The Trouble with Beef


Climate change has emerged as a “hot topic” in recent Presidential elections. Green-leaning candidates leverage the increased frequency and severity of weather incidents as proof sources that our planet is becoming increasingly less healthy. Most promote “clean energy” and call for reduced emissions from motor vehicles. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), they should also promote increased consumption of plant-based foods to reduce our impact on the environment.

The NCBI sounded alarm bells on the global livestock industry years ago. Here are some troublesome facts as presented in a report entitled Reducing the Environmental Impact of Dietary Choice:

  • Our global community uses 30% of its land to raise livestock. Deforestation to support animal habitats reduces biodiversity (on which human life depends) and negatively impacts freshwater supplies by increasing runoff.
  • We use 70% of our global agricultural land to produce livestock feed – typically corn, soybean meal, and grains. These crops consume millions of pounds of pesticide and billions of pounds of fertilizer.
  • It takes 11 times more fossil fuel and 100 times more water to produce protein from meat than an equivalent amount of vegetable-based protein.
  • Livestock accounts for 18% of total greenhouse emissions which include nitrous oxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.
  • Livestock consume 8% of freshwater directly and thwart groundwater replenishment through soil compaction and degradation to the banks of waterways.
  • A vegan diet was determined to have the lowest environmental impact.

The Environmental Working Group’ report entitled Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health doubled down on the environmental perils of meat consumption:

  • Lamb, beef, and cheese production generates the highest emissions. (Since beef produces milk and cheese, we need to cut back on those products as well as steaks, ribs, ground beef, et al.)
  • Beef generates more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken, and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu.
  • In the U.S. alone, livestock generated three times the amount of manure (waste) as humans. While in theory it could be used as fertilizer, in practice it tends to simply pile up and pollute.
  • As of 2009, confined feeding operations have been responsible for damaging water supplies associated with 34,000 miles of rivers and 216,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. (No doubt today’s figures would be even more eye-popping!)
  • Slaughterhouses dump vast quantities of pollutants into our waterways which contaminate our drinking water, kill fish, and create “dead zones.”
  • Widespread use of antibiotics on livestock promotes the development of resistant strains that threaten human life. Antibiotics prove necessary to minimize disease in overcrowded spaces. (As a side benefit, they promote growth, thereby improving profit margins.)
  • If everyone in the United States ate no cheese or meat once a week over the course of a year, it would have the equivalent impact of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Even though these findings call for us to reduce meat eating drastically, our dietary patterns are moving in the opposite direction. The NCBI reports that worldwide meat consumption tripled between 1971 and 2010 during which our population grew by only eighty-one percent.

If we take environmental scientists at their word, we cannot sustain our current eating habits. They exacerbate global warming, needlessly contribute to the degradation of the environment, and deplete nonrenewable resources. Given the eminent threat of food and water shortages, it makes no sense to stay this course.

When it costs so little, why not take the plunge and shift some or all the daily menu to more environmentally sensitive choices?