The Worst Food for our Planet?
A new study by American and Israeli researchers has determined the environmental cost of producing beef, dairy, poultry, pork and eggs. Their findings reveal the high price the planet pays per calorie or gram of protein of each of these meat products. Beef lovers in particular may be alarmed to know that growing cattle used 28 times more land, consumed 11 times more irrigation water while feeding and used six times more nitrogen fertilizer, a recognized pollutant in rivers, streams and lakes. Joking aside, beef cattle also “released” five times more greenhouse gases, such as methane.
Just looking at the size of cattle gives you a clue regarding these resource-hungry animals. They grow slowly and need more food to produce a pound of protein. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlines the fundamental problem with growing cattle and other animals for food. The authors write that, “Livestock-based food production is an important and pervasive way humans impact the environment. It causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance. It also competes with biodiversity, and promotes species extinctions.”
The study’s authors designed their methodology to account for the different types of beef production, such as grazing and cattle feedlots and designed an analysis to create equal footing among the pork, poultry and eggs, and dairy. They also attempted to account for factors such as cattle grazing on semi-arid land that is not necessarily valuable from a crop production perspective. However, it’s not all about growing food for people. Such terrain may be home to endangered species and native plants that have their own unique importance in the ecosystem. Gidon Eshel, an environmental physics professor at New York’s Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson who led the study was quoted in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, stating, “The best way in this context to lower your environmental impact is to eliminate beef whenever possible and replace it with other sources of sustenance.”
Fortunately, there are many other sources of protein with lower environmental impacts, such as sustainably-harvested organic nuts, beans and seeds. They tend to be less expensive than meat and eggs as well. Most people eat too much meat protein in their diets. The average American eats 248 pounds of meat every year, which accounts for 40 percent of his or her total caloric intake. Most nutrition experts maintain that no more than 10 percent of calories should come from meat. So switching it up to include some other sources is easier on the stomach, the wallet and the environment.
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