based diet. So, you wonder about the motivation of the study to begin with.”

It’s a similar story in the cattle industry where, despite major environmental strides, farmers remain the target of negative campaigns.

Yet better breeding, genetics and nutrition have increased efficiency, to the point that 93 million head of cattle meet today’s higher demand for beef while in the 1970s, 140 million head of cattle were needed to meet a lower level of demand. The beef industry currently accounts for about 2 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, when managed correctly, cows help restore healthy soils, conserve sensitive species, enhance ecological functions and can help mitigate climate change, according to the University of California-Davis.

“Farmers who raise any species of livestock implement various tools and technologies to improve not only their respective farms, but also to improve sustainability by including cover crops, improved genetics and nutrient management on their farming operations,” said Tasha Bunting, the Illinois Farm Bureau’s assistant director of commodities and livestock programs. “This has allowed today’s farmers to produce more, using fewer resources.”

Shifting to milk production, the Journal of Animal Sciences reported that the U.S. dairy industry considerably reduced its environmental impact over the past 75 years. It currently accounts for about 1 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Industrywide, we’ve definitely shifted to look more at sustainability, with a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050,” said Bill Deutsch, chairman of the Illinois Division of Midwest Dairy and a DeKalb County Farm Bureau member who farms with his brother, Pat, near Sycamore. “In general, a lot of people don’t realize in dairy production we’re just a fraction over 1 percent of the carbon footprint” nationwide.

The U.S. dairy industry produced about 186 billion pounds of milk from 9.2 million cows in 2007, compared with 117 billion pounds of milk from 25.6 million cows in 1944. A Cornell University study found that the carbon footprint from a gallon of milk produced in 2007 was just 37 percent of one produced in 1944.

Daniel Grant is the commodities editor at the Illinois Farm Bureau, based in Bloomington.

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