Ag officials take issue with study showing beef is more damaging to environment than other meats
October 5, 2015
Raising beef does more damage to the environment than producing pork, poultry, eggs or dairy, a new study says.
However, some agriculture officials are taking issue with the study, stressing that it takes an oversimplified look at the complex beef industry, some of the data used in the report is out-of-date, improvements in the industry continue making beef production more efficient, and that, while beef does use more resources to produce than other meats, ag's overall greenhouse output is fairly small in larger picture.
According to the study, which was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beef, compared with the other animal proteins, produces five times more heat-trapping gases per calorie, puts out six times as much water-polluting nitrogen, takes 11 times more water for irrigation and uses 28 times the land, according to the study.
Cows are not efficient at converting feed to protein for human consumption, said lead author Gidon Eshel, an environmental physics professor at Bard College in New York.
According to an Associated Press article on the study, Eshel used U.S. government figures to calculate air and water emissions and how much water and land were used in the lifetime production of beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs. While other studies have looked at the issue, this is one of the most comprehensive pieces of research quantifying and comparing the U.S. environmental costs of different meats and other animal protein.
Meanwhile, the beef industry called the study "a gross oversimplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain."
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In an interview with the Associated Press, Kim Stackhouse, sustainability director at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said that the industry has improved its environmental sustainability in recent years and that the United States produces beef with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any country.
Additionally, it was pointed out by Colorado livestock officials that, while beef-cattle production does release more emissions into the air than that of other livestock, agricultural and livestock production's contributions all together are still "fairly small."
Citing 2011 EPA numbers, Colorado Livestock Association CEO Bill Hammerich noted that the entire ag industry then accounted for just 6.3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and, of that, all livestock made up 3.1 percent.
In regards to the release of the more potent methane gases, the beef cattle industry was accountable for only 1.5 percent of those emissions, Hammerich said, still referring to 2011 EPA numbers.
"And we've gotten even more efficient in just the last few years," Hammerich noted.
Hammerich further stressed that the industry is much more efficient than it was in the 1970s, a time from which some of the data in the recent study was based, Hammerich said.
"In addition to ag's contributions overall being small … I think this study woefully underestimates how efficient our industry has become," Hammerich said.
In the study, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs all had comparable environmental footprints, so close there were no statistically significant differences among them, Eshel said. But cows were off-the-chart different. The study did not look at plants or fish raised for human consumption.
Cows burp major amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Their digestive system makes them produce considerably more methane than pigs, chickens or turkeys do, Eshel said. The manure used to grow feed for cows also releases methane, as does their own bodily waste.
Because they are bigger and take longer to put on weight for meat, cows eat more food over their lifetimes than other animals raised for protein, according to the study. ❖