Study says beef a heavy polluter

Industry disputes research’s claims

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WASHINGTON — Rais­ing beef for the Amer­i­can din­ner ta­ble does far more dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment than pro­duc­ing pork, poul­try, eggs or dairy, a new study says.

Com­pared with the other an­i­mal pro­teins, beef pro­duces five times more heat-trap­ping gases per cal­o­rie, puts out six times as much wa­ter-pol­lut­ing ni­tro­gen, takes 11 times more wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion and uses 28 times the land, ac­cord­ing to the study, pub­lished Mon­day in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sciences.

Cows are not ef­fi­cient at con­vert­ing feed to pro­tein for hu­man con­sump­tion, said lead au­thor Gi­don Eshel, an en­vi­ron­men­tal phys­ics pro­fes­sor at Bard Col­lege in New York.

Mr. Eshel used U.S. gov­ern­ment fig­ures to cal­cu­late air and wa­ter emis­sions and how much wa­ter and land were used in the life­time pro­duc­tion of beef, pork, poul­try, dairy and eggs. While other stud­ies have looked at the is­sue, this is one of the most com­pre­hen­sive pieces of re­search quan­ti­fy­ing and com­par­ing the U.S. en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of dif­fer­ent meats and other an­i­mal pro­tein.

The beef in­dus­try called the study “a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the com­plex sys­tems that make up the beef value chain.”

Kim Stack­house, sus­tain­abil­ity di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Cat­tle­men’s Beef As­so­ci­a­tion, said the in­dus­try has im­proved its en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity in re­cent years, and that the United States pro­duces beef with the low­est green­house gas emis­sions of any coun­try.

In the study, pork, poul­try, dairy and eggs all had com­pa­ra­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­prints, so close that there were no statis­ti­cally sig­nifi­cant dif­fer­ences among them, Mr. Eshel said. But cows were off-the-chart dif­fer­ent. The study did not look at plants or fish raised for hu­man con­sump­tion.

Cows burp ma­jor amounts of meth­ane, a green­house gas that is doz­ens of times more po­tent than car­bon di­ox­ide.

Their di­ges­tive sys­tem makes them pro­duce con­sid­er­ably more meth­ane than pigs, chick­ens or tur­keys do, Mr. Eshel said. The ma­nure used to grow feed for cows also re­leases meth­ane, as does their own bod­ily waste.

Be­cause they are big­ger and take lon­ger to put on weight for meat, cows eat more food over their life­times than other an­i­mals raised for pro­tein.

Nitro­gen, from fer­til­izer run­off, can harm riv­ers, this month in the jour­nal Cli­matic Change.

Mr. Eshel cal­cu­lates that the av­er­age Amer­i­can who switches from beef to pork would re­duce the equiv­a­lent of 1,200 pounds of car­bon di­ox­ide a year.

The EPA cal­cu­lates that it is the same as the emis­sions from 61 gal­lons of gas or what comes out of the smoke­stack from burn­ing 580 pounds of coal.

Even though pigs have the rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dirty, the data show that they “come out pretty clean” when com­pared with cows, Mr. Eshel said.

United States - North America


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