The Cattle Industries' Hand in Global Warming

Daniel Halper
December 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2018


Fig. 1: Forest in Lacanja burned for cattle grazing. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Toot! Every half hour, a cow farts and burps over a gallon of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. [1] Every time this toxic gas is released into the atmosphere, the earths climate becomes that much more unstable. Likewise, cattle are a catalyst for global warming due to the vast grazing land needed to contain them. There is rampant deforestation, especially in the Amazon, in order to make room for cattle. As a result, for every pound of beef produced, there is an environmental toll the equivalent of 34.6 kg of carbon dioxide. [2] Climate change has been in the forefront of the media and public attention of society for some time now. The environmental effort to minimize the destruction that cattle have on the environment, though, has been relatively negligible.

The Toot and Global Warming

The Earth contains over 1.5 billion domestic cows, each of whom fart and burp 60 to 80 gallons of methane a day. [2] To put this in perspective, human anuses excrete roughly a tenth of a gallon of methane in to the environment each day. [1] The large volume of methane is primarily the result of unhealthy diets and the natural biology of cattle. Cows digestion process is very distinct from humans as they regurgitate their food. Inside the rumin, one of the four stomach in a cow, microbes further break down the food to make it easier to digest and this process produces a significant amount of methane. [1] Each cow produces 1.7 times more greenhouse gas than that of the average car and cows as a whole account for a whooping 18 percent of greenhouse gasses in the found atmosphere. Through burps and flatulence, a cow releases 200 to 400 pounds of methane a year. [3] This greenhouse gas fills the skies and insulates the heat of the sun in the Earth's atmosphere. As a result, the planet warms and a domino of environmental problems ensue.

Deforestation and Global Warming

The effects of deforestation are extremely prevalent in many parts of the world. Not only does it devastate in the area and the animals living in the habitat, but it also is a large factor in global warming, The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases as trees naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis. Without this process, carbon dioxide fills the atmosphere at rates unprecedented. Livestock is easily the number one cause for deforestation. In the Amazon, between 70 to 80 percent of wildlife has been destroyed for farmland. [1] Nearly a third of the land on the planet is reserved for cattle and other farm animals. This is due to the fact that these animals feed on grain and need a large spaces, such as the one seen in Fig. 1, to do so. In fact, roughly farm animals consume roughly 70 percent of the total grain produced each year. As a result, the land area required to produce 1 kg of meat could be used to produce as high as 200 kg of potatoes. [4]

Call to Action

There are many ways to go about minimizing the damage that cattle have on the environment. In order to help solve the methane problem, people in Argentinas National Institute of Agricultural Technology have worked on a backpack attached to the cows stomachs. The backpack eases the indigestive issues and actually stores the methane so that it can be used as a energy source in the future. The methane saved up in a day from one cow could power an entire house. [4] Another option is change in the diet, feeding the cows a type of seaweed that significantly, if not entirely, reduces the amount of methane produced. [4] Lastly, a new type of vegan burgers, known as Impossible Burgers, have done a successful job recreating the taste of beef by reverse engineering cows digestion process. These burgers are a promising alternative to the beef industry; switching over to Impossible burgers would help alleviate both the deforestation and methane issues. As society learns more and more about the environmental issues pertaining to the meat and dairy industry, we can demand reform and prevent further damage to the planet.

© Daniel Halper. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Guan et al., "Efficacy of Ionophores in Cattle Diets for Mitigation of Enteric Methane," J. Anim. Sci. 84, 1896 (2006).

[2] D. Hayes and G. B. Hayes, Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on Americas Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment (W. W. Norton, 2015).

[3] L. Kaufman, "Greening the Herds: A New Diet to Cap Gas," New York Times, 4 Jun 09.

[4] B. Plumer, "Tropical Forests Suffered Near-Record Tree Losses in 2017," New York Times, 27 Jun 18.