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Raising Beef Uses 28 Times More Land Than Other Meats

It also creates five times more pollution.
July 22, 2014, 1:05pm
Image: Flickr/Ryan Thompson

Want to do your bit to cut back emissions? Put that burger down.

That’s the main takeaway from a new study that looked at the environmental impact of the animals we eat, and that found beef cattle were way worse than other livestock across a host of environmental factors, including their contribution to greenhouse gases.

Eating less meat to help save the environment isn’t a new idea, but this latest study, published in PNAS, quantified the impact of different US livestock with striking results, so that one expert (not an author on the study) told the Guardian it would be better for people to give up red meat than to give up their cars.

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The authors of the study, led by Gidon Eshel at Bard College in New York, wrote that the environmental costs per consumed calorie of dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs, were all pretty similar. But beef production required 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, five times more greenhouse gas emissions, and six times more reactive nitrogen (from fertilizer). They concluded that “beef production demands about one order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories.”

The simple reason cattle have such a big environmental impact is that they’re just not a very efficient food source. You have to put a lot of calories in, in the form of animal feed, to get one calorie out, in the form of your bolognese. For all of the resources and environmentally unfriendly activity it takes to raise the animals, you get much lower returns.

Another study published this week focused on just the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock and, no surprise, beef cattle came out way on top in that one too. The researchers on that paper found that beef and dairy cows comprised 74 percent of livestock-related emissions. That’s partly because there’s a lot of them, but it’s also because they “emit” lots of gases like methane, to put it euphemistically.

It’s good news and bad news for the carnivorously-inclined: an extra dollop of guilt if you order a steak, but a bit of a pass if you opt for a different meat. You're not off the hook completely if you’re still chowing down on chicken wings and pork chops, though, as another study published this month found that the greenhouse gas emissions from fish, vegetarian, and vegan diets were significantly less than those from meat-eaters.

And if you’re gung-ho about your environmental footprint, you could at least think of other people. All that inefficient agriculture is using resources that could be diverted to more efficient livestock or crops, to produce more calories—i.e. enough to feed a growing population.

Of course, for those clinging on to their barbecues, maybe we’ll see a less resource-intensive solution in lab-grown alternatives. But unless you’re up for shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars and setting aside ample wait time every time you fancy a Big Mac, the mounting research offers only one real clear option: lay off the beef.