Want to Help Save the Planet? Stop Eating Beef

Beyond other ethical considerations, raising cattle is enormously more environmentally costly than any other animal, let alone the humble potato.

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A cow in a feeding shed.
A cow in a feeding shed. Credit: Dreamstime

The lively debate in western countries about eating meat is usually dominated by two extremes: carnivores, and activists who hope people will give up meat. While questions of ethics and health are still at the center of the controversy, another argument – the ecological one – just became clearer. Beef, it turns out, is among most ecologically costly foods in the world, which is already in desperate environmental straits.

Livestock is responsible for almost one fifth of all anthropogenic global greenhouse gas emissions, scientists have shown. Their contribution to the atmospheric deterioration in the United States is surpassed only by electricity production and transportation, and roughly ties with heavy industry.

It always stood to reason that a cow requires more resources than a chicken. Now, for the first time, a study comparing the environmental impact of raising beef, pork, poultry, eggs and dairy products has proven the point (fish were excluded from the study since Americans don't eat much seafood, and the data is therefore scanty.)

An Israeli-American team wanted to quantify the effect, and the results were startling.

“My lab deals with questions of energy and metabolism. We attempt to deal with topics relevant to the big scientific challenges in the 21st century - the questions of the environment," says Dr. Ron Milo from the Weizmann Institute of Science. "How do we ensure that seven billion people can continue to live under reasonable conditions, without turning the world into a place that is not nice to live in?”

Beef production requires 28 times more land than pigs or chickens, they showed. Breeding cattle uses 11 times more water and leads to emission of five times more greenhouse gases, concluded Milo, along with Alon Shepon from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tamar Makov of Yale University and Dr. Gidon Eshel of Bard College in New York.

Nobody's arguing for potato rights

The results were even more dramatic when compared with the vegan option: Compared to potatoes, rice and wheat, beef production requires 160 times more land, consumes 8 times more water and emits 11 times more greenhouse gases.

Producing dairy products, eggs, pork and poultry, in comparison, requires 6 times more land, uses half the water and emits twice as many gases compared to growing crops.

One of the study’s objectives was to provide environmentally conscious consumers with information that would allow them to make better choices. “If people choose other meat over beef they would do better for the environment,” says Milo.

Another conclusion was that producing dairy products was not found to be more environmental-friendly than raising pork or chickens for meat.

Even though he himself eats beef and dairy, Milo believes that people should be aware of these foods' environmental price tag. Also, he says, consuming dairy products is not the same as potatoes, as far as environmental cost is concerned, "it’s more like eating chicken.”

The researchers analyzed the resources going into raising livestock for meat. Comparisons were done on a calorie-to-calorie basis. Their data came from U.S. federal agencies such as the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy, collected between 2000 and 2010.

Though their results relate to the U.S., the researchers believe that the same trend applies to other Western countries, as well as developing countries. “I would say that our conclusions are valid for Israel and other Western countries”, says Milo. “These data are not location-dependent. We analyzed this for the U.S., but it has global relevance.”

It doesn't take a village, it takes a leader

Influencing consumer choices is important. Influencing government policy is even more important. Among other considerations, the government can promote consumption based on an environmental cost-benefit analysis, helping to encourage more sustainable methods for producing food.

Government needs to know that producing beef harms the environment much more producing poultry or pork (not that Israel, at least, is about to get into large-scale pig farming).

Milo hopes the Israeli government and Agriculture Ministry will take the team's findings into account when shaping national policies. “I can only say that around the world people are taking such findings seriously. They are factored in by the European Union, as well as in some fields in the U.S.,” he says.

Washington, for instance, supports dairy production. Israel also supports the dairy industry, with milk quotas, a target price and a ban on imports.

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