Why You Should Think Twice About Eating Beef

May 10th 2015

For meat eaters, there's no reward like a juicy, fatty piece of rib eye steak. It's high in iron, filling, salty, and great with wine. Everything has a downside though, and beef's biggest shortcoming is kind of a deal-breaker: as delicious as it may be, it happens to be a major assault on the environment. 

California, which is going through a major drought, is responsible for around half the country's vegetable and fruit supply. ATTN: reported last month that you need a staggering 74 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, but this fruit uses very little water compared to other crops. Compiling California Department of Water Resources data, Bloomberg found the top ten crops that require the most amount of water, with crops consumed by cows ranking high on the list:

Water it takes to grow cropsBloomberg - bloombergview.com

A lot of water goes into the diets of cattle (alfalfa, corn, pasture). As Bloomberg put it, "[T]the cattle themselves don't consume much water -- direct water use by livestock farmers in California seems to be quite modest ... People eat things that take lots of water to grow. People also eat cattle, and drink their milk. Still, it does seem important to understand that raising cattle takes up more of California's water than any other activity."

While milk, cream, and alfalfa are highly profitable, the environmental costs of feeding cattle go beyond water usage. Last year, a study conducted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that beef requires 28 times more land, uses eleven times more irrigation water, and releases five times the amount of greenhouse gases (GHS) than the average animal product or meat. "[M]inimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively," reads the report. In looking at GHG emissions, researchers also considered the methane cattle send into the atmosphere when they pass gas or defecate. Scientists estimate roughly 20 percent of global GHG emissions come from sheep and cattle.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers didn't factor lamb into the study, as it's not as popular among Americans as other kinds of meat, but the Environmental Working Group (EWP) found in their research that lamb, beef, and cheese have the highest GHG emissions of common proteins and vegetables, so beef isn't the sole offender:

Greenhouse gas emissions of common proteins and veggiesEWG - ewg.org

Gidon Eshel, who led the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, told The Huffington Post last year that Americans can have a more environmentally friendly diet by eliminating beef. "Really, there's no question about it," Eshel said. "Reduce beef whenever possible."

Speaking to The Guardian in a separate interview, Eshel said increasing beef costs could discourage people from buying more it, thus decreasing the environmental impact of beef consumption.

“[T]here are many government policies that favor of the current diet in which animals [are featured] too prominently,” Eshel said. “Remove the artificial support given to the livestock industry and rising prices will do the rest. In that way you are having less government intervention in people’s diet and not more.”

University of Leeds Professor Tim Benton seemed to agree. "The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat," Benton told the Guardian.

Another recent study in journal Climatic Change looked at 55,000 U.K. residents of various diets and found that meat-eaters emitted double the greenhouse gases of vegans, as production, transportation, and storage of meat contribute to emissions. "It is likely that reductions in meat consumption would lead to reductions in dietary GHG emissions," the report reads. 

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