Study claims beef worse for environment than pork, poultry

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BeefMeal 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.”

And there you have it, take beef off the menu and you’ll have done your part to protect the environment. Unfortunately for the researchers in this study, their earth-shattering, mind-blowing suggestion has been debunked…several times.

Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, was quick to respond and point to the positive strides the beef industry has and continues to make in terms of improved environmental practices. She called the PNAS study a “gross over-simplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain.”

According to a life cycle assessment of the beef industry, between 2005 and 2011, the industry has reduced its environmental and social impact by 7 percent. Specifically, it has reduced emissions to soil by 7 percent, greenhouse gas emission by 2 percent, emissions to water by 10 percent, water use by 3 percent, land use by 4 percent, resource consumption and energy use by 2 percent, acidification potential emissions by 3 percent, and occupational accidents and illnesses by 32 percent.

“The fact is the U.S. beef industry produces beef with lower greenhouse gas emissions than any other country,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “The conclusions in this study only serve to confuse consumers about the fact that including beef as part of a healthy diet can co-exist with a healthy environment in the United States, as recently evidenced by the beef lifecycle assessment.”

What do you think? Leave your comments below. 

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Iowa  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:18 AM

Expert idiots strike again. Cattle utilize the million of acres of grass that monogastrics cannot. A Rediculous study that would want the tribes of sub Sahara Africa to eat dirt rather than their cattle & goats. Vegamatics can eat dirt.

Colorado  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:21 AM

The largest contributor to environmental damage today is from the "geniuses" that elevate themselves above all others because they have egos that are bloated far above the mental capabilities they possess. Any person that makes it through the institutions of Higher Indoctrination Studies (formerly known as colleges and universities) have taken the assumption that they are smart. With zero remaining common sense, and learning exactly what the 'professors' worked so hard to instill into their tiny brains, they are appointed, or hired, by agenda driven, "regulate everything out of profitability", government entities whose sole purpose is to force a political agenda onto the People of America. Once ensconced into their little fiefdoms, they rule with impunity and free from ever having their opinions and policies questioned because they hold the power of the entire US government and will bring it to bear on any who dare question, or show doubt.

Kentucky  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:31 AM

What can I say? It appears this is a serious scientific study published in a highly- respected scientific journal, countered here by reference to a rancher-blogger who has published largely in animal (beef, largely) and industry journals. I'm sure she is serious and makes the right efforts, but in an article like this, Mary, you need to provide more concrete refutation than you have. The issues are always far more complex than the average reader desires, but instead of helping to clarify, and if necessary accept uncomfortable research, you're simply misleading our readers down the usual emotional path. Journalism, with all its blemishes, deserves better.

Idaho  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:34 AM

I read this paper and would have been more impressed if they had compared beef cattle to dairy cattle, ostrich (poultry), and captive elk or bison in paired plots with a control. More apples to apples. As a scientist, I wasn't too impressed with the methodology -- and the results, when read as headlines, don't tell the whole story.

tony newbill    
powell butte , Or  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:36 AM

I think all this anti growth talk is because of the technocratic societies ideology on Peak Earth philosophy and they are trying to create a regulatory process that reduces production on every level to create supply shortages that will force depopulation through attrition . There are too many apposing views from experts like this that have proven to be Productive to expand supply , but that would in the ideologues minds also expand population . Yes, It’s True: Cattle Grazing Can Reverse Desertification Here are some links to show the war on humanity and how it is creating divides for centralized regulation to evolve , PEOPLE UNDERSTAND WHATS GOING ON , Notice the COST if you do not comply with this Environmental regulation all a result of less production due to a loss of reinvestment revenue that can increase supply efforts , , Listen at 8:00 about the Liberal Reporter saying Yes Death Panels exist and that they are needed to Bend the cost curve on end of life care ,

Idaho  |  July, 23, 2014 at 09:51 AM

Tony, thank you for all the links to articles. This is a new and different idea I had not heard of. Good grief!

Joe E. Busby    
Florida  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:28 AM

For thousands of years ago bison roamed the great plains. Many more than there are cows on the great plains today. Large herds of herbivores roamed all over the earth each one putting out the same gases that Animals Rights Activists and Global warming green house gasses dooms dayers are blaming on beef cattle today! Humans belch, breath, and release the same gases into the atmosphere every as cows do. When I was in first grade (admittedly many years ago when the truth was politically correct)they taught this simple truth mammals breath in Oxygen and breath out Carbon Dioxide and plants breathed in Carbon Dioxide and breathed out Oxygen. And guess what they both still do! Plants depend on their so called Green House Gasses.

KS  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Tony, Are you saying population growth and resource consumption should go on forever? Or are you saying the population hasn't reached the worlds limit yet? Or are you saying there is no limit to what the Earth can provide mankind?

KS  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:46 AM

I didn't take the reported research as pro-vegetarian. After all they do compare beef to other forms of meat protein, pork, poultry, etc. and not vegetable proteins.

KS  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:51 AM

Joe, how can you compare the ratio of plant mater to animal mater from eons ago with the ratio today? Are you saying today there is more plant mater on the earth and less animal matter? I don't know but it would be too hard to imagine the number of beef and dairy cattle on the earth today far exceeds the number of bison, aurochs, cattle, etc. present eon's ago.

KS  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:54 AM

correction: " would not be too hard"

jeff wilson    
Potomac Montaba  |  July, 23, 2014 at 12:04 PM

1/32 of this planet is economically tillable. 2/23 of this planet canbe harvested by the ungulent for human food. NO, water is 'lost' in any ag production--Water Cycle The main source of methane gas on earth is from the Rain Forest--75%. Cattle produce .9%-1.7%-the 20% comes from a foreign study--why so much varience from US studies? This needs to be clarified. God bless the 1% of America that feeds 100% of America, the cubical wizards, I've been there I understand. For the 'big' picture give us producers a call. You see, we can't get it All in a book--facts of life.

W. F. Hendrix    
Yakima, WA  |  July, 23, 2014 at 12:25 PM

The local paper picked this article up so I've been having to deal with it. If you understand that 99.5% of all greenhouse warming in the atmosphere is due to water molecules then you can better understand how biased this article is. The vast majority (90%) of all methane in the atmosphere comes from wetlands and swamps. Most if not all of the rest of the "facts" are spun too. A very biased and confusing article.

Jerry Turnbull    
US and others  |  July, 23, 2014 at 01:57 PM

Seems that the authors have overlooked recent reports from Stanford which demonstrate that many of the assumptions when calculating the impact on the environment may be incorrect. Ruminants are part of the ecosystem and offer a significant contribution towards providing a high quality protein from poor quality forages. Has anyone actually measured the true impact from the use of nitrogenous material on crop production. To meet the high potentials it requires high amounts of nitrogen and to my knowledge I do not think it has need fully explored. Much of the urea placed in fields is lost to runoff and atmosphere exposure.

iowa  |  July, 23, 2014 at 02:58 PM

Well Robert while you classify this as a "serious scientific study in a highly respected scientific journal" that does not mean the study is without flaws. I remember previous studies that were held in high regard until they admitted to not using the same criteria for all categories of study. Now while saying that cattle require more land. is that a bad thing? We run a couple hundred head over almost a thousand acres of pasture & timber. The land is pristine in it's current state. Why is having cows graze there bad? And we use water, yes we some ponds so we are controlling the water from overflowing waterways downstream and washing away soil. You do realize we have some flooding issues? If the cows don't use that water it becomes a problem. So how is the cows consuming more water a bad thing? Our cows are grass fed, if we did not pasture the cattle we would have to use pesticides to control the weeds. But i guess that is a bad thing because the cows eat more grass than other species. Would it be better for us to cut the grass and burn it? Think about what conclusions this "serious scientific study" comes to and what it might actually mean in the real world.

iowa  |  July, 23, 2014 at 03:13 PM

at KS Dave. If you read Joe's statement he claims that there were as many Bison roaming the plains as cattle today. Estimates put the bison numbers around 60 million. Todays national cattle herd is about 80 million. Start subtracting from that 80 milion the 5 and half million cattle in CA then 1 and half million for Florida . Once you remove the non plains states cattle from the national herd you are left with less cattle in the plains than the Bison numbers.

rattlesnake and cheat grass heaven  |  July, 23, 2014 at 03:30 PM

Based on a quick read, IMO the authors' approach has several potentially serious to fatal weaknesses. First, studies based on aggregate data are at risk of committing an "ecological fallacy" (google it). Second, the authors did analyses for the species other than beef and then attributed to beef the difference between an aggregated metric and the sum of that metric from the models of other species. Beef got the error term, in other words, and many inputs are assumed to be equivalent substitutes that aren’t. Third, the author's approach treats all livestock production systems like factories in which pulling the plug on a factory down stops most all inputs and outputs, greenhouse gas or otherwise. For pasture in particular, that seems to me to be a serious if not fatal error. Given that as long as the sun shines and the rain falls, plants grow whether a cow is there or not. Either some herbivore consumes them or they will be broken down by an abiotic process. If the plant matter is broken down by an anaerobic process, methane is emitted and if by an aerobic process, carbon dioxide. Period, cow or no cow. Fourth, the authors appear to ignore the effects of production economics on producer choice. I suspect that in many areas the grazing cow is the choice of last resort, relegated to ground that can't otherwise generate income. I'll take Iowa prices for my rock pile any day. Finally, the differences in the amount of human input required between a grazing beef cow and the other species is totally ignored.

Nevada  |  July, 23, 2014 at 03:50 PM

Actually, Dave, beef cattle numbers this year are less than 88m. That does not include dairy cows, but very few of them are on pasture. The estimated number of bison in the mid-19th century was somewhere between 60 to 100m. If you figure in all other grazers during that time period, the numbers may not be that much different. The anti-beef group, whether scientists or not, are never going to give up. Never forget that any scientific study can be tweaked to achieve any result desired.

South Dakota  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:29 PM

Your study needs to include a Grassfed Beef operation, where animals are on a grass only diet from birth to finish. You will find that this system restores organic mater and carbon to the soil. resulting in healthy soils, healthy cattle and nutritious grass=fed beef.

Ontario, Canada  |  July, 24, 2014 at 07:05 AM

we always fail to mention in an article like this, the amount of beef that is raised on land not useable for anything else, and the beef raised on damaged feed that can not be used for swine, poultry, etc. And the fact that rained on hay, damaged wheat and corn would have to possibly go to landfill sites if not for cattle. It's high time we stand up for ourselves and our product.

July, 24, 2014 at 08:20 AM

Funny, my Doctors say I should not be consuming pork at all as it is a fatty meat compared to beef.

world  |  July, 24, 2014 at 08:22 AM

what is mater for $50? Oh, you mean matter.

Paul Smokov    
North Dakota  |  July, 24, 2014 at 08:35 AM

I have been involved with the cattle indistry al my life and will be 90 years old in October. I have seen many changes to how beef is raised and always the rancher gets blamed. A large percentage of our beef is raised on land that wouldn't support a hog, chicken or be suitable for farming. Even soybeans wouldn't grow on the hilly land. Where do these scientist think they get their protein from and who will farm the rocky ground. Let's put them out in a real life situation and see how long they last working with their bodies and no animal protein.

OH  |  July, 24, 2014 at 09:54 AM

Not one animal scientist on the pannel! Do they even know what end the hay goes in? If this were an objective study they would have included within their ranks any number of animal science specialists from any one of our major land grant universities. This is not a serious scientific study as neiter institution is taken seriously by anyone with real experiance.

July, 24, 2014 at 09:57 AM

ksdave what I am saying is we do not want this leading us to a Nationalization of the free markets by lack of supply expansion that can extend the process of developing societies gaining the level of knowledge about how to be sustainable as free thinking societies are in the developed nations . Fertility charts show that the free thinking societies are sustainable population growth wise and so its the undeveloped nations that are under dictatorships that are sitting around being controlled that are left with only one thing to do ...... so the idea that controlling peoples lives is not the answer .....

Mack H. Graves    
Denver, CO  |  July, 25, 2014 at 10:41 AM

It does not matter that studies purporting to cite the deleterious effects of beef production versus other animal protein production are debated ad nauseum amongst us in the beef industry. What matters is a consumer’s decision to purchase more or less beef or maybe none. Those of us in the beef industry whose every day job is to convince more consumers of the health and taste benefits of beef don’t have the time to pontificate about how such studies are not factually based nor of sound science (even though the journals in which many are published are peer-reviewed) nor preach to one another with the refrain, “Woe is me.” Our livelihood depends on a consumer’s decision. If our industry is to prosper and survive, the consumer is the key and not just today’s consumer but tomorrow’s as well. How do we influence tomorrow’s consumer? Those in the anti-meat community are quietly educating future consumers to our detriment. We need to be just as zealous in our promoting (not just defending) beef. Many counter arguments have been offered in response to the study cited by others responding to this article. We need to take those arguments that are reasoned and factual to those future consumers. Education is the key and that education must start at an early age. I am suggesting or maybe imploring those beef industry groups who can afford to (and can any of us afford not to?) to consider how they can reach out to those future consumers to offer them a point of view that may cumulate over time to bring them to be a well-informed thoughtful beef consumer not just a poorly informed anti-meat zealot.

Kansas  |  July, 28, 2014 at 12:15 PM

Why is it all about your livelihood and convincing consumers and their children's grandchildren that beef is good for them, and tasty? Why isn't it about whether it's a sustainable, environmentally positive industry? The market for horseshoes changed dramatically when we started driving cars. When we learn more we do better. Sorry if you're in the wrong industry for a sustainable future. Those improvements in efficiency and better practices from 2005 to 2011, 3 percent here, 7 percent there, are nowhere near where the improvements need to be: 75 percent here, 90 percent there. I can't imagine we'll ever see those kinds of numbers. But I am interested in the studies about large-scale improvements in grazing practices, and maybe that's where the beef industry needs to focus.

KS  |  July, 28, 2014 at 01:53 PM

Tony, I now see what you're saying and agree. I had the wrong impression about the research. I thought it was more about health than the environment. My bad.

Beef Cattle Research Council    
July, 28, 2014 at 02:11 PM

Unfortunately, not all science is good science, and sometimes good journals publish bad science. When it comes to environmental impacts, it’s not what you eat, it's what you take but don't eat. Here's more on our view on the flawed PNAS paper: "Hot Air Doesn’t Just Come from Cattle":

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