Red Meat and the environment
Red meat may be killing you, but Earth's arteries are unclogged.
If you were on the internet this earth day, then among the flurry of pastel Instagram stories about mother Gaia and recycling to save the planet, you might have seen some heated arguments about a supposedly impending “Red meat ban”. Needless to say, the Biden administration is not actually planning on eliminating or restricting American’s access to meat products, and the misinformation was traced back to the UK's Daily Mail paper, but the discourse surrounding the policy piqued my interest. Despite the policy’s nebulous existence, people immediately formed ranks to fight in the latest episode of the culture war. With conservatives falling over themselves to showcase their big, beautiful, 4 pound steaks (the proposed yearly limit in the fake bill), and leftist vegans similarly frothing at the mouth to chastise meat eaters for killing the earth, I couldn’t help but wonder how we had dug such a wide chasm of opinion over something that 20 years ago would have been a staple at every American dinner table. I decided to investigate, and dove into the research.
A few weeks later, here we are. Despite the admitted moral ambiguity of killing other animals for food when more ethical alternatives exist, and the probable negative health implications of red meat consumption; I have to say that from an environmental perspective, the case against red meat is largely smoke and mirrors. With that, let’s dive in and get a good idea of just how big an impact red meat has on the environment. In this article, I’m going to focus mostly on ruminant animals, which include cows and goats, but we’ll also be mentioning how they compare to pigs and chickens.
If you’re active in environmentalist circles, been in an environmental science class, or have recently watched a documentary like Food Inc. or Cowspiracy, you’ve probably heard this stat quoted. “Globally, livestock make up 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions” (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization). But let’s consider U.S. livestock, currently the U.S. cattle herd makes up 18% of meat production despite being only 6.3% of the global cattle population. That means that if every cow was farmed as efficiently as U.S. cattle are, we could cut the total cow population and emissions by 66.6% and still maintain the same supply of red meat.
The numbers for dairy production are similar, with 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., we produce about 30% as much dairy as India, whose herd of dairy cows is a staggering 300 million. Not even taking differences in dairy quality into consideration, the U.S. cows are 10x as efficient as Indian cows.
There’s also a huge problem with food waste: globally, 33% of the food supply goes to waste. This creates a ton of emissions, about the equivalent of 4.4 Giga-tonnes of CO2, or about as much as ⅔ of the U.S. total yearly output of CO2. of this waste, about 82% of it is non-animal products, with meat and dairy making up about 14% of food waste. Animals, especially chickens and pigs, are a great way of upcycling these potentially wasted calories back into high efficiency meat products.
So if anything, a good environmentalist would support more U.S. animal agriculture, not less, as it would mean reducing the global cattle herd, and therefore it’s emissions, by two-thirds.
Feeding the World
Many non-meat eaters cite a statistic that something like 25 pounds of grain go into producing 1 pound of beef. They take the stance that the lost calories of vegetables and grains that are fed to livestock rather than directly to humans is a cause of global hunger in the world and a reason to object to eating meat. However, this happens to overlook a large caveat in the livestock feed industry, which is that most of the food fed to livestock (84%) comes from sources that are non-human edible, and the 16 percent of livestock feed that is human edible goes largely towards raising cows and chickens, because they are mono-gastric animals, (one stomach) where as cows and goats, being members of the ruminant family, can upcycle inedible plant matter such as corn husks, almond hulls, and soybean skins, into tasty, nutrient rich meat. This stuff is in ready supply, with about 37 pounds of human inedible products created for every 100 pounds of human consumable crop yield.
Moreover, the reason we have trouble feeding the world is not that food calories are in short supply, it's a problem of logistics and market function. In places where markets are allowed to function, the greater concern is arguably obesity. In this context, we should prefer the highly efficient and nutrient rich meat calories to the largely empty carbohydrate calories that livestock takes as an input. Presently, animal products make up 48% of our protein intake, and only 24% of our total caloric intake. Given that the real ratio of human edible feed to livestock meat is about 2.8 for beef, and 3.2 for pork and chicken, it’s my opinion that we should be ready and excited to trade in our empty carbs for filling and nutritious meats.
Well what about water? Here the statistics are also pretty misleading. Even before accounting for the byproducts in their feed, livestock water use is pretty grossly overstated. For one, most stats on their water use only measure how much water each cow drinks over its lifetime. The fault in this becomes clear if you’ve ever had a few too many drinks and “broken the seal” during a night out. Cows excrete about 94% of the water they take in as urine, which is taken up by grass. Trees, and evaporated back into the air, continuing the water cycle. Compared to rice, beef only uses 35% more water, while simultaneously being much more nutrient dense, and sequestering many otherwise useless calories from the environment. So overall, it’s not something to be so concerned about.
Taking this into consideration, we can adjust our perspective of red meat as an inefficient and wasteful indulgence to one of a highly efficient biological method of converting largely inedible and otherwise wasted plant calories into highly edible and nutritious meat calories. Another component of the livestock feed system is its valuable output of nitrogen back into the soil. A study in the Netherlands found that as much as 61% of the nitrogen inputs to their crop system came from animal manure. Without these walking bioreactors to convert our food waste into fertilizer, we would have to produce even more industrial byproducts and emissions by creating our crops' nitrogen supply artificially.
Another area in which animal agriculture gets a bad rap is its use of land. One might reason that surely it would be more efficient to grow crops on all the land we use for raising animals, but that’s just not how farmland works. To put it simply, not all land is good crop land, it could have lots of rocks, maybe it doesn’t get enough rainfall, or it could just be that it’s not flat enough to run machines on. This is the concept of marginal land, and the U.S. has a lot of it. In fact, 2/3rds of the land that we use to produce food in the U.S. is marginal land. The only way to turn this otherwise unproductive land into something that will bear food is to use it to feed ruminant grazing animals, their 4 step stomach system allowing them to efficiently digest the otherwise useless grass.
And this is not a function that is new to the continent's interior, even before the European settlers arrived, huge herds of bison millions strong; roamed and grazed the great plains ecosystem. (Bison being a lot harder to farm than cows, got displaced from their niche, although the North American bison herd is still alive and well today, and there are some bison farms out there.) So yes, most “agricultural” land is used for grazing animals, but that leads people to the incorrect assumption that we could simply use this land to farm produce, when actually it’s the livestock that make this land useful in any food producing capacity in the first place.
So now that we know the reality of meat production, what can we still do to make things better for the planet? Well for one thing, clean your plate. Reducing food waste and landfill emissions is one of the best ways to make sure you are doing your part for the planet. Make sure that when you purchase meat and other animal products you do so in a carbon conscious way, by identifying the farming practices used to produce it. In general, the best way to do this is to pick grazed meats rather than meats that come from a feedlot.
Should you go vegan, eat plant based meat, or other alternative proteins? Perhaps, it’s certainly less concerning from an animal rights perspective, but from an efficiency perspective it’s not clear that we can afford to completely replace animal agriculture with plant based protein, and emissions wise, it would probably be easier both organizationally and on consumers to get the farmers in the developing world into the high efficiency farming practices found in the U.S. and Europe. Most people (84%) who go vegan or vegetarian end up giving it up within a year too, so although it’s hard to quantify, we can infer that there’s a large personal preference cost to converting. It also wouldn’t reduce emissions by that much, saving about 2.6% of U.S. emissions. Bringing real meat, that is nutritionally dense, and that tastes good, to the whole world, in an efficient manner, is a great mission to have. The world over, many people in poverty are forced to rely on high calorie, low nutrient diets, because of our global over reliance on plant and processed food.
In other parts of your life, consider reducing your use of fossil fuels, whose carbon footprint dwarfs that of agriculture. In the U.S., oil, coal, and gas produce 80% of greenhouse gasses, while livestock are approximately 4-5%, so to suggest that the solution is giving up meat rather than, say, supporting the construction of a local nuclear plant or other green energy solutions is rather absurd.
So if you or someone you know and love is a vegan or a vegetarian, please let them know that their meatless martyrdom need not continue by sharing this article!
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-Connor, Of All Trades.
For Further Reading, check out these reports and a decent video on the topic.
Emissions and other stats from the U.N. FAO
Edibility of Animal Feed: