Cattle as polluters and the case against beef

 A research assistant at the Baden-Württemberg Agricultural Centre is holding a methane detector that measure methane emissions in the exhaled air of cows on August 06, 2019.
Photo credit: Thomas Warnack/dpa

What you need to know:

  • According to research, livestock sector contributes largely to land degradation, hence negative impacts of climate change
  • Beef is known to be one of the products that contribute a lot to greenhouse gases
  • Scientists have advised against dependence on beef in daily meals

Except for the school going children’s bright smiles as they walk home from school, everything else seems dark at Ebenyo Muya’s homestead. He is 70, and ostensibly hopeless.

There is barely any light in his manyatta. His wives sit at the front of one of his manyattas. They are looking up to him to bring home some food. The hopelessness that is now pronounced in his life is as result of losing his major source of income.

A man who once owned hundreds of cattle now has none. In fact, he cannot afford a kilogram of beef.

The drought is to blame, most people will say, but scientists now say that livestock keeping may have played a part in the harsh climatic changes experienced by people living in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid (Asal) lands.

Let’s talk about cows and their meat — beef. For people like Muya, who have grown up knowing no other livelihood but pastoralism, a cow is a prized possession. They call them mali, to mean wealth.

However, scientists say that keeping the herds of cattle in an unsustainable way is not only harmful to the environment but also greatly contributes to climate change. And so the beef paradox arises.  Which way, nyama choma lovers?

In other parts of the world, this animal-based protein is shunned by staunch environmentalists for the sake of our planet. Greta Thunberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stevie Wonder top the list of celebrities who switched to a vegan lifestyle because they believe eating beef contributes to the negative impacts of climate change.

While Muya wouldn’t mind a steak, he wishes that his community could shift to agriculture.

“Pastoralists have been hit the hardest with the ongoing drought. Here in Ngare Mara (Isiolo County), some have moved to Tharaka in search of water and pasture for animals but they are still thin. I now feel agriculture is better. We see it when we move to Meru. Drought is alien in their land,” he tells Healthy Nation.

“Right now, people there have become too many. This means that they, too, have livestock and they become too much that they cannot be sustained in this area. Overstocking is a menace,” he adds.

In the Southern part of Isiolo County is Sericho location. There, Mohamed Roba echoes Muya’s sentiments. He is the secretary of a water management committee in that area.

“Our population has grown exponentially. Now that we have animals and human beings depending on water, the competition becomes unhealthy. We have to take drastic measures like rationing water. We give people about three days of fetching water. The rest of the days are for cattle because they need a lot of water,” he says.

The community solely depends on borehole water, which is not sustainable. There is no vegetation in sight for the cows. They have to trek for kilometres to feed their cows. But at what cost?

Climate scientist Dr Kinyanjui Koimbori explains to Healthy Nation why beef has been linked with the negative impacts of climate change.

“Beef is known to be one of the products that contribute a lot to greenhouse gases,” he says.

“When you look at the hierarchy of animals, beef and lamb contribute the highest amount of carbon dioxide per kilogram. Every kilogram of beef produces an equivalent of 35 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

"On the other hand, one kilogram of pork contributes an equivalent of 15kg of carbon dioxide. White meat such as chicken contributes less than 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide. This confirms the fact that beef is one of the contributing factors when it comes to climate change.

“It is widely known for methane emissions. This comes about when the grass they eat ferments in their rumen (the first stomach of animals like cows) and one of the gases released is methane. This gas either comes out as a belch or farts, Dr Kinyanjui explains.

“Methane gas is actually more potent than carbon dioxide. In a year, for instance, one beef cattle produces an equivalent of 60 to 80 kilograms of methane. That amount is produced by mature cattle. Science shows that methane is about 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide,” he adds.

Ongoing drought

Dr Kinyanjui suspects there is a link between the ongoing drought and the locals’ keeping of cattle.

“Most of the counties in Kenya, especially the ones that found within the arid areas, are known to have extensive beef or dairy production systems. The counties I’m talking about have extensive beef production systems. These are the countries such as Wajir, Mandera, Garissa, Marsabit, Isiolo and Tana River,” he says.

A worker at Kayole Slaughter House prepares beef on November 6, 2011 that would be distributed to the less fortunate. Turkish government and citizens donated 700 cattle in Kenya to mark Idd-ul-adha celebrations.


“When you look at the drought schematics that we’ve been experiencing over the last few years, and even this year, these are the same counties that have been experiencing drought at the highest level.

And this one tells you that when these herders or this population that lives in these areas, keep this large herds of animals, then it correlates very well to the greenhouse gases, which end up destroying the ozone layer and eventually leading to global warming which leads to drought and even destruction of vegetation that was in the within that area. Eventually, beef is one of the problems,” he explains.

He acknowledges that cattle keeping is being neglected and people may not see it as a threat to climate change or maybe a big contributor to greenhouse gases.

“We need to recognise that we cannot continue doing business as usual and keeping the cattle and expecting to have food in the future. The gases that are coming from the cattle, that is methane and carbon dioxide, are too dangerous for us to continue keeping the cattle. So, the only alternative is for us to go the way of keeping the non-ruminants. Here, I’m talking about the chicken that release less methane compared to the ruminants,” he says.

Dr Kinyanjui now advises people to move away from the dependence of beef in their daily meals.

“If we keep on eating beef, we are creating a market for beef. This means that we are making those people who breed cattle to keep on breeding more because the demand is high. Once we reduce the demand for beef then we’ll end up actually making those people who are rare them to look for alternatives,” he explains.

Methane emissions

Patricia Nying’uro, a climate scientist working at the Kenya Meteorological Department, affirms that livestock that is kept unsustainably leads to increased methane emissions.

She cites this year’s scientific assessments on human-driven climate change in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which showed that dairy systems have lower emissions intensity than beef from beef herds.

She says that the drought in the northern part of the country may not quite be caused by the cattle they keep. She explains that recently, the drought has become more intense and frequent and that the rainfall patterns have changed, resulting in the ongoing cycle of drought.

“The communities in the Asal areas keep livestock in response to the harsh environmental conditions and that’s the most resilient livelihood compared to farming. However, it is true that keeping large herds contributes to land degradation especially if they’re unsustainably fed or raised,” she explains.

“The recent IPCC report also showed that there are ways to keep livestock sustainably and this should be the priority for Kenya. I say this because pastoralism is the main source of livelihood for millions of Kenyans in the predominantly Asal regions. It also contributes to 13 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in Kenya. We are simply not ready to abandon livestock keeping but should look into ways to keep them sustainably,” she adds.

At the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, media reports indicate that illegal cattle ranching is a leading contributor to its degradation.

“What is happening in the Amazon is unsustainable cattle keeping and it is leading to deforestation, which in turn is leading to millions of tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

Encroaching current forested regions in Kenya will lead to the same problems, including ecosystem modification and/or collapse and further land degradation,” she explained.

Studies have also backed the idea that a plate of beef should be shrugged off as it threatens to destroy our planet.

A study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that the livestock sector contributes to the largest human use of land.

“The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to feed crop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet,” says the report.

“About 20 percent of the world’s pastures and rangelands, with 73 percent of rangelands in dry areas, have been degraded to some extent, mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action. The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport,” the report adds.

Less efficient

Another paper, dubbed Shifting for a Sustainable Food Future and published by the World Resources Institute shows that beef is, in fact, a less efficient food since its input does not match the output to one’s body.

“When accounting for all feeds, including both crops and forages by one estimate, only one percent of gross cattle feed calories and four percent of ingested protein are converted to human-edible calories and protein respectively. In comparison, by this estimate, poultry convert 11 percent of feed calories and 20 percent of feed protein into human-edible calories and protein,” says the paper.

 Steak on the grill.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

“Because of this low conversion efficiency, beef uses more land and freshwater and generates more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein than any other commonly consumed food,” it adds.

The study indicates that ruminants, cows being one of those, are responsible for nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production.

“Given the environmental implications of rising demand for beef, reducing its consumption will likely be an important element to limiting the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, in line with international goals,” it says.

“These results suggest that reducing consumption of animal-based foods among the world’s wealthier populations can enable the world to adequately feed 10 billion people by 2050 without further agricultural expansion.”

Water usage

Another report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, dubbed Livestock Long Shadow, shows that the livestock sector does not use available resources sparingly.

“It is a key player in increasing water use, accounting for over eight per cent of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feed crops. It is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others,” says the report.

“The major sources of pollution are from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilisers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures,” it adds.

The more people keep cows, the more they reproduce. In areas where they co-exist with wild animals, the report says that cows overwhelm the resources.

“Livestock now accounts for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and the 30 percent of the earth’s land surface that they now pre-empt was once habitat for wildlife. Indeed, the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species,” says the report.