CSU professor’s research links livestock to greenhouse gas emissions

Julia Rentsch

Research that suggests the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock has recently been published with the help of Richard Conant of the Colorado State University Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

The paper, published in the journal “Nature Climate Change,” says that this can be done by increasing the efficiency of land use by both agriculture and forestry, as well as looking at livestock dietary patterns and how the global need for food is addressed. 


The paper’s primary author was Mario Herrero of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia; in total, 14 scientists from around the world contributed to the research

In a CSIRO news release, Herrero said that this research is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the global greenhouse gas mitigation potential for livestock, as it considers both the supply and demand sides of the industry.

“(T)he conclusions of the paper are that there are a lot of things that we can do to reduce emissions associated with production of livestock products,” Conant said. “So there are things that we can do to increase the efficiency of production, there are things that we can do to draw down atmospheric CO2 concentrations by changing the way that we manage the land, and there are things that can be done to help people recognize the value of a diet that emphasizes livestock products less.”

The paper notes the beneficial results that would come from people in wealthy countries reducing their demand for beef. The researchers cite the inefficient use of resources put towards raising livestock and the vastly larger land area that is required to raise livestock as problems with the system, which will only be exacerbated in coming years by the growing global population’s increasing overall wealth and demand for food.

Conant, who is also affiliated with the International Livestock Research Institute and Queensland University of Technology, said that despite these findings, he feels that regulations to encourage people to eat less beef would be unhelpful.

“I think that people enjoy eating meat, I think it’s probably counterproductive to try to constrain people’s choices or to regulate what can be consumed,” Conant said. “I think if people really understood the environmental impacts of the consumption of livestock products, then they might think twice about what they consume and change their behavior.”

According to Herrero, “Livestock has a role in a healthy and sustainable diet, and the sector has an important economic and social role, particularly in developing countries. We need to balance these health outcomes and the economic and social benefits, while also capturing the mitigation potential the livestock sector can offer.”

Figuring out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit product was another topic emphasized in the paper, and is something that is already being considered at CSU to reduce the University’s livestock-associated carbon footprint. 

“A lot of the things that we’re doing here at CSU and in partnership with organizations like the USDA (and) the Agricultural Research Service are really intended to help us understand how we can continue to produce those products but do so in a much more efficient way,” Conant said. One of the things CSU has been looking into is understanding how the way that we manage the cattle affects the uptake and storage of carbon.

Conant said that this research relates to what students study in the recently created master’s program in Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Accounting—how agricultural production systems can more efficiently produce food.


“I think that this issue of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is an important one,” Conant said. “You know agriculture isn’t the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but it is an important contributor worldwide … so producing food in a way that reduces or offsets our greenhouse gas emissions I think is really important.”

Conant said that how big of a role agriculture plays in global emissions is often debated.

“There is a lot of confusion, and I think part of it stems from the way that countries do their accounting,” Conant said. “(T)he emissions from agriculture are really just those emissions that happen on the farm … So it wouldn’t account for the truck or plane that flies the food to your store, refrigeration at the store, it wouldn’t account for things like the energy that goes into the production of nitrogen fertilizers, or any of that— or even the waste that flows to the landfill, it wouldn’t account for any of those things, so it’s a little bit hard to draw those boundaries.”

According to Conant, the significance of the mitigation potentials can be succinctly summed up: “(Food) is a big part of what we do every day.”

Collegian Reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter at @julia_rentsch.