Beef, tropical forests, our climate, and our health

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In preparing our new UCS report on meat and deforestation, I’ve been surprised at how often people think you’re saying “meat” when you actually said “beef.” Beef is meat, of course, but it’s not the only kind, and in fact it’s not even the most popular kind. Worldwide, pork actually has the largest share of meat consumption (40 percent) with poultry second at 34 percent. Beef makes up only 24 percent, and is continuing to decline in relative terms.

Well, so what? Actually, the difference is important — for the future of tropical forests and our climate, and for our health. From all those points of view, chicken especially is a lot better than beef. Shifting our diets, not away from meat altogether but simply towards different kinds, is an excellent way to lower our pressure on the earth’s resources, and make ourselves healthier in the bargain.

And this is starting to happen. Even just in the United States, the idea of our being a nation of beefeaters is out of date, as shown by this graphic, “A Century of Meat” from the New York Times in March of last year:

We’ve actually been eating less beef since the mid-70s, while our consumption of chicken is what really has been growing. (While the graphic seems to want to link these changes to events like the first KFC, new dietary guidelines, mad cow disease and the “Where’s the beef?” and “The other white meat” ad campaigns, I’m actually struck by how little impact any of these seem to have had on the trends.)

These changes in our diet are related to health concerns, animal welfare, environmental impacts and just plain cost, as shown in a new poll released by NPR. They’re a positive trend as far as deforestation is concerned, because beef production takes an enormous amount of land, and in recent years more and more of that land has come from tropical forests. Essentially, beef production is a very inefficient way to produce food, in terms of its needs for land. Two graphs from our report make this contrast evident. The first shows how agricultural land is used, globally:

Most of the pasture, and about a third of the “cropland used for livestock feed,” is for beef production. Thus about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to producing beef. And note that this is using a conservative definition of “agricultural land,” which leaves out the enormous amount of rangeland (e.g. savannas, shrubland, desert) that is dry and usually unusable to produce crops. The great majority of that rangeland goes for beef production too.

The second graph shows how much food we get from all that land devoted to beef, in terms of protein:

Less than five percent of our protein comes from beef, in global terms. Measured in calories it’s even less – under two percent. So we use an enormous amount of agricultural land and get very little food from it.

This deforestation causes global warming, as we’ve explained in various publications, and there’s also considerable additional global warming pollution from the cattle directly. This is in the form of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, which comes out of the cows from both ends (burps and farts, to put it crudely) as well as from their manure. So more beef consumption means more global warming.

Chicken, and to a lesser extent pork, are much more land-efficient and less climate-damaging than beef, so shifting our diets in their direction — a trend that’s already underway, as the New York Times graph shows — is a good thing to do, for both forests and the atmosphere.

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