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The Environmental Impact of Meat
(Released January 2012)

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  by Ethan Goffman  

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Where's the Beef?

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Beef has long been an American staple, as well as a sign of status. Yet it might also be a symbol of profligacy and environmental carelessness. Cows produce methane, which has 23 times the greenhouse gas impact of carbon dioxide (although its lifespan in the atmosphere is far shorter); even “a single cow can produce as much as 500 liters of methane per day” (Anonymous). Overall, beef generates “27.1 kilos (59.6 lbs) of CO2 [equivalent] per kilo consumed” (Hamerschlag) or 39.25 kilograms of total greenhouse gas emissions (Hamerschlag and Venkat). Cows are also extremely inefficient producers of food, requiring some seven kilos of grain for each kilo of beef (Anonymous).

Two grass-fed cows grazing
Dryland grazing on the Great Plains in Colorado. Each cow on a pasture can emit about 350 liters (230 grams) of methane per day.
Although many health experts recommend grass-fed and organic beef over the factory-raised variety, which has the worse environmental impact is debatable. This is because eating grass requires more time for cattle to grow, and thus cattle generate more methane overall and use more feed. Some environmentalists discount this, enthusing over the benefits of grass-fed cattle: “It would give us a more humane livestock system, a healthier human diet, less deadly E. coli, elimination of feedlots, a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide, enormous savings in energy, virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers … and most intriguingly, a dramatic reduction in global warming gases” (Manning). By contrast, one defender of modern agricultural methods argues that “high-yield farms need less land to produce the same amount of food, protecting the huge amounts of soil carbon that would be gassed off if we plowed more land for low-yield crops,” adding that “Confinement feeding of livestock ... also helps sharply reduce greenhouse emissions” (Avery). So, to help the planet and one’s health, the best strategy is to simply reduce one’s consumption of beef.

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