A new study on the environmental impact of livestock production in the United States conducted by researchers in physics, plant sciences, and forestry and environmental sciences at Bard College in New York, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Yale, respectively, claims beef production results in far more damage to the environment than other protein sources.
The study, which appears in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), attempts to quantify the environmental impact of each calorie consumed of beef, pork, poultry, eggs and dairy, the major animal-based categories in the U.S. diet. Cattle require 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, release five times more greenhouse gases and consume six times more nitrogen than the other livestock categories, the study says.
The researchers found that dairy, poultry, pork and eggs have comparable environmental impacts. To arrive at these calculations, the researchers used USDA, Department of Interior and Department of Energy data to determine input values for livestock production. They noted the main challenge was finding accurate input values as different production methods within species vary in input requirements.
Should the beef industry consider the report a blow to modern beef production, or is this another attempt by the anti-beef community to get beef off the dinner plate?
Multiple times throughout the findings, the researchers allude to the latter with claims like “the study thus elucidates the multiple environmental benefits of potential, easy-to-implement dietary changes…” Additionally, highlighted under the “significance” section, the researchers say livestock production “causes about one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, and is the key land use and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance. It also competes with biodiversity, and promotes species extinction.”
Clearly then, according to the researchers, the obvious answer is to eliminate meat from the diet. They say, “Empowering consumers to make choices that mitigate some of these impacts….is a key socioenvionmental priority.” And they add that “We show that minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.”
The study’s lead author, Gidon Eshel, an environmental physics professor at Bard College, says cows are not efficient at converting feed to protein for human consumption, according to the Associated Press. Further, he says if the average American switches from beef to pork that would result in the equivalent to about nine days’ worth of the nation’s per capital greenhouse gas emissions. Eshel, who reportedly admitted to not eating meat, added that the takeaway message from the study is “wherever possible try to replace beef with other sources of protein from animal sources.”