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UN Report: Global Livestock Sector Generates More GHG Emissions than Transport

Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in CO2-equivalent by species and main production system. Click to enlarge.

According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent—18%—than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

When emissions from land use (such as production of feedcrops and grazing land) and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9% of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37% of all anthropogenic methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64% of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

Livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33% of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

The relationship between meat consumption and per capita income in 2002. Click to enlarge.

With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40% to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level.

—from the report, Livestock’s Long Shadow

Herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20% of pastures considered as degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

The livestock business is also among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution, euthropication and the degeneration of coral reefs. The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed.

Livestock are estimated to be the main inland source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination of the South China Sea, contributing to biodiversity loss in marine ecosystems.

Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20% of all terrestrial animal biomass. Livestock’s presence in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to biodiversity loss; 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are assessed as in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit.

The report, produced with the support of the multi-institutional Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, proposes a number of remedies, including:

  • Atmosphere and climate. Increasing the efficiency of livestock production and feed crop agriculture. Improving animals’ diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, and setting up biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure.

  • Land degradation. Controlling access and removing obstacles to mobility on common pastures. Use of soil conservation methods and silvopastoralism, together with controlled livestock exclusion from sensitive areas; payment schemes for environmental services in livestock-based land use to help reduce and reverse land degradation.

  • Water. Improving the efficiency of irrigation systems. Introducing full-cost pricing for water together with taxes to discourage large-scale livestock concentration close to cities.



beeri moalem

I say Outlaw Carnivores! Veggies-only humanity!

Imagine how THAT would go down!

Roger Pham


or better yet, more fish, grain, beans and nuts, and less meat and dairy! Or better yet, for optimum cardiovascular health and reduction in cancer risk, follow the Ornish, or Asian diet.

Furthermore, driving one's own automobile in daily heavily congested traffic is a very stressful activity that can contribute a lot to cardiovascular diseases and stroke, as well as global warming. It's better for cardiovascular health to ride public transportation to avoid the stress, and the walk to and from the bus and train stop is additionally very beneficial cardiovascularly. The saving can be in the hundreds of billions of health care costs and years of life expectancy.

It is no wonder that America trails Japan and Europe in term of life expectancy and yet spending twice as much per capita in term of health care cost. This high health care cost is bankrupting America's automobile industry, and also the whole manufacturing sector as well, further deepening America's trade deficit woe, while moving jobs outside of the border.

Thanks to GCC for a great article that really put things in perspective. Help fight global warming in more ways than one, and the society as a whole will be blessed with increase in health and productivity.

Roger Pham

For a glimpse into our cruelty to livestocks, click to


Wow. This article is an important read for people like us who go through different blogs reading up on topics like alternative fuels and energy use, etc. We get so caught up in reading about things like ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and new offerings by auto manufacturers that we overlook a seemingly simpler cause of problems.

As a dietician, I would advise people against going completely vegan, as it is unbalanced (without heavy supplementation) but this article gives more credence towards staying away as much as possible from things like red meat.

I have to say I'm still on the fence to believe whether or not humans (and presumably our raising of livestock for food) are the cause of global warming or if it is just another cycle of the earth.

This will be more of an uphill battle than convincing people to buy smaller and more efficient cars. Getting people to change their high meat diets is harder overall than getting them to downsize on their next car purchase for a variety of reasons. It's a tough fight to get into, but I commend GCC for putting up this article.

shaun mann

my parents recently came back from Kunming, China and raved about the incredible variety and quality of fruit, veg, and mushrooms available that dwarfs even the "whole foods" produce section.

kinda makes you wonder what we're missing out on with our industrial monoculture agriculture.

sure, the US farmer can probably produce more tons of wheat per acre than anyone else on the planet, but where are my 50 varieties of fresh mushrooms?

it makes me a bit sad, really, to think about all of the foods 95% of americans will never know even exist, much less get a chance to try.


It's a good thing that methane levels have stabilized, isn't it?


Well, this report is like a breeze of fresh air from UN. I wrote it before, and repeat again: all our industrial revolution gadgets have very mild impact on Earth biosphere. It is agriculture, which is really changed the Earth biosphere we live in. Humankind began to shape the landscape with wildfires thousands of years ago. But it is really agriculture, which has changed how the continents look – Europe for example was changed beyond recognition. Some places, like North America, managed to exert quite mild impact on biosphere (think for a moment, and you will agree with me that we live here in a zoo), and some places remained virtually intact, like East Siberia or Canadian Rockies. Such innocent events like introductions of goats to Southern Europe, re-introduction of dew worms, Eurasian cattle, and sugar cane to Americas changed the world way more dramatically then all oil&gas&cement&coal industries combined. Now, I do not claim that it is for bad or for good for environment and biosphere, but we have to comprehend the scale of impact of our particular activities to apply sane measures to mitigate what we consider as “damaging” consequences of our civilization.

Couple of corrections.

GHG potential of methane is 23 times higher then CO2 only in hot dry climate. In cooler and wetter conditions (where most of livestock is bred) it is close to 40 times. Most of the glazing livestock operations are environmentally sustainable – and the reason is to assure pasture reproduction to sustain further livestock glazing, not merely the care for the environment. Environmental problems described in report, as practically universally in environmental science, is defined as pollutants potentially dangerous to HUMAN health. Nature does not really care what we are emitting and utilize practically everything to the advantage of particular species. Mild shifts in ecological systems compensates for effluents of nitrates, antibiotics, etc. without major distraction to the ecosystems.

Agricultural activity does have mild impact on adjacent corals, which impacts tourist industry in the most visited places, but generally outcry for “dying coral reefs” is total BS. Interesting article on the subject could be find here:

Couple of numbers.

From 800 millions ga of land in Brasil farming is practiced on 60 (sugar cane on 5.8), and cattle glazing on 120.

US yearly generates about 600 lb of DRY livestock manure per capita. More then half of it is concentrated on industrial big-scale farms, and presents serious environmental treat to surface and ground potable water recourses. It is also readily collectible, and could be used together with 5-fold readily collectible plant agricultural wastes as feed to anaerobic digesters to produce biomethane and to recycle close to 85% of nutrients and fertilizing compounds back to the fields.

There is cute article on farmers protesting cattle “fart tax” proposed in New Zealand to mitigate GW effects of sheep farting and belching, which accounts for about 60% (other numbers 40%) of NZ whole GHG emissions:,3604,1035851,00.html#article_continue

I can only imagine the picture…

P.S.: “…liberals eat raw fish, yet have their steaks well done…”

Just kidding.


"all our industrial revolution gadgets have very mild impact on Earth biosphere"

Modern agricultural methods are a direct result of industrialisation. And what about the remaining 82% of GHG emissions? They are having much more than a mild impact on the Earth's biosphere.

The biosphere is not just brushing off pollution like you suggest. New Scientist ran an article a couple of weeks back on marine Dead Zones:

The earth and life will be here long after we've gone but to suggest we're not badly damaging our environment is wrong.



Once again, in short:

We do affect our environment. Agriculture is having the major role.

Our affect on environment is not generally damaging.

Antropogenic GHG emissions is the last thing we should worry about to affect our environment.

Now, please, no labels, just comments on the subject, hopefully.


I was commenting on the subject. The last thing we should worry about? Tell that to the ecosystems of the world which are already experiencing climate change effects.



Choose which exactly ecosystem damaged by global warming we should worry about (from ONE degree Fahrenheit global temperature increase over a century):


Yes a good number of those are indeed experiencing climate change effects. Out of those I would say the big carbon sinks of the peat bogs and permafrosts around the world should be of greatest concern. I really don't understand your arguments. Sorry.



Carbon sink of bogs?!
Bogs are among biggest emitters of CH4, and their antropogenic destruction (which is not a good thing) has the biggest antropogenic GHG emissions reversal effect.

Permafrost does not have carbon sink capabilities at all, because it is, well, permafrost. You probably refer to potential ability of melting permafrost to deposit additional CO2 into atmosphere. Well, it is valid concern, except it is not happening. I personally dealt with collecting of soil samples from Russian Siberia Tundra, and can assure you that insulated by 3 feet of yagel grass permafrost will be perma-frosen for centuries to come, no matter the upper air temperature.

Generally, you did not catch my irony. Go attentively through the list I provided and feel the bogus of the doom you have feed on by crook GW pushers.

Paul Dietz

One could reduce the methane and nitrous oxide emissions from manure by concentrating and processing the waste, for example by using it as fuel or by anaerobic digestion followed by combustion of the biogas (which will combust both gases). This could be more feasible in large scale factory-like cattle raising facilities than in smaller ones.


Sorry, what i meant was that they were sinks but as you say they are now emitters. I suppose store would be a better word.

From what I've read, the potential for the permafrost melting is very real along with the release of massive quantities of methane.

Apologies for misunderstanding what you wrote. Some of the words written about climate change are overly doom filled but the links in that page are to news articles which by their nature over state things. That's what you get when you have to dash off 300 words after a boozy lunch!

The papers written by scientists are a different matter and the product of decades of research. Perhaps they are exaggerated by journalists but the issues are very real.


It sounds like taking the easy route should be reconsidered. We generally take the most expedient route to production and profits and call the rest "externalities". Some may not like government, but I do not know who better to protect the interests of everyone. I don't think the market system nor coportations will, no matter how many eco ads they put out.


So, want to help?

Walk or ride your bike to your local farmers market and buy fresh fruit and veg. You'll get exercise, not consume fuel in your own transportation, help tickle the local economy, consume healthy food, not require nearly as much fuel consumed in the transportation of your food to your market, reduce your exposure to identity theft because you'll almost certainly pay cash, and if you bring baskets or canvas bags you won't even use plastic bags!

It doesn't get much better than that folks. Tasty too.


You can do more good by becoming a vegetarian or a vegan than by trading in your SUV for a Prius. You should do both, but consider this food for thought, for example.

Not to worry, though. Ethanol to the rescue. Corn ethanol will destroy our corn and, hence, our food industry.

If we went back to a grass based, integrated farming system as opposed to an industrial/corn/soy based system, we would be much better off. In the mean time, however, the best thing one can do as an individual is to quit eating meat.

As for being a Vegan, if you eat a balanced diet and supplement it with B12, you will be fine.


Keep the suv and shoot the cow.I like the digester idea.
Some smaller farms are trying to establish a co op digester they can share.Perhaps a reasonable education effort on diet could help.Meat should be one ingredient in dishes as is common in Asia.Here a large slab is the meal and you have a side dish of something.I see immigrants come here and get fat within a year.We need to replace the 16 oz. porterhouse with 2 oz cut up and mixed with shrooms and onions or whatever veggies turn you on.Now Im hungry.


Humans are not meant to subsist on a vegan diet. There is a reason why we developed into omnivorous creatures and we have been that way for such a long period of time that without the aid of the modern world you would not be very healthy as a vegan.

Robert Schwartz

We had steak for dinner last night. It was delicious. All you vegans out there can choke on your tofu burgers.

Harvey D.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the rest of world ate as much beef per capita as Americans and Canadians do?

Correct my quick maths, but it seems to indicate that it would be about 6 to 12 times worse.

I guess we will have to convince them to do better if we want palms to grow in Canada by 2050.



Permafrost soil is well insulated from the atmosphere by layer of plant residue of couple of feet deep. Any noticeable changes to this soil will take centuries of exposaure to really hot climate. Most of the scientific articles conserning permafrost are of “what if” scenario and are basically speculative computer models predicting what will happened with permafrost if Earth will heat-up by 10 degrees. No real danger here, unlike, say, ocean carbon storage, which potentially could very fast damp a lot of CO2 in atmosphere.

Issue with wetlands is tricky one. I researched it before, and found the subject totally under researched and twisted. Generally speaking, plant residue sinks under the water and about ¼ of it is anaerobically digested with huge emissions of CH4, which is 30+ times more powerful GHG agent then CO2. Regular forest residue undergo aerobic decomposition with emission of CO2, so wetlands are way more GHG unfriendly ecosystem than dry-land ones. Now things get tricky. If we drain the bog, stored for centuries plant residue gets exposure to warm air, and very quickly begin to decompose further emitting huge amount of CO2. So, basically, wetlands are huge emitters of GH gases, but we can not do a damn thing to stop it.

Roger Pham

Patrick and Robert Schwartz,
Mary Antoinette would have said (about the eaters, right wingers?) "Let them eat beef!"


I'm a little surprised that no one has mentioned the world's largest emitters of Methane.

It's not cows.

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