Beef is Killing the Planet…and Elvis is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn

BurgerMy Twitter feed just exploded. Yet another study has been released claiming that if we all just gave up beef, the planet would be saved, Elvis would come back from the dead, and rainbow-belching unicorns would graze the Northern Great Plains. I may have exaggerated a little with the latter two claims, but the extent of media coverage related to the paper “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production in the United States” seems to suggest that the results within are as exciting as seeing Elvis riding one of those unicorns…but they’re also about as believable.

Much as we’d all like to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “La la la la” whenever anybody mentions greenhouse gases or water footprints, we cannot deny that beef has an environmental impact. Yet, here’s the rub – so does every single thing we eat. From apples to zucchini; Twinkies to organically-grown, hand-harvested, polished-by-mountain-virgins, heirloom tomatoes. Some impacts are positive (providing habitat for wildlife and birds), some are negative (nutrient run-off into water courses), but all foods use natural resources (land, water, fossil fuels) and are associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this simply another attack on the beef industry from vegetarian authors out to promote an agenda? Possibly. The inclusion of multiple phrases suggesting that we should replace beef with other protein sources seems to indicate so. But regardless of whether it’s part of the big bad vegan agenda, or simply a paper from a scientist whose dietary choices happen to complement the topic of his scientific papers, the fact remains that it’s been published in a world-renowned journal and should therefore be seen as an example of good science.

Or should it?

I’m the first to rely on scientific, peer-reviewed papers as being the holy grail for facts and figures, but there’s a distressing trend for authors to excuse poor scientific analysis by stating that high-quality data was not available. It’s simple. Just like a recipe – if you put junk in, you get junk out. So if one of the major data inputs to your analysis (in this case, feed efficiency data) is less than reliable, the accuracy of your conclusions is….? Yep. As useful as a chocolate teapot.

Feed efficiency is the cut-and-paste, go-to argument for activist groups opposed to animal agriculture. Claims that beef uses 10, 20 or even 30 lbs of corn per lb of beef are commonly used (as in this paper) as justification for abolishing beef production. However, in this case, the argument falls flat, because, rather than using modern feed efficiency data, the authors employed USDA data, which has not been updated for 30 years. That’s rather like assuming a computer from the early 1980’s (I used to play “donkey” on such a black/green screened behemoth) is as efficient as a modern laptop, or that the original brick-sized “car phones” were equal to modern iPhones. If we look back at the environmental impact of the beef industry 30 years ago, we see that modern beef production uses 30% fewer animals, 19% less feed, 12% less water, 33% less land and has a 16% lower carbon footprint. Given the archaic data used, is it really surprising that this latest paper overestimates beef’s environmental impact?

The authors also seem to assume that feed comes in a big sack labeled “Animal Feed” (from the Roadrunner cartoon ACME Feed Co?) and is fed interchangeably to pigs, poultry and cattle. As I’ve blogged about before, we can’t simply examine feed efficiency as a basis for whether we should choose the steak or the chicken breast for dinner, we also have to examine the potential competition between animal feed and human food. When we look at the proportion of ingredients in livestock diets that are human-edible (e.g. corn, soy) vs. inedible (e.g. grass, other forages, by-products), milk and beef are better choices than pork and poultry due to the heavy reliance of monogastric animals on concentrate feeds. By-product feeds are also completely excluded from the analysis, which makes me wonder precisely what the authors think happens to the millions of tons of cottonseed meal, citrus pulp, distillers grains, sunflower seed meal etc, produced in the USA each year.

Finally, the authors claim that cattle use 28x more land than pigs or poultry – although they acknowledge that cattle are raised on pasture, it’s not included in the calculations, which assume that cattle are fed feedlot diets for the majority of their life. This is a gross error and underlines their complete ignorance of the U.S. beef industry. Without cow-calf operations, the U.S. beef industry simply would not exist – efficient use of rangeland upon which we cannot grow human food crops both provides the foundation for the beef industry and creates and maintains habitats for many rare and endangered species of plants, insects, birds and animals.

Want to know how to reduce the environmental impact of food production overnight? It’s very simple – and it doesn’t involve giving up beef. Globally we waste 30% of food – and in developed countries that’s almost always avoidable at the consumer level. Buy the right amount, don’t leave it in the fridge to go moldy, and learn to use odd bits of food in soups or stews. Our parents and grandparents did it out of necessity – we can do it to reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; and take the wind out of the sails of bean-eating anti-beef activists.

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29 thoughts on “Beef is Killing the Planet…and Elvis is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn

  1. And, when do they consider human consumption and how vegetable based diets, which require a LOT more food for the same calories,. And then there is a human digestive system that is not nearly as well designed to absorb plant material as a cows. So,to analyze this thoroughly, when will a study be done to see if there is actually a net loss on methane production? Cows are doing a lot of that digetive work for us, concentrating vitamins and calories in both milk and meat. And sadly if they had their way, cows would become exstinct, what would people do with them, they hardly can be a pet?

  2. I think there is a plausible reason why beef and meat in general is less healthy for the environment. We could grow food and just eat it. Or, we could grow food, use that food to feed animals, then eat the animals. In the latter process, you are losing much more calories and nutrients, producing much more methane and carbon dioxide, and using much more land. In short, meat is inefficient many times over. I think it takes an exceptionally strong argument to prove the vegetarian environmentalists wrong. That isn’t to say they are completely right. We need at least a little meat in our diet for Vitamin B12.

    • By maintaining perenial grasslands, that cows graize on, carbon is sequestered. Tilling that land for annual crops, if the land is suitable for crops (a lot of land isn’t suitable for crops), releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So your logic about efficiency is actually flawed especially since cows/heifers convert these grasses (that are inedible to man) into beef that is nutrient dense source of food, a food that isn’t as dependent upon growing seasons. Ranchers who raise their cattle on pasture are grass farmers.

    • You’re thinking purely of human edible feeds. Include the roughage (hay, silage, etc.), vegetation, and feeds that are inedible for human consumption. Many parts of feed are inedible for humans and any research into a balanced ration for cattle will yield some good results. Also, human edible parts of feed, such as corn, are generally more expensive in the balanced ration. While it’s not really plausible to say there is no corn or soy in feed, as we can’t always avoid using it, you’re just assuming that all that corn is what makes up the weight of the cow. Also, cattle use land that we oftentimes cannot grow crops on. I won’t deny that methane production and CO2 production isn’t a factor in the environmental footprint; but, if you look at how agriculture in general is the biggest industry in the United States (25% of jobs can easily be linked to agriculture bases), the agriculture industry in general only makes up about 7% of the pollution from industries and homes in the United States (might need to find current numbers as I think that was 2012 or 2013). While cattle are space intensive compared to other livestock, and they do produce greenhouse gases, we need to look at the bigger picture. If we really are worried about pollution we need to look at the oil and automotive industries vs. the agriculture industry. It confuses me why people harp about how agriculture is warming up the planet when it is a small chunk compared to other industries

    • And complete protein. Please don’t say we have soy because soy products have many negative nutritional affects for some people. Check out thyroid disease and soy products. The answer is never simple.

  3. They also did not mention many hogs, chicken and dairy animals are now raised indoors taking up less space land wise. Cattle also do much for us environmentally with carbon capture. If we don’t hay or have cows eat the grass the land turns into a large wasteland. Alan savory “cows save the planet” is a must read on this

  4. Just had someone post a link to that same vegan paper today in our facebook farm group so funny you should post this today and I found it so easily. I grow hogs on a small farm in southern BC and if I could get some more of the waste from grocery stores, restaurants and homes locally, I could likely stop hauling grain from Alberta, 12 hours away.

    I already feed organic brew mash to the hogs and gather scraps from a couple of hotels and fruit stands but its a drop in the bucket.

    I live in a region with a high density of high and might vegans, vegetarians and don’t mind sticking my nose into the discussion to tell them they’re missing larger picture. And really, the less meat they eat, the more there is for us!

  5. Jude, The study’s calculations do specify that 85% of livestock feed comes from pasture and forage. I think they have an extremely high estimate of irrigation requirements of alfalfa on a national basis (but i don’t know the data).

    And of course the fact that they use 30 year old data is crap. PNAS is not a great paper though, a great place to publish results you like. How a peer reviewed process could go through without involving the likes of you is silly and the paper obviously needs it.

  6. ok, from the looks of it your are constantly contradicting yourself. 33% less land used, but on the other hand cow-calf operations that use land unsuitable for growing human food? And not a lot of feedlots, but “millions of tons of cottonseed meal, citrus pulp, distillers grains, sunflower seed meal etc, produced in the USA each year.”
    What’s it gonna be? Your argument does not hold together.

    • I think you’re getting a little confused here – using land that’s unsuitable for growing human food doesn’t contradict the fact that the beef industry uses less land per lb of beef than it did 30 years ago, they are two completely different concepts save for that they both relate to land. Furthermore, nowhere in the post does it state that there aren’t a lot of feedlots in the USA – that is the predominant method of finishing cattle. I suggest you reread the post for clarification.

  7. The article states “that minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively” which is something all together different than your claim “that if we all just gave up beef, the planet would be saved”. Is there something I missed in the study which supports your claim or are you just making up stuff too?

  8. the origin of unicorn is from Greek Monocornus in Septuagint translation of Bible, the Hebrew word is re’em & is understood by scholars to refer to the recently extinct Aurochs. the rather large ancestors of modern cattle. So likely they produced more gas that modern breeds.

  9. Pingback: The world is so confused about sustainability and what it really takes to deliver it | Clover Hill Dairies Diary

  10. Pingback: The Unintended Consequences of Pseudo-Science on Agriculture | The Cow Docs

  11. Reblogged this on Beef and Sweet Tea and commented:
    This week, we’re going FarrrTHUR in agriculture with the Bovidiva!

    Her post titled “Beef Is Killing the Planet…and Elvis Is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn” snagged my attention a few weeks ago, and I wanted oh-so-desperately to share with my Beef & Sweet Tea people how research and sarcasm and women in this industry can be such a delightful way to take your agriculture knowledge and conversations…you guessed it…FarrrTHUR. 🙂

    So, without further ado, I introduce to you Jude Capper, Ph.D. She’s a beef sustainability expert who blogs at http://www.Bovidiva.com, where she also provides links to recent posters, presentations, publications and videos pertinent to her career as an independent sustainability consultant.

    You could go a lot farther in agriculture by camping out at her site for a while…and I hope you will.

    Best, y’all!
    Emily Grace

  12. Bovidiva, I came visiting at Emily’s suggestion and read your post with great interest, not that I am a farmer, or associated at all with the industry, but because as a consumer who likes his steaks mid-rare, I am just tired of hearing countless stories on why I shouldn’t enjoy my steak. I am no expert, will never claim to be, but your article makes sense to me. Thanks Bill

  13. I wonder if the people looking at animal feed vs. Human feed are aware of the growing interest in insect farming for animal feed?
    I’ve been following the information coming out just because, and on some levels it’s amazing. One hectare of land devoted to insect farming can produce 150 tons of usable protein per year, while soy would make just under a ton on the same land. (Fat and protein levels are near identical for soy/fly larvae ) http://www.technologyreview.com/news/529756/insect-farming-is-taking-shape-as-demand-for-animal-feed-rises/

    • Agree, huge potential there. Wonder if consumers as a whole would get over the “yuck” factor though? After all, feeding waste candy or potato chips to cattle gets many people up in arms, can only imagine the furore if we started feeding insects! Maybe we as a consuming population need to get real about the costs/effects of dietary choice?

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