How bovine emissions — aka cow belches — are contributing to climate change

Cattle, like those shown here, are having a big impact on the Earth.
The cattle industry is having a big impact on the Earth. (Getty Images; design by Quinn Lemmers)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.

While Americans' reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles is a well-known cause of harmful greenhouse gas emissions — which cause climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere — there’s another major culprit that often gets overlooked: bovine emissions, aka cow belches, which emit methane, a substance that's substantially more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to causing the greenhouse effect.

And though there has been plenty of debate over how big a role this factor plays in climate change — the Humane Society International says the industry is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, while a study published by the Journal of Ecological Society puts that number at 87 percent — one thing is clear: Animal agriculture has a significant impact on our climate.

Then, of course, there's the issue of animal agriculture itself leading to deforestation — with 80 percent of the Amazon's deforestation to provide land for cattle farming and, in the United States alone, 41 percent of land being used for livestock pastures and feed crops.

"Without a doubt, humanity cannot survive on Earth without a massive reduction in animal product consumption," Greg Schwartz, a Laney College professor of environmental geography and advocate of a meat- and dairy-free lifestyle, tells Yahoo Life earlier this month, known as Veganuary. "Given the sobering statistics about animal agriculture’s devastating impact on the planet, going plant-based, especially as a denizen of Western countries with very high animal product consumption rates, has the most significant pro-planet effects of any lifestyle modification.

How are emissions from animal agriculture contributing to global warming? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Put cow belches in context. Explore bovine emissions in this immersive experience by scanning or clicking this QR code to launch the experience in Augmented Reality.

"For instance," notes Schwartz, who estimates that the animal agriculture industry accounts for a whopping 40 percent of climate change, "being a vegan who drives an SUV is more environmentally-friendly than being an omnivore who drives an electric car."

That’s a lot to chew on — but Schwartz says that changing what’s on our plates is an important step in the right direction.

How to be part of the solution

“The best way to be ecologically friendly and to lower your ecological footprint in general is to eat less meat and less animal products,” Schwartz says. “That’s at the top of the pyramid, because eating [animal products] is so harmful.”

Being a vegan who drives an SUV is more environmentally-friendly than being an omnivore who drives an electric car.Greg Schwartz

You can start small, by cutting out — or at least back on — beef, with a move toward nixing dairy as well. Because in the dairy industries, while female cows are confined to individual pens and repeatedly impregnated, male cows are sent off to veal or cattle farms to become meat. And dairy cows, whether they’re raised in organic or conventional systems, are increasingly being sold into the beef market when they’re “retired."

“Of the meats, beef is clearly the worst in terms of consumption, in terms of wasting of calories, wasting of water,” explains Schwartz. “Cows are inefficient: They only produce about 6 percent of edible flesh from all of the calories they eat. They naturally take up a lot of land space, which is why you get a lot of that deforestation and altered land use.”

According to Switch4Good, an organization seeking to eliminate dairy consumption, if everyone in the United States ate no meat or cheese for just one day per week, it would have the environmental benefit of not driving 91 billion miles or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Then, of course, there's going vegan — cutting all animal products, beef and dairy included, out of your diet. It's a direction that more and more young people are going, according to a study by Produce Blue Book, which reports that 65 percent of Gen Z want a more “plant-forward” diet. Which is no surprise, given the data from a 2021 Deloitte survey, which found that climate change is the most pressing issue for the new generation.

Gen Z vegan activist Genesis Butler, 14, is one such example: She initially went vegan after learning about the animal rights issues associated with factory farming. But once her diet had completely shifted, she learned about the positive impact her new ways could have on other issues that were important to her, such as climate change and the environment. In 2020, she founded Youth Climate Save, an offshoot of the Climate Save Movement, in order to give young activists a platform to organize and participate in climate outreach activities.

“We’re taking all our natural resources that we need and putting it toward something that’s not sustainable and that won’t help us,” Butler says of her decision to maintain a vegan diet.

She has even encouraged her parents to make the change, informing them about how their food choices effect the environment and the future health of the planet. “When many people realize the negative impact that these things are having on their environment, it makes them want to switch,” Butler says.

Another young activist, Sarah Goody, 17, the founder of Climate NOW, says that going plant-based is a “small way to make a lifestyle change that can have a big impact.” While eating plant-based can effect change over time (most of us do eat at least three times a day, after all), Goody points to how the shift can inspire others to do their part.

“I started going plant-based in sixth grade, around the time I was learning what climate change really was, and was drawing the connection between animal agriculture and things like increased emissions,” she says. “My parents, my community and my peers started seeing what I was doing. They started saying things like, ‘Oh, I want to try out this vegan meal with you,’ or if I was ordering something vegan at a restaurant, my friends would ask me about it. It was really a way to raise awareness. We interact with so many people every single day. It’s like if you go to the grocery store and see someone with reusable bags, it reminds you, ‘Where are my reusable grocery bags? What am I doing to help the planet?’”

But where do you even start?

For many people, the question isn’t whether to go vegan, but, "How do I start?" The official Veganuary site has suggestions about first steps — as do both Butler and Goody.

“For many people, they say, ‘I could never give dairy up or eggs or meat.’ But you don’t necessarily have to give everything up [to make an environmental impact]," Goody says. "Starting out by saying, ‘I’m going to reduce my intake of red meat,’ or ‘I’m going to cut out chicken,’ can be really helpful, initially. … You can take incremental steps.”

Butler agrees that people who transition to a plant-based diet “slowly” are still making progress.

“You can have a positive impact by even just changing your foods for one day,” Butler says. “Once people swap out those foods, they realize how easy it is, so it makes them even more likely to switch to a plant-based diet. I would rather have motion than no motion.”

Jasmin Singer, the author of The VegNews Guide to Being a Fabulous Vegan and the co-host of the Our Hen House podcast, tells Yahoo Life that incorporating more plant-based foods can be as easy as switching out some of your favorite items with vegan versions.

"Swap out your food staples first, such as milk (any dairy-free milk will do, such as oat, soy or hemp), yogurt (try Silk or Forager’s) and butter (Miyoko’s brand has an identical taste to the animal-derived version). Once you swap the cooking staples in your kitchen, the rest is easy," she says. "Then focus on your cabinet essentials — swap your meaty red sauces for marinara (or try a vegan-"meat"-based sauce like Trader Joe’s Vegan Pasta Bolognese), your boxed mac and cheese for the dairy-free equivalent (try Daiya or Annie's) and your cookies for the vegan version."

Oreos, she points out, are already vegan — and therefore require zero cow burps to produce.

And remember, she adds, while you might not love every plant-based food you try, you likely don't love every food with animal products in it either.

"If there’s something you don’t like, don’t eat it again, but don’t let that curtail your journey to finding more vegan alternatives of the foods you’re used to," Singer says. "There are an infinite amount of plant-based options out there just waiting for you to try."

You also don't have to be perfect to make an impact.

"If you slip up, start again. There is an ever-evolving world of delicious vegan food out there, and there is a vegan version of every single animal product," Singer says. "We just need to look at menus and grocery stories a little differently than we’re used to, and it will be old hat in no time."