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Get thee behind me, beef!

According to a recent study by Japanese scientists, "A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home." A kilogram is equal to 2.1 pounds of beef. That's, what, enough meet for 6 burgers?

From a New Scientist article:

[The study] assessed the effects of beef production on global warming, water acidification and eutrophication, and energy consumption. The team looked at calf production, focusing on animal management and the effects of producing and transporting feed. By combining this information with data from their earlier studies on the impact of beef fattening systems, the researchers were able to calculate the total environmental load of a portion of beef. ... The calculations, which are based on standard industrial methods of meat production in Japan, did not include the impact of managing farm infrastructure and transporting the meat, so the total environmental load is higher than the study suggests.

So while it's not necessarily so easy for Americans to stop driving their cars, or upgrade immediately to a hybrid or other more fuel efficient vehicle, we can all reduce our beef consumption right now. Personally, I'm going on a strict diet - nothing but chicken.

The beef industry is sure to go ballistic about this, like they did against Oprah, and against George McGovern in the late seventies. From a piece that describes the McGovern beating:

Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called "Dietary Goals for the United States." The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Na´vely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee's recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually "reduce consumption of meat" — was replaced by artful compromise: "Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake."

Then the beef industry campaigned hard against McGovern in his next Senate race. He lost.


Hi Mike,

This will be a hard pill for the beef industry to swallow. These numbers are for beef produced by what has now become the standard, i.e., the cows are fed high-energy mixed rations consisting of (mainly) corn and soy. I wouldn't guess that chicken production would have much lower numbers as they use pretty much the same feed ingredients. Grass-fed beef would have much lower energy inputs especially if it was locally produced. Food production in general, however, is a high-energy industry. I think you would be equally surprised by the amount of energy required to produce an organic apple in Argentina, ship it to California, then to a Kroger's warehouse in Kansas, then back to California, etc.

Thanks for the comments, Paul. On your grass-fed beef comment, I read somewhere that organically-raised beef uses a lot less energy, too. Clearly, as a society, we need to go local, by and large, for our food needs. I won't disagree with that. And I know it requires a lot of energy to transport food of any kind over long distances. But fruits and vegetables don't need huge amounts of feed to keep them going, don't have bodily waste that has to be dealt with, and don't generate methane.

Regarding the chicken diet - I was just kidding about that. I was referencing an SNL skit where John Belushi plays Liz Taylor. The joke is that she's going on a strict diet - nothing but chicken. Then s/he starts choking on a piece of chicken. Good times!

I think it's rather obvious, Mike, that you should stop eating altogether. Or, if you must eat, restrict your diet to nothing but microbes and algae. If it's enough to sustain a blue whale, it certainly ought to be enough for you.

I think you're right, Jake... the good news? Not only are microbes and algae tasty, they're also part of a balanced, nutritious breakfast.

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