Why Is Cattle Ranching Bad for the Environment?

Across the globe, cattle ranching is a leading cause of environmental damage, including high levels of water use, deforestation and methane emissions.

Why is cattle ranching bad for the environment

Explainer Climate Food

You may be aware of cattle ranching from popular depictions of cowboys, rodeos and cows grazing in the fields. Despite these pastoral images, cattle ranching is responsible for environmental destruction across the globe, especially water use, deforestation and methane emissions.

What Is Cattle Ranching?

Cattle ranching is a process for raising herds of cows on expansive tracts of land for their meat or milk. Cattle ranchers typically own large areas of cleared land, and employ many people to help care for their cattle. 

A typical cattle ranching operation includes pastures for the cattle to graze on and buildings for housing and feeding the cattle. Cattle ranching primarily occurs in rural areas, but it can also be found in urban areas where there’s a demand for beef or dairy products.

Cattle ranching requires a lot of resources, including land, water and food for the animals. 

What Are Cattle Ranchers Called?

In the United States, cattle ranchers are simply called “ranchers.” If they work with cows and calves, they are called “cow-calf operators.” Cow-calf operators are typically responsible for managing a herd of cows and their calves, born yearly. 

The employees on a ranch are known as “cowboys.” Some cattle ranches are also dude ranches open to visitors — these often offer horseback riding to guests. Such ranches also own and raise a significant number of horses, with some dude ranches coming under fire for their mistreatment of these animals. 

What Is the Purpose of Cattle Ranching?

On a cattle ranch cows are mainly raised for their meat, providing beef for products like burgers and steaks to consumers in the U.S. and to export markets abroad. Ranching provides a source of income for ranchers and employment to local communities. 

What Is Cattle Ranching Deforestation?

Cattle ranching is one of the leading causes of deforestation globally, and has had a particularly large impact on the Amazon rainforest.

It requires a lot of land to graze cows and grow feed crops such as soy, which are given to dairy cows housed indoors or beef cattle once they reach feedlots for fattening. This has led to the conversion of large areas of natural habitats, such as forests, into agricultural land. In the Amazon alone, an estimated 1-2 acres of forest are cleared every minute, and much of that deforestation is due to global demand for beef.

This deforestation has led to a drastic reduction in land availability for other uses, such as crop production, recreation and conservation. The impacts of cattle ranching on deforestation in Brazil are not limited to the Amazon region. Other regions of the country have also been affected, with the Cerrado region — the second-largest biome in Brazil — suffering from extensive deforestation due to cattle ranching. This is particularly concerning because the Cerrado is home to a diverse array of species, some of which are threatened or endangered.

Why Is Cattle Ranching Bad?

Cattle ranching requires large amounts of land. Large tracts of natural habitat are destroyed or degraded when cattle ranching operations are created or expanded. This can lead to loss of biodiversity, as well as soil and water pollution.

Cattle also emit large amounts of a greenhouse gas called methane when they digest their food, which contributes to climate pollution. Agriculture as a whole is responsible for 40 percent of methane emissions.

Why Is Cattle Ranching Bad for the Environment?

Deforestation caused by cattle farming destroys wildlife habitats and disrupts ecosystems. Yet the effects of ranching go further than this, with cattle farms causing water and air pollution, soil erosion and climate emissions.

Cattle manure contributes to water and air pollution. Cows produce a great deal of waste, which can seep into rivers and lakes, contaminating the water and making it unsafe for people and animals to drink. In addition, when cattle overgraze an area and consume too much vegetation, this leads to decreased plant life and soil erosion.

Cattle ranching also causes high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as cattle emit a large amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Deforestation also destroys natural climate reserves, making climate emissions even worse. Cattle ranching also requires large amounts of water, both for the animals and to raise feed crops, which can lead to water shortages in areas where water is already scarce. 

Cattle Ranching Facts and Statistics

The production of beef globally has more than doubled since 1961. The United States is the world’s largest beef producer, and in 2022 the herd sized approached almost 100 million farmed cows.

The average natural lifespan of a cow is between 12 and 15 years, with some cows living as long as 20 years or longer. However, most cows from a cattle ranch are slaughtered for their meat around the age of 2 or 3.

The Reasons Behind Cattle Ranching in Brazil

Many factors have combined to promote cattle ranching in Brazil.

First, at times policies in Brazil have made it easier to clear land. This was especially true during the tenure of Bolsonaro as president. 

Second, cattle laundering makes it easy to hide the consequences of cattle ranching in Brazil. On paper, a cow might have been sourced for a slaughterhouse from a ranch that has not contributed significantly to deforestation. But in reality, the cow may have grazed on different ranches as a part of the complex beef cycle, where cows are reared and fattened in different locations, contributing to deforestation.

Third, cattle ranchers are given large areas deforested for timber wood from landowners to raise cows and grow soy as cattle feed. 

The world is already feeling the short- and long-term consequences of cattle ranching in Brazil as the climate changes rapidly and global warming increases. The experience of researchers reforesting a cattle ranch in Brazil over 20 years shows the gravity of the problem and the need to scale up conservation efforts as soon as possible. 

What You Can Do

Shifting to a plant-rich diet is one of the most effective actions an individual can take for the environment and for animals. But apart from swapping the meat on your plate, you can spur conversations around you. This can be as simple as finding local climate action groups, joining plant-based communities and holding events. Also have a look at Sentient Media’s Take Action page.

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