‘Conventional’ Vs. ‘Organic’ Cow Production: An Environmental Perspective
Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Current research estimates that about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector, and of these emissions, the largest contribution comes from the digestion processes of animals. Animal digestion processes account for about 11.6% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
In this study, the authors examined cow meat / “beef” production in the Umbria region of Italy to see whether conventional beef production or organic beef production had a smaller environmental impact. This study compared the environmental impact of the two categories by estimating the carbon footprint per kilogram of live animal. Two representative farms, one conventional and one organic, were chosen as case studies.
To estimate the impact of both types of production, the authors used a life cycle assessment to estimate the total carbon footprint of everything involved in raising cows for slaughter, including feed production, digestion processes, manure management, and carbon sequestration in soil. When emissions came from other gases, they were converted into the equivalent carbon emissions.
The study found that organic beef production had a larger carbon footprint than conventional production by more than 30% per kilogram of live cow (24.62 vs. 18.21). Organic beef production had a smaller carbon footprint from feed production, but conventional beef production had a smaller carbon footprint from livestock digestion processes, manure management, and carbon sequestration in soil.
For their part, the authors offer a number of strategies that could reduce the carbon footprint of both conventional and organic beef production. To reduce the impact from digestion processes, farmers could modify the composition of cows’ diet or increase the diet’s efficiency. However, they caution that the economic viability and animal welfare impacts of such practices should be studied before they are implemented. To reduce the impact from manure management, anaerobic conditions can either be promoted or avoided, depending on the context in which the manure is stored.
This particular case study was done in Italy, and the authors caution that their results should not be extended to other regions without carefully understanding local climate conditions, livestock management practices, and animal productivity characteristics. However, for animal advocates, this study adds to a growing body of literature that shows just how much both conventional and organic production methods for farming animals have an impact on our planet.