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The environmental harm of cattle has been overstated.

There are several drivers behind climate change, with no one factor to blame, but cattle and livestock are still harmful to the environment.

A recent Facebook post states that says that, in 1950, there were 10.6 million cattle in the U.K. 50,225,000 people in the U.K., and 4 million licensed vehicles on the roads.

It goes on to compare these figures to more recent years, saying that, in 2018, there were 9.9 million cattle, 66,460.000 people, 38 million licensed vehicles on the roads. It adds that, in 2018, there were 38 million commercial flights.

These figures are correct. There is roughly the same number of cows in the U.K. now as there were in 1950.

Those who shared these statistics have then gone on to question why some participating in the ongoing U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) focus on emissions from cattle and not emissions from vehicles. They allege that the media is just focusing on cattle. The end of the Facebook post implies that the media are focusing too much on cattle, and that this attention is unwarranted. The truth is that cattle and meat production in general are very bad for the environment.

As The Independent reported in 2018, a University of Oxford study showed that “cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.”

As the New York Times has reported, “We grow a lot of crops to feed animals, and we cut down a lot of forests to do that. But beef, far more than pork or chicken, contributes to environmental harm, in part because it requires much more land. The greenhouse gas production per serving of chicken or pork is about 20 percent that of a serving of beef.”

Analysis from Greenpeace – which was written about in the Guardian in 2020 – showed that “cows, pigs and other farm livestock in Europe are producing more greenhouse gases every year than all of the bloc’s cars and vans put together when the impact of their feed is taken into account.”

EcoWatch, an environmental news site, reported in 2016 that “meat production is unexpectedly worse for the environment” than driving cars.

This issue has been contested. Others have suggested that it is unhelpful to make comparisons over the exact contribution of individual factors to greenhouse gas emissions. The University of California highlights that authors of an influential study from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) acknowledged that it was incorrect to state that livestock was more damaging to the environment than cars. Frank M. Mitloehner, professor of animal science and air quality extension specialist, University of California, Davis, writes in The Conversation, "The problem was that FAO analysts used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment to study the climate impact of livestock, but a different method when they analyzed transportation."

While it may not be possible to prove that cattle are categorically more harmful to the environment than vehicles, it is misleading to state that the media has placed more of a focus on the impact of cattle than cars or to imply that a focus on cattle in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is misplaced.

CORRECTION: We have changed the conclusion to better reflect the social media post that this fact check was in response to.

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