Environmental Benefits of Wool
By Brent Roeder, MSU Extension Sheep and Wool Specialist
Montana, the last best place and rapidly disappearing. Sixty-eight million acres of rangeland cover Montana and are managed in a sustainable way to create organic wealth for multigenerational ranching and farming families. Many of these families in Montana run sheep and most of those sheep produce high quality clips of wool sought after by our military and outdoor enthusiasts.
Montana rangeland continues to benefit from a historic private/public rangeland grazing system that produces clean water, clean air, captures carbon, provides open space and has scenic value and wildlife habitat for all Montanans. Increasingly as we lose the tie between the private valley land and the public mountain land, our mountain valleys are quickly being subdivided to the highest bidder with a loss of all the aforementioned benefits.
Really, what I’m trying to do is set the stage for an article that touts the environmental benefits of wool and sheep as the industry is constantly bombarded with negative media that could well be distracting us from more immediate and pressing environmental dangers.
Sheep convert grass into wool; what’s your superpower? Wool is fire retardant, can adsorb 40 percent of its weight in water, keep you warm and is naturally odor resistant. Those are just a few of the reasons why our military and other countries' astronauts wear wool undergarments.
From an environmental standpoint, sheep can graze noxious weeds and wildfire-prone landscapes to produce wool in a sustainable manner. Pure organic carbon makes up 50 percent of the weight of wool and this carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere by plants consumed by the sheep: https://www.woolmark.com/industry/research/factsheets/.
So, sheep convert grass to wool in a sustainable fashion. That doesn’t sound like much of a superpower until you take a hard look at how we use wool compared to synthetic textile production using fossil fuels.
Wool, while being durable, is also naturally biodegradable. Recent research has shown some synthetic clothing takes hundreds of years to degrade in landfills, while wool, the most recycled fabric, takes only about a year. More important to Montana with our emphasis on pristine waterways, research has shown the massive environmental contamination that comes from washing synthetic clothing. Some synthetic fabrics release up to 4,500 microfibers per gram of clothing washed, and up to 40 percent of those fibers pass through our water treatment facilities and contaminate our river and oceans (https://www.woolmark.com/industry/support/resources/#fact-sheets: Sustainability Toolkit). We do not yet comprehend the enormous impact microplastic contamination is having on our world, so become a proponent of slow fashion, read those clothing labels and look for American-made wool products.
Sheep are part of the natural carbon cycle, consuming the organic carbon stored in plants and converting it to wool. Wool is one of the most recycled fibers. With a market share of just over 1 percent of all textile fibers, wool claims 5 percent within the recycled fibers market share identifying wool as a suitable fiber for recycling. Finally, at the very end of its lifespan, wool readily biodegrades (https://iwto.org/resources/wool-science/).
Over the past decade, Montana producers have reaped the benefits of their high-quality wool by starting sheep-to-shelf enterprises. In the current commercial system, producers harvest their wool, package it and sell it to a buyer. From there, over 70 percent of all U.S. wool is hauled to a port, loaded onto a ship and sent mostly to China for processing where labor and environmental standards are much lower than the in the U.S. Montana wool producers need a more sustainable way to process wool and believe Montana State University has the engineers and expertise to move this industry into the next century.
Well that all sounded just dreamy, but let’s get into some documented research. The latest data from the U.S. EPA estimated U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector to be: Transportation - 27%, Electricity - 25%, Industry - 24%, Commercial & Residential - 13% and Agriculture-11% (https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions).
According to a presentation by Dr. Richard Ehrhardt of Michigan State University at the 2022 American Sheep Industry Convention, animal agriculture accounts for 3.9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions with ruminants contributing 2.3% and the U.S. sheep industry only 0.023%. How much “new” methane has been produced in the U.S. by ruminants since European settlement? According to Hristov 2012, Journal of Animal Science 90:1371, before European settlement, wild ruminants like deer, elk and bison already produced about 86% of the current greenhouse gas emissions that domestic livestock and wild ruminants produce today. That 14% increase occurred over the past 530 years.
Look at some of the more recent trends driving greenhouse gas emission around the world at these sites to put that in perspective: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions and https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/abee4e. Another presentation by Dr. Frank Mitloehner of University of California - Davis stated that globally one in three calories produced for food is wasted and, in the U.S. 40 percent of food is thrown out. So, food waste, not diet, is the real issue (https://www.sheepusa.org/events-pastconventionpresentations). Domestic ruminants do produce GHG, but are not responsible for the large increase we have seen recently.
Grasslands worldwide, including those grazed by livestock, are found to exert no warming effect on climate. This conclusion is thanks to the presence of intensified carbon sinks, especially over sparsely grazed grasslands (like many of our Western ranges), which mainly result from the increased productivity of grass-lands exposed to increased CO2 and nitrogen deposition (2021,12:118 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-20406-7 |www.nature.com/naturecommunications).
Recent research out of New Zealand documents how they reduced their red meat sector greenhouse gas emission by 30% over the past 30 years (https://academic.oup.com/af/article/11/4/26/6364964). The author simply writes off most of the improvement to the decrease in breeding sheep from 40.4 million head in 1990 to 16.6 million head in 2020. This equates to an almost 60% reduction in breeding females with only a 13.5% reduction in pounds of lamb produced over the same time according to data from (https://www.fao.org/statistics/en/). They truly missed the boat by not praising all the advances we have made in efficiency by improving genetics and production systems in New Zealand and around the world.
Be careful selling your rangeland carbon credits. Many countries are considering implementing a carbon tax. We could see other countries that are heavy polluters buy up carbon credits from our Montana ranchers who are carbon neutral in many cases and use them against us. As crazy as it sounds, a Montana sheep rancher who faces many challenges other countries do not have (weather extremes, predators, heavier regulations and high inputs) could be forced out of business by the added burden of having to pay carbon taxes because the previous generation sold their carbon credits for pennies on the dollar to foreign countries that are importing cheap wool products. The real future earnings potential for your ranch may well be locked in the clean air, clean water, open space and potential carbon capture your rangeland provides. Keep running sheep and protect the rangeland for those future generations.
In conclusion, continued media fascination with sheep burps while ignoring more important and pressing impacts to our environment could lead to removing sheep from our Montana rangeland which could increases fuel loads leading to catastrophic wildfires, release stored carbon-dioxide, increase subdivision of private rangeland decreasing wildlife habitat and increase our dependence on the imported oil-based clothing polluting our fresh water systems. So, let’s focus on the positive points and all work together to help maintain and improve The Last Best Place before we completely pave it over.