If you have not already heard… beef production has a larger environmental impact compared to poultry and swine…

By Liz Whitefield

Reprinted from the Animal Agriculture and Climate Change July 29, 2014 eNewsletter

If you’ve avoided all screens and print since the end of last week, you might have missed the media attention that an article received, titled: “Land, irrigation, water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Eshel et. al., 2014). The research quantifies the environmental impact of food animal production through use of water, land, nitrogen and emissions of greenhouse gases. Overwhelmingly, the calculations in the article demonstrate that beef production has by far, the largest environmental cost when compared to other livestock sectors. The authors of the article then direct this information and their scientific argument over to the direct role that the consumer plays in sustainability when visiting and making decisions at the grocery store. Implying that by choosing plant based protein sources or even any animal based protein other than beef, the consumer has much less of an environmental impact and does their part in promoting a sustainable environment.

Although no one from the scientific community doubts that a chicken isn’t larger than a cow and obviously uses less resources and has less associated emissions than a large animal; the consumer’s role in this big picture of environmental sustainability might be slightly unbalanced when weighing only environmentally motivated dietary choices. Consumers make decisions whether or not to be environmentally conscious when making decisions and purchasing many items that have an environmental impact which should be considered into this equation. These decisions include but exceed the obvious, being the type, frequency and distance of personal or public transportation, long distance travel, frequency and efficiency of using household appliances to everyday lifestyle choices. Another example would be whether or not to pay more for clothes and items manufactured in the US vs. purchasing less expensive clothes and items manufactured in a foreign country knowing that foreign countries are extremely lenient when it comes to pollution, emissions and discarding of waste materials.

To demonstrate how beef cows play a role in a sustainable environment, and even be part of the solution to climate change, the Marin Carbon Project showcases the mitigation of carbon emissions on rangeland in northern California. John Wick, a ranch owner and land manager in Marin County, CA, and Dr. Jeff Creque, a rangeland ecologist have teamed up with University of CA, Berkeley to quantify atmospheric carbon in the soil after just one compost application on Wick’s ranch.  The increase in soil carbon from atmospheric carbon, forage yields and the increase in the soil water holding capacity from the land which received the one application of compost is tremendous. To see the Marin Carbon Project presentation, data, and for more information, please click on this link.