Cattle grazing has become a controversial and often confusing topic that's tied up with issues like methane and the climate crisis, deforestation and biodiversity loss, industry investments and sustainability claims, and culture and colonialism. This site uses facts and science to cut through common myths about the impact of cattle on our planet. While grazing is global in scope, our initial focus is on the United States since it is the world’s largest beef producer and Americans consume four times more than the global average. The grazing impacts discussed, however, apply globally.
Animal agriculture contributes at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gases. Of this, methane from cattle and sheep is the largest contributor.
Recently, the beef industry has touted a smorgasbord of unsupported grazing solutions. But there are real solutions and opportunities for change.
At current rates of consumption, no form of beef production can be considered “sustainable.”
Even the best-managed grazing systems harm and displace wildlife and are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The absence of cattle can be a much more effective conservation tool than the presence of managed cattle.
The outsized environmental impact of cattle grazing on the planet does not justify its use as a food source. Animal agriculture contributes at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gases. Of this, methane from cattle and sheep is the largest contributor. Grazing systems are responsible for 20% of the GHG footprint of farmed animals but only produce 4% of the global meat and dairy supply.
Although most of the current debate about grazing seems laser-focused on the potential for cattle grazing to sequester carbon (often overlooking the limitations of cattle to do so), there are a host of other crucial environmental consequences to consider. One of the biggest impacts of cattle grazing is on wildlife and biodiversity, an issue often missing from the contentious debates and latest studies by the ag industry. Cattle grazing is a significant cause of environmental harm, including deforestation and wildfires, soil health, water depletion and pollution, and land use.
Recently the beef industry has proclaimed its commitment to environmental sustainability and climate mitigation, touting a smorgasbord of production solutions, from regenerative grazing and grass-fed beef to feed additives and alliances with conservation ranching programs.
Meanwhile the industry and its allies have pushed legislation to prevent plant-based alternatives, which are 86%-95% better for the climate, water, land and wildlife, from using the word “meat” or “milk” on their labels. The industry erupted in outrage over a meat-free day in Colorado, spread false hysteria about a nonexistent burger ban, and consistently resists efforts to scale back beef production. In fact, during the pandemic the industry aligned with the federal government to use the Defense Production Act to keep meat-processing plants open, offering few protections to workers despite wide-scale Covid-19 outbreaks. More recently JBS, the world’s largest beef producer, vowed to eliminate deforestation from its practices — but not for 14 more years. These actions are not compatible with the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises.
At current rates of consumption of beef and dairy, no form of production can be considered “sustainable.” All industry approaches must clearly acknowledge that given land limits, and the impacts of grazing on the climate and biodiversity crises, the most important solution is a substantial reduction in beef and dairy consumption and production.
This website is an ongoing project of the Center for Biological Diversity and A Well-Fed World.
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