Cow ’emissions’ more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Published: 10 December 2006
Meet the world’s top destroyer of the environment. It is not the car, or the
plane, or even George Bush: it is the cow.
A United Nations report has identified the world’s rapidly growing herds of
cattle as the greatest threat to the climate, forests and wildlife. And they
are blamed for a host of other environmental crimes, from acid rain to the
introduction of alien species, from producing deserts to creating dead zones
in the oceans, from poisoning rivers and drinking water to destroying coral
The 400-page report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, entitled
Livestock’s Long Shadow, also surveys the damage done by sheep, chickens,
pigs and goats. But in almost every case, the world’s 1.5 billion cattle are
most to blame. Livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of the greenhouse
gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms
of transport put together.
Burning fuel to produce fertiliser to grow feed, to produce meat and to
transport it – and clearing vegetation for grazing – produces 9 per cent of
all emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. And their
wind and manure emit more than one third of emissions of another, methane,
which warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide.
Livestock also produces more than 100 other polluting gases, including more
than two-thirds of the world’s emissions of ammonia, one of the main causes
of acid rain.
Ranching, the report adds, is “the major driver of deforestation” worldwide,
and overgrazing is turning a fifth of all pastures and ranges into
desert. Cows also soak up vast amounts of water: it takes a staggering 990
litres of water to produce one litre of milk.
Wastes from feedlots and fertilisers used to grow their feed overnourish
water, causing weeds to choke all other life. And the pesticides,
antibiotics and hormones used to treat them get into drinking water and
endanger human health.
The pollution washes down to the sea, killing coral reefs and creating “dead
zones” devoid of life. One is up to 21,000 sqkm, in the Gulf of Mexico, where
much of the waste from US beef production is carried down the Mississippi.
The report concludes that, unless drastic changes are made, the massive
damage done by livestock will more than double by 2050, as demand for meat