What is Environmental Impact of Eating Beef?02 August 2014
Policy decisions designed to reduce animal-based food consumption stand to significantly reduce the environmental cost of food production.
This is one of the key findings in a study Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production
in the United States by Gidon Eshela, Alon Sheponb, Tamar Makovc and Ron Milob from Barden College, the Weizmann Institute and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
The study says that livestock-based food production is an important and pervasive way humans impact the environment.
It causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance.
It also competes with biodiversity, and promotes species extinctions.
“Empowering consumers to make choices that mitigate some of these impacts through devising and disseminating numerically sound information is thus a key socioenvironmental priority,” the researchers say.
“Unfortunately, currently available knowledge is incomplete and hampered by reliance on divergent methodologies that afford no general comparison of relative impacts of animal-based products.
“To overcome these hurdles, we introduce a methodology that facilitates such a comparison.
“We show that minimising beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.”
The study shows that livestock production impacts air and water quality, ocean health, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on regional to global scales and it is the largest use of land globally.
It says that quantifying the environmental impacts of the various livestock categories, mostly arising from feed production, is thus a grand challenge of sustainability science.
The study quantifies land, irrigation water, and reactive nitrogen (Nr) impacts due to feed production, and recasts published full life cycle GHG emission estimates, for each of the major animal-based categories in the US diet.
The research team’s calculations reveal that the environmental costs per consumed calorie of dairy, poultry, pork and eggs are mutually comparable (to within a factor of 2), but are very much lower than the impacts of beef.
They say that beef production requires 28, 11, 5, and 6 times more land, irrigation water, GHG, and Nr, respectively, than the average of the other livestock categories.
Preliminary analysis of three staple plant foods shows two- to sixfold lower land, GHG, and Nr requirements than those of the non-beef animal-derived calories, whereas irrigation requirements are comparable.
The team claims that the analysis is based on the best data currently available, but follow-up studies are necessary to improve parameter estimates and fill remaining knowledge gaps.
Data imperfections notwithstanding, the key conclusion that beef production demands about one order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock
Categories is robust under existing uncertainties, the research team claims.
The study spells out multiple environmental benefits of potential, easy to implement dietary changes, and highlights the uniquely high resource demands of beef.
The team concludes: “ Although our analysis is based on US data, and thus directly reflects current US practices, globalization-driven rapid diffusion of US customs, including dietary customs, into such large and burgeoning economies as those of
China or India, lends a global significance to our analysis.
“Corrective legislative measures are particularly important because, in addition to ethnic and cultural preferences, current consumption patterns of several food types partly track government policies (such as price floors, direct subsidies, or countercyclical measures). For example, at least historically, the caloric dominance of dairy in the US diet is tied to governmental promotion of dairy through marketing and monetary means (54), and meat ubiquity partly reflects governmental support for grain production, a dominant subsidy recipient in the agricultural sector.
“Our results thus offer policymakers a method for calculating some of the environmental consequences of food policies.
“Our results can also guide personal dietary choices that can collectively leverage market forces for environmental betterment.”
You can view the full report by clicking here.