Proposal to mitigate the effects of the beef industry on global warming

Jack Reid – Natural Resource Conservation/Urban Forestry

Ashley Lees – Sustainable Food and Farming

Anna Marco – Animal Science

Anders Salmonsen – Building Construction Technology

Global warming is one of the biggest problems facing our planet currently, and this issue will only continue to create more negative impacts in the future. Our world wide industries and societies are rapidly creating greenhouse gases that increase the rate at which our atmosphere and environments are changing. Through things such as the burning of fossil fuels to create electricity or the use of gasoline in cars, humans are emitting immense amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to this problem (Denchak, 2016). There is a source of these greenhouse gases that is often overlooked. That source is the practice of raising cattle for beef and dairy products. Agriculture activities in the United States are responsible for 7.9% of Total Greenhouse gas emissions and cows are the largest contributor (Stackhouse-Lawson, et. al., 2015). The dairy and beef consumption in the United States directly relates to global warming due to methane emissions that occur as a byproduct of this industry (Hovhannisyan & Grigoryan, 2016). The rate at which global warming is increasing is alarming and something must be done about it. One way to reduce methane emissions is to focus on the demand for beef and dairy products and how we can decrease this demand.

Both beef and dairy cattle emit high amounts of enteric methane that contribute significantly to global warming. Enteric methane is gas that is released when animals belch. This type of methane is primarily created during the digestion process of ruminant animals such as cattle. Ruminant animals differ from other animals in that they have a four part stomach that evolved specifically to digest their plant based diet. As their stomachs break down food, microorganisms in the gut of these animals produce methane gas, and eventually this gas is excreted from the animal and enters our atmosphere. The methane gas that is excreted from the animal’s belch is enteric methane emissions (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2019).

Non-ruminant farm animals such as pigs, chickens, turkey, and ducks do not enterically produce methane at the rate that cattle do. This is because they do not have a four part stomach full of bacteria that ferment plant based feed. They are omnivores, and their large intestine is the only place where bacteria break down feed. For example, one pig produces only 1 kg of enteric methane gas per year (Patra, 2012, p. 2677), while dairy cattle are estimated to emit 95 kg of methane a year per cow (Jarvis et al., 1995). In fact, cattle produce enough methane daily to power a refrigerator (Rosen, 2016, p. 1). Smaller ruminant animals also do not enterically emit methane at the rate that cattle do. For example, sheep emissions are measured at 4.45 kg-13.61kg a year per sheep (Savian et al., 2014, p. 112). Non ruminant animals and ruminants that are smaller than cattle do not emit enteric methane as significantly as cattle do.

Cattle are the largest and the most abundant domesticated farm animal in the world (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017). These two factors, their digestive process, and the large amount of cows being raised, make it so that they emit the most methane out of any other farm animal. Enteric methane emissions overall make up 40% of the total agricultural emissions and cattle contribute over three fourths of that percentage (Tubiello, 2013). In India, dairy cattle and dairy buffalo contribute to about 60% of methane emissions (Chhabra et al., 2013, p. 329 and 334).  Cattle populations must decrease in order to lower methane emissions. The amount of methane that is enterically emitted by cattle increases the rate of global warming. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. The global warming potency of methane means that it traps in heat more effectively than CO2, despite staying in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time (Reisinger & Clark, 2018). Global warming is and will continue to affect everyone on the planet as the effects only get more serious over time. Climate change and global warming change weather patterns and disrupt both natural and economic systems (Denchak, 2016).  If we lower the rate of enteric methane emissions by cattle then we lower the rate of global warming.

There are many causes of this livestock methane emission problem. The first major cause is the consumer, especially in the United States. According to a study in 2018, the average American consumer ate around 222 pounds of red meat and poultry in that year alone (Durisin & Singh, 2018). Over 95% of the American population eats beef and dairy products, and have said they are unwilling to change their ways (Muzaffar, 2019). As population continues to rise, the demand for meat and dairy products will only continue to grow as well. In just ten years alone, from 2004-2014, there was an increase of over 20% in the amount of tons of meat that the industry was producing (Hovhannisyan & Grigoryan, 2016, pg. 315-316). One reason for this massive consumption of beef and dairy is due to the cost. Studies have shown that cheap foods such as sugars, starches, cheap cuts of meat, salt pork and bacon were found to have over 1900 calories for 10 cents, which is extremely cheap comparing these caloric values to other food groups  (Drewnowski, 2010). The quality of beef used for fast food needs to be of not great quality beef and can contain vast amounts of antibiotics to be so cheap, even though distributors are trying to crack down on the use of antibiotics (Burdo, 2018). Making beef cheap and thus easily accessible to many people thus raises the demand for more cattle to get this beef from and this then has very negative contributions to climate change.

Not only are the consumers part of the problem, but the industry itself is a source of the issue as well. Large feedlots feed their cattle a low-cost, low-nutritional diet. This feed is bad for cows health, and it increases the level of methane that each cow emits as it digests (Gilpin, 2016). Cattle that are fed a higher quality of feed, the lower the amount of methane emissions the animal will produce (Bell, Russell, Simm, & Wall, 2011). Two factors involved in this are more feed consumed results in an increase in methane emissions and a surplus diet of forage increase methane emissions (Reuter, Beck, & Thompson, 2017).  So, when cattle are fed a higher quality feed and thus a feed containing more nutrients in less volume and so the animal does not have to eat as much to reach its energy requirement, the animal will emit less enteric methane. Cattle emit PERCENT more methane emissions when given a lower quality diet and thus increase the rate of global warming.

As it is not possible to completely remove beef and dairy products from the shelves, it is very possible– and will reduce global warming– if weto simply reduce the amount of beef and dairy products consumed. The current demand for meat and dairy products is high, causing the high numbers of cattle currently being farmed for these products. If we can lower the demand for meat and dairy, less cattle would need to be raised. This ultimately lowers enteric methane emissions. In order to reduce the amount of methane emissions from cattle, the shelves of grocery stores need to be redesigned so that consumers will buy less beef and dairy products.

Our proposal is to redesign the way meat and dairy sections of grocery stores are set up in order to encourage consumers to purchase less beef and dairy products and thus reduce the demand for beef to decrease the number of cattle needed to meet this demand. In the meat section of grocery stores, meat substitutes such as veggie burgers, tofu, and faux chicken will be placed on the top shelves. Non- beef items such as chicken, fish, pork, and turkey will be placed in the middle of shelves. And finally, beef will be placed on the bottom. In the dairy section, dairy products that are free of cow’s milk such as goat cheese and goat milk will be placed on the top shelves. Dairy substitutes such as almond milk, dairy free cheese, soy milk, and dairy free yogurts will be placed on the middle shelves. Dairy products that are made from cow’s milk such as milk, cheese, and yogurt will be placed on the bottom of shelves. Non perishable dairy alternatives such as dairy free mac and cheese will be placed at the end of aisles (end caps).  

The current way that grocery stores are designed are not a coincidence. The top shelves hold gourmet and local brands, while the bottom shelves hold generic and less expensive brands. This is purposely done so that people have to look and bend down which is ultimately more work in order to purchase cheaper options. Products placed on the middle of the shelf sell better. The middle of the shelf is in consumer line of sight and is the easiest for people to grab, so much so that companies will actually pay grocery stores to stock their items in the middle of the shelf  (Learning House Admin, 2013). A study at Target Stores showed that when placing store brand chips on shelves, the chips had a 3.5% higher number of sales when placed on the middle of shelves versus the bottom (Sigurdsson, Saevarsson, & Foxall, 2009, p. 4-,5). Consumers even indicate that the central position of the shelf is where they think the most popular products are placed (Valenzuela, Raghubir, & Mtakakis, 2013). If consumers believe that most people are buying the products from the middle of the shelf, they are more likely to buy them. Consumers make choices about what to buy in part based on social norms and expectations. For example, if a consumer thinks that most people are purchasing a name brand peanut butter over a store brand, they will assume that the name brand is better and are more likely to purchase that (Laja, 2012). This proves that grocery stores are designed in a way to maximize consumer purchases on specific items and draw the consumer through the store to increase sales.

Where products are located throughout the store influences consumers as well. The most profitable part of an aisle is the end cap because customers are interested in what is placed there and it tends to stick out to the consumer a bit more at the end caps (Dornsife & Dornsife, 2015). The aisles in a grocery store are often set up to signal to consumers that the products at the ends of aisles are important (Berlinger, 2012). In fact, three out of four consumers make their decisions about what to purchase while they are shopping (Dornsife & Dornsife, 2015). This shows that most consumers can be influenced to buy certain items while they are in the store. Grocery stores are formatted in a way to influence more purchases on items that the consumer probably did not think they needed before arriving at the store. This fact is highlighted by marketing professor Paul Harrison of Deakin University in Australia when he says “we’re not this, in control, rational creature that we like to think that we are” in reference to the psychological design of grocery stores (Harrison, 2009). By moving beef and dairy products to the lower shelves, consumers will be less likely to buy them and placing non perishable dairy alternatives on end caps will influence consumers to buy them over dairy products. Using these strategies, we can rearrange grocery stores in a way to encourage consumers to buy beef and dairy alternative products. The redesign of grocery stores in this fashion will ultimately reduce the demand for beef and dairy thus reduce the number of cows emitting methane.

Even if the redesign of grocery stores influences consumers to purchase less beef and dairy, it could be said that beef and dairy alternatives are too expensive for some families. Meal planning vegan and vegetarian recipes can be less expensive than a traditional diet. Cutting meat from shopping lists can save families around $750 a year in fact. A vegan weekly meal plan compared to an equivalent government recommended meal plan that has meat, cost $14.36 less than the meat plan. Both of these plans were based off of the lowest prices available at a Stop and Shop grocery store, and had the same amount of calories (Poppick, 2015, p. 1). According to research, it is said that by eating a more plant-based diet, one person could save up to $750 compared with the cost of a 2,000 calorie meat integrated diet (Blackmore, 2015).  Eating less meat and dairy can actual be more affordable for families.

Some may say that changing the set up of grocery stores is too expensive.While it would cost money to change the setup of grocery stores, it would not necessarily have to be funded by the grocery stores themselves. In the UK, “Our Planet, Our Health” has funded 5 million pounds to go towards this cause (McKie, 2017).This program is under a politically and financially independent foundation that aims to improve human health and fight climate change. Working with University of Oxford scientists, they have concluded that if people reduce their reliance on meat,  $1.5 trillion in healthcare and climate change-related costs could be saved by 2020 (Oberst, 2017, para. 4). This shows that there are already organizations willing to fund projects like this.

Finally, it could be said that this proposal will not have enough of an impact. Americans on average eat 57.3 pounds of beef per year (USDA, 2019). If sales of non beef meat and meat alternatives increase by 3.5% like the store brand Target chips did, then people will buy 3.5% less beef. That is 2 pounds less per year. There are 326 million meat eating Americans (North American Meat Institute, 2017), so that is 652 million pounds of beef saved. Each cow accounts for approximately 440 pounds of beef  (Clover Meadows Farm, 2015) so that is about 1.5 million cows. 1.5 million cows emit about 142.5 million kg of methane per year. 28.75 million cows were slaughtered for beef in 2018 (North American Meat Institute, 2017). The total population of cows emit about 2.73 billion kg of methane per year. This means that our proposal lowers enteric methane emissions by at least 5.2%. As for dairy, the average American consumes 34.5 gallons of milk per year (USDA, 2016). If milk consumption is also lowered by 3.5% then that is 1.2 less gallons consumed per year. With a population of 326 million dairy consumers, that is 392.2 million gallons. Since one cow can produce 2,500 gallons of milk per year (Reference, 2013) that is 156.88 thousand cows emitting 15.08 million kg of methane. There are 8.72 million total dairy cows in the U.S. (USDA, 2019) emitting 828.4 million kg of methane. That means that our proposal would lower enteric methane emissions by about 1.8%. Between beef and dairy cattle that is around 7% of enteric methane emissions lowered.

It is also important to acknowledge that beef and dairy cattle farmers will not benefit from this proposal in any way. Lowering the demand for beef and dairy will cause farmers in those industries to lose money or possibly go out of business. Beef and dairy farmers could switch practices and start raising another type of animal such as pigs. While this would be a negative impact for them, it would simultaneously benefit other industries. Placing non beef meats like chicken, turkey, pork, and lamb in the middle of shelves will increase their sales. This will cause an increased demand for those products and an increased profit for farmers of those industries. Last year, profits on pork were lower than they had been in fifteen years due to a lowered demand (Plain, 2018). Our proposal will increase that demand and help pig farmers. The meat and dairy alternatives industries will also gain from this proposal. Currently, 5.2% of non vegetarian Americans are interested in trying a vegetarian diet (Vegetarian Times Editors, 2008). This means that over 12 million consumers are interested in these products. This would be a large increase in sales for vegetarian industries. The beef and dairy industry would take a hit from our proposal, but other industries would actually benefit.

The United States needs to make a change in the amount of meat consumed by Americans, and thus reduce the number of cows needed to meet the demand set by consumers. These changes are feasible if grocery stores acknowledge the possibility of arranging the stores to encourage people to buy less beef and dairy products and more beef and dairy alternatives. This can be done by placing beef and dairy products on the bottom shelves of stores and placing non perishable alternatives on end caps. There are several benefits for reducing the amount of beef and dairy products consumed, and  it would also decrease the demand for beef and dairy products. Thus, farmers would need to raise less cattle to meet the consumer demand and less cattle means less methane produced by those cattle. Even if most people don’t want to become vegetarian, getting consumers to eat other types of meats instead of beef would still reduce the numbers of cattle needed to meet consumer demand. By doing this we can slow down the rate of global warming and thus protect our planet for the future generations.




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