Video: How Beef Farmers Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint
By Daisy Dunne and Tom Prater
Eating less meat is one way to cut beef emissions. However, scientists have also started to look at ways that farmers can reduce the carbon footprint of beef before it reaches the plate.
Making a Meal
The beef industry contributes to climate change in several ways.
Cows are ruminants, meaning that their stomachs contain specialized bacteria capable of digesting tough and fibrous material such as grass. The digestive process causes cows to belch out methane—a greenhouse gas that is around 25 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2.
Beef production is the leading cause of deforestation in many regions, accounting for 60 percent of forest loss across Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea in 2011. The removal of trees causes CO2 to be released into the atmosphere.
In addition, grazing cattle need plentiful supplies of grass—meaning farmers often use nitrogen fertilizer on their fields to stimulate plant growth. The production of nitrogen fertilizer causes the release of CO2 and the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O).
In total, emissions from livestock account for around 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with beef production accounting for just under half of this figure, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Carbon footprints of meat productionChart by Rosamund Pearce. Data source: FAO
In Devon, a county in south-west England, agricultural scientists at Rothamsted Research farm are exploring various avenues that could be taken to reduce this figure.
In a recent study, published in Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers studied whether cow feed can influence the size of the animals' carbon footprints.
The unique 60-hectare beef farm is akin to a giant scientific experiment, with researchers closely monitoring all of the "inputs" and "outputs" of the farm system.
The inputs include cow feed, while outputs include manure, the amount of weight gained by the animals and the run-off of nutrients, such as nitrogen. The region's uniquely chalky soils prevent liquid from seeping into the earth—making it possible for the scientists to collect nutrient run-off using a network of pipes.
This close monitoring allows the researchers to keep a record of the carbon footprint of each animal reared on the farm, explained Graham McAuliffe, a Ph.D. student at the farm and the University of Bristol. He told Carbon Brief:
"Usually, when you calculate a carbon footprint, it's based on an average statistic from either a herd, a regional level or a national level, but what we're able to do here at the farm platform is to calculate that carbon footprint on a timescale—so, every two weeks—but also on an individual animal basis."
The farm is split into three equally sized plots, known as "farmlets." The plots represent three typical farming systems used for beef production, McAuliffe said:
"Our first system is 'permanent pasture'—which is, essentially, 'business as usual.' It doesn't get reseeded, it doesn't get ploughed and it gets conventional nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer applications.
"Our second system is 'white clover,' which is a pseudo-organic system. Because clover has nitrogen-fixing nodes in its roots, we're able to minimize or avoid inorganic nitrogen fertilizer on the soil."
The third plot used is a pure grass system, which was also treated with nitrogen fertilizer, he added.
Bird's-eye view of Rothamsted Research farm in Devon, showing three experimental pasture systemsMap by Tom Prater. Data source: McAuliffe et al. (2018)
For six years, the researchers collected data from cows grazing on each farmlet. Each autumn, 30 calves (Charolais x Hereford-Friesian breed) entered each farmlet at the point of weaning.
The chart below shows the carbon footprint (in CO2 equivalent) for the average cow grazed on the permanent (left), white clover (middle) and pure grass (right) plots. The chart also shows the carbon footprint of the "best" and "worst" performing animals on each farmlet.
Carbon footprints (CO2e) of the average, "best" and "worst" cows grazing on permanent pasture (left), white clover (middle) and pure grass (right)Source: McAuliffe et al. (2018)
The results show that cows fed on white clover tend to have the smallest carbon footprints, while cows from the permanent pasture and pure grass plots have the largest.
This is because the white clover system did not require the use of nitrogen fertilizer, McAuliffe said:
"The white clover system can have a lower carbon footprint because we don't put nitrogen on it. That not only avoids the emissions associated with applying nitrogen fertilizer, but it also means that the upstream emissions from the production of nitrogen fertilizer are also avoided."
However, even within each farmlet, some cows had larger carbon footprints than others, the results show.
The cows with the largest carbon footprints, known as "poor performers," take longer to gain weight than others, McAuliffe said. Because of this, these cows must spend longer on the farm before they are sent to slaughter—meaning they spend more time emitting methane.
It is still not clear why some cows are lower performers than others, McAuliffe said. However, it is likely that genetics play a role in the differences between animals, he added:
"I would say a lot of it has to do with the environment, it has to do with genetics, it could be animal health—an animal might be poorly so it's not consuming enough grass."
Following their results, the researchers plan to carry out an experiment to see if genetic selection could be used to produce cows with lower-than-average carbon footprints.
Selective breeding is a common technique in agriculture and involves breeding two animals with desirable characteristics (two cows with high milk yields, for example). If the trait has a genetic basis, there is a higher chance that the offspring will inherit it.
Though more research is needed, it is possible that breeding cows with a lower climate impact could help beef farmers to cut their emissions, McAuliffe said:
"If you've got a farm that's got a lot of animals that are performing really poorly and replace them with animals that don't require a lot of time on the farm to get to a finishing weight, I think it's fair to say that the farm would be able to reduce its overall carbon footprint."
Chewing the Fat
The findings offer promise for cutting emissions from beef production, said Dr. Tara Garnett, a scientist from the University of Oxford's Food Climate Research Network, who was not involved in the study.
However, cutting emissions from beef production "can only take us so far," she said. Last year, Garnett published a report finding that cutting down on global meat consumption would be the best way to tackle emissions. She told Carbon Brief:
"There are things to do on the production side to moderate greenhouse gas emissions from the farming sector, but they will only get you so far. High-consuming individuals and countries need to be cutting back on the amount of meat that they consume."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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