7.6 Million Slaughtered Cattle End Up in a Dumpster Each Year.

Why Isn’t Food a Bigger Talking Point in Tackling Climate Change?

Agriculture contributed 9% of 2014 U.S greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are largely from the cultivation of crops and livestock.

All of this is taken straight out of the EPA website. So, what does 9% look like? Luckily, the EPA has a pretty little pie-chart that answers exactly that.

While Agriculture is the lowest among all sources at 9%, it isn’t too far behind the 12% from Commercial and Residential. What isn’t obvious is that Agriculture is a part of a much larger Industry sector. One that relies on Transportation and Electricity to continually deliver raw material to you nearest McDonald’s. On realizing this, I created the four pillars on which the present day food industry stands on: Agriculture, Industry, Electricity and Transportation.

To see these pillars in action, let’s take the example of your regular burger patty. A farmer (probably a contractor for Tyson or Smithfield) raises cattle. These cattle are then transported to a slaughter house. The slaughter house runs on electricity. The industry then packs the food and sells it to a restaurant.

Now, I’m in no way saying that food contributes to 88% of GHG emissions. However, once you drill into how our food is made, you realize that the carbon footprint of our food is more than just the 9% from Agriculture.

So, I guess I’ve made my point clear. Why Isn’t Food a Bigger Talking Point in Tackling Climate Change? The ethical aspect of this is much greater than transport or energy. Not to mention the environmental brutality that is flying under the radar.

For the sake of not making this article any longer than it should be, I will focus this discussion on livestock; better known as beef.

23.5% of beef ends up in your nearest dumpster

Let’s address the obviously horrific statistic that 23.5% of beef is not eaten and has most probably ended up in a dumpster. Commercial cattle slaughter during 2013 totaled 32.5 million. This means that it took 33 million cattle to produce the edible weight of beef that entered the retail market as beef. This isn’t even the most disturbing part when you see that nearly a quarter of that produce was wasted at either a retail level or consumer level. In other words, 7.6 million cattle were killed for no reason. Nebraska consistently ranks as the state with the second largest cattle inventory, averaging about 6.3 million cattle a year. Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?

Cattle inventory by state

The latest available data from the USDA states that commercial cattle slaughter during 2015 totaled 28.8 million head, down 5% from 2014. The average live weight was 1,360 pounds, up 30 pounds from a year ago. Overall, beef production totaled 23.8 billion pounds, down 2% from the previous year.

This is good news, right? In 2015, the USDA reported 3.7 million fewer cattle were slaughtered when compared to 2013. Slowly, but surely, the USDA will eliminate or significantly reduce the aforementioned 7.6 million wasted cattle. Well, to quote Carl Sagan:

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

Let’s examine those numbers once again. While cattle slaughter reduced by 5%, beef production reduced by only 2%. That means they’re getting more meat from fewer cows. And by fewer, I mean fatter - as evinced by the 30-pound increase in the average live weight of cattle. This is what happens when agriculture becomes synonymous with big business — a ruthless pursuit of maximizing produce (more beef) from less raw material (fewer cattle).

Industrialization of cattle

This image is even more heartbreaking when you realize that 7.6 million such cattle are slaughtered for no reason at all.

Now, I know that a lot of people these days are vegan, and among meat-eaters, there’s generally decent awareness about the need to buy organic food (Organic is barely a starting point. Just check out these standards from the USDA. But more on this in my next article).

This is, unfortunately, the minority of consumers. Food in America is ridiculously inexpensive, so inexpensive that it makes Whole Foods unaffordable. Moreover, the numbers on beef wastage apply to all cattle — ethically raised or slaughterhouse raised.

Just like every other environment enthusiast, I watched “Before the Flood”, and I definitely remember Leonardo DiCaprio saying something about how the methane from livestock is a serious GHG and global warming contributor. However, I don’t remember reading any article about an Elon Musk of agriculture reform. Nor do I remember any politician questioning the food production in America. Even President Obama, who widely views climate change as one of the biggest threats to a sustainable future, said this when asked about food production in America.

“Agribusiness has had an obviously prominent seat at the table in Congress. But profit-motive can lead to healthier food offerings for children, and government policies should be driven by science, whether it’s taking a stand on antibiotic use in food animals or GMOs”.
- President Barack Obama, Real Time with Bill Maher, November 4, 2016

This from the same man who also said

“There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
- President Barack Obama, UN Climate Change Summit, September 23, 2014

This is no swipe at Obama. However, it highlights the political clout that the Agribusiness has on someone who regularly went against the giant corporations of oil and gas. This is a problem; we simply never hear any politician, celebrity, or activist bringing up the food industry in the discussion about climate change.

Industrialization is the biggest culprit in the deterioration of our environment, and the industrialization of our food is the unsung villain. Why this is the case remains a mystery to me. We put in so much effort researching the various Tesla models, comparing solar panels, and for several other eco-friendly decisions.

However, when it comes to food, most people end up buying something off the shelf without any idea of how or where or by whom it was produced. Once again, Whole Foods is not the answer. It’s a large corporation that cuts corners one way or the other to scale the way it has. The issue surrounding food isn’t where it’s bought from, but the lack of awareness about food production (organic or not) in the USA and a shocking silence regarding this issue in almost all forms of media.

I believe that one of the crucial aspects of fighting climate change is a simple change in diet and our food buying habits. Buy local, eat what is in season, and don’t waste a cow’s life.