The true cost of beef: Report warns of high environmental cost of beef production

Beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy, find the new study.

The environmental cost of beef production is nearly ten times more than any other form of meat or livestock production, say researchers.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the team behind the study said that empowering consumers to make choices that help to reduce the impact of livestock and meat production on the environment through ‘devising and disseminating numerically sound information’ is priority.

“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,” noted the team – led by Professor Gidon Eshel of Bard College,USA.

“To overcome these hurdles, we introduce a methodology that facilitates such a comparison. We show that minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.”

Indeed, by comparing the environmental impacts and costs of a variety of meat and animal products the team reported that the environment inputs required for beef production shw that beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.


The team developed a new ‘uniform methodology’ that they were then able to apply to all five livestock categories and to four measures of environmental performance. From this they calculated that the amount of resources required for all the feed consumed by edible livestock and worked out the amount of hay, silage and concentrates such as soybeans required by the different species to put on a kilo of weight. They also included greenhouse gas emissions, not just from the production of feed for animals, but from their digestion and manure.

Independent of its effects on land and water, beef cattle release five times more greenhouse gas and consume six times more nitrogen than eggs or poultry, the team said – noting that as a result beef is the food animal with the biggest environmental impact.

While it has long been known that beef has a greater environmental impact than other meats, the authors of the paper say the current research is the first to quantify the scale in a comparative way.

"One can reasonably be an environmentally mindful eater, designing one's diet with its environmental impact in mind, while not resorting to exclusive reliance on plant food sources," Eshel recently told the BBC.

"In fact, eliminating beef, and replacing it with relatively efficiency animal-based alternatives such as eggs, can achieve an environmental improvement comparable to switching to plant food source."

Professor Mark Sutton, from the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, also told the BBC that while the findings from the current study come from US data, there the implications are similar for Europe.

"Although the exact numbers will be different for Europe (expecting a larger role of dairy), the overall message will be similar: Cattle dominate the livestock footprint of both Europe and US,” he said.

Reducing consumption: Taxes and new ways to eat

Last year Swedish agricultural authorities recommended an EU-wide tax to reduce meat consumption. Sweden’s Board of Agriculture said the levy would reduce the environmental impact of meat production. Instead, Europe's populations should eat more vegetables for both environmental and health benefits, it said.

The high environmental cost of beef production has also been cited as one of the main driving factors behind efforts to create lab grown meat. Last year Professor Mark Post and his colleagues in the Netherlands produced the world’s first burger made from ‘cultured beef’.

The proof of principle burger was used to demonstrate that it is technically possible to use stem cells isolated from cows to grow meat in a lab. The small strands of meat could then be used in the production of foods that use ground or minced beef, say the researchers behind the project.

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Comments (1)

Charles Higley - 23 Aug 2014 | 06:16

Over Blown Estimates

Any considerations here that include greenhouse gases or climate need to be rejected. Manure is a resource not an impact. And, around the world, the majority of beef grazes on land that is unsuitable for grazing, so their impact estimates are suspect. We have millions of acres in the West that support grazing herds, land that is good for nothing else. The BLM's effort to stop this, in the name of obscure species that have coexisted with grazing for over a hundred years, is not to protect any species, but to remove this land use altogether. The UN's Agenda 21 includes the goal of removing humans from the vast majority of the land, producing Forbidden Zones, with no human trespass, and Buffer Zones with minimal, subsistence farming only and no farm machinery, no livestock, and no guns. Within the Buffer Zones, there will be small human settlements; with no doctors, just Shamans. The overall goal is to eliminate meat completely, reduce the human population by over 90%, no one can travel, and no guns, so even poaching is prevented. Most of the land in the US would be true Wilderness and humans would be controlled in Districts by a Central Authority. Think of the low standard of living of the people depicted in District 13 in Hunger Games. That's what they want for us. Features of Agenda 21 are boing foisted quietly across the country at every level by ICLEI, in the name of sustainable development. As no one at the UN can even define what "sustainable" means, it can mean what ever they want. None of these policies go through Congress and all are basically snuck in by giving funds to towns and villages as a "reward" for complying.

23-Aug-2014 at 18:16 GMT

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