U.S. Cattle Production Sustainability Overview

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Breakdown in the U.S.

According to the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventory, 2% of U.S. emissions come directly from beef cattle [1](methane from cattle belches, methane and nitrous oxide from manure). Total direct emissions from all agricultural production, crops and livestock collectively, were 8.4% of U.S. emissions in 2017. Agriculture, land use, land use change, and forestry combined in the United States are a net sink of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions, meaning they removed 172 million metric tons of CO2e from the atmosphere in 2017.

Table 1. 2017 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Sources and Sinks
Table 1. 2017 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Sources and Sinks

What’s the Global Situation Look Like?

Large disparities in emissions intensities, or GHG emissions per lb of beef produced, exist across regions of the world. The U.S. has one of the lowest beef GHG emissions intensities: 10–50 times [2] lower than other parts of the world. Most of this variation is driven by the number of cattle required to produce beef. For example, the U.S. produces around 18% of the world’s beef with 8% of the world’s cattle herd [3]. Fewer cattle required for a given amount of beef produced means fewer GHG emissions and fewer natural resources required to produce human nourishment. The U.S. is a leader in beef production efficiency because of scientific advancements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, husbandry practices, and biotechnologies.

Correcting the Misinformation

A quick Google search of beef and GHG emissions will result in a wide range of statistics. Unfortunately, two types of conflation typically occur that muddy the waters. First, globally-relevant statistics are often conflated with U.S. emissions, and second all emissions from livestock production are often ascribed to beef. Globally, life cycle emissions from livestock production (emissions from feed production to consumer) are 14.5% of GHG emissions. Global beef life cycle emissions are 6% of the world’s GHG emissions. [4] The disparity between these two percentages is due to the other forms of livestock agriculture accounted for in the 14.5% figure, such as poultry, pork, and dairy production. In the United States, beef cattle production produces 3.7% of U.S. GHG emissions from a life cycle perspective [5] (adding in feed production, fuel and electricity use, etc. to the 2% estimation from the EPA inventory). The GHG emissions produced by U.S. beef cattle contribute only a fraction of the GHG emissions attributed to global beef production, as most cattle in the world are located outside U.S. borders. U.S. beef cattle emissions are less than ½ percent of the world’s GHG emissions. [6]

Figure 1. U.S. beef cattle production emissions in the context of total global GHG emissions.
Figure 1. U.S. beef cattle production emissions in the context of total global GHG emissions.

Upcycling is the Ruminant Advantage

Cattle are ruminants. This means they have a symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms that live within their specialized stomach compartments that provides them their upcycling superpower. Upcycling is converting something of little to no value to a higher value product. Cattle upcycle every day, converting solar energy in plants that’s inaccessible to humans to high-quality protein, micronutrients, and ancillary products such as leather and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. beef cattle industry provides more than two times the high-quality protein (accounting for amino acid profile and bioavailability) [7] to the U.S. food supply than cattle consume: cattle directly contribute to food security. Additionally, beef is rich in micronutrients such as Zinc, Iron, Selenium, Choline, Niacin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6.

Cattle Provide Far More than Beef

Cattle production results in more benefits to society than just the excellent nutrient package that is beef. Cattle are a source of fiber (leather), fertilizer, fuel, and wealth. Beef cattle operations represent over 1/3 of U.S. farms and ranches [8]— the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture. Cattle production preserves and enhances grassland ecosystems. Cattle grazing can help mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires. [9] Cattle grazing lands help regulate and purify the water supplies for major municipalities in the United States. [10] Conservatively, the ecosystem services of cattle ranching and farming provide $14.8 billion of societal value in the U.S. [11] In short, cattle production is a key part of the social fabric of America, from cultural contributions of cowboy Americana to provisioning of heart valves to people. Cattle are a self-replicating, solar-powered plant-based protein source with numerous unmatched co-benefits. Humanity has depended upon cattle production for the whole of civilization and will continue to do so far into the future: beef cattle production is sustainable.

Beef Cattle Production is Always Getting Better

Despite having a highly resilient and efficient beef production system in the USA currently, cattle producers are always looking for ways to get better. Compared to 1975, it takes 36% fewer cattle [12] to produce the same amount of beef today. This dramatic improvement in efficiency has been driven by improvements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, biotechnologies, and husbandry practices that result in improved animal well-being. Research and extension and adoption of new knowledge is a continuous process that delivers on incremental improvements in reducing beef cattle production’s resource use and environmental impacts. Advancements in grazing land management, genomically-enhanced expected progeny differences (EPDs), methane-inhibitors, integrated crop-livestock systems, water recycling technology, and manure composting are just a few of the examples of new technologies being deployed and tested that will further enhance the sustainability of U.S. beef production. Ultimately, the U.S. beef industry is resilient and well-positioned to continue to provide U.S. and international consumers a superior animal source food in a socially and environmentally responsible manner for decades to come.

For more information, go to www.beefresearch.org/beefsustainability.aspx


1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2017. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks-1990-2017 accessed August 7, 2019

2. Herrero, M., et al., 2013. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110: 20888–20893.

3. UN FAOSTAT database. Available at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home accessed August 7, 2019

4. Gerber, P.J., et al., 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock — A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.

5. Rotz. C.A. et al., 2019. Environmental footprints of beef cattle production in the United States. Ag. Syst. 169: 1–13.

6. IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

7. Baber, J.R. et al., 2018. Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution, and enteric methane production from beef production in the United States. Trans. Anim. Sci. 2: 439–450.

8. USDA 2017 Ag Census. Available at: https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/index.php accessed August 7, 2019.

9. Davies, KW, et al. 2015. Winter grazing can reduce wildfire size, intensity and behaviour in a shrub-grassland. International Journal of Wildland Fire 25(2) 191–199

10. Steiner, J.L. et al., 2014. Knowledge and tools to enhance resilience of beef grazing systems for sustainable animal protein production. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1328:10–17.

11. Taylor, DT, et al. 2019. National and State Economic Values of Cattle Ranching and Farming Based Ecosystem Services in the U.S. University of Wyoming Extension B-1338.

12. USDA-NASS Quick Stats Tools. Available at: https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/ accessed August 7, 2019.

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