Beef, the Climate, and Human Health: Changing our Wasteful Food and Land Use System

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | November 13, 2013, 4:54 pm EDT
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Today UCS is releasing a new report at the international climate negotiations in Warsaw, entitled “Climate-Friendly Land Use: Paths and Policies toward a Less Wasteful Planet.” The theme of the report is waste and inefficiency — how our current global pattern squanders resources, endangers human health, and damages our climate.

My three co-authors and I review evidence that there is enormous systemic waste in how we use land today. Important sectors of the food and agriculture system — in particular, beef — use enormous amounts of land, produce large amounts of global warming pollution, fritter away a substantial proportion of the cereals produced, and yet produce very little food for humans.

The report not only examines inefficiency in the beef sector but also in other forms of land use — palm oil, biofuels and natural forest management. In each case we show that policies today lead to great inefficiency, producing far less than the potential of less wasteful approaches. We not only criticize the current pattern (and projected future changes) but also show how there are positive alternatives. For example, not only plant-based foods but also other animal sources such as chicken, eggs, milk and pork, are also much better than beef from the land, climate, health and productivity points of view.

Ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, use large amounts of land and feed and emit methane, a potent source of global warming pollution

Ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, use large amounts of land and feed and emit methane, a potent source of global warming pollution.

Two important recent reviews, summarizing many different scientific studies, provide evidence sustaining this argument. Durk Nijdam and colleagues’ article on “The price of protein”, published last year in Food Policy, reviewed 52 different studies of the land needs and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) associated with different protein sources. Their data shows that beef production — even the most intensive systems — requires much more land and emits much more GHGs. “Meadow” and extensive systems were the most land-hungry and GHG-emitting. Beef was high not only in comparison with vegetarian foods, but also with other meats and with milk and eggs.

Another paper from last year, by Pete Smith and colleagues in Global Change Biology, makes the inefficiency of cattle and other ruminant animals clear, by tracing how much land and biomass is consumed and how much food is produced, by different parts of the global food system. (Full disclosure: I’m a co-author with Smith and other colleagues on a forthcoming paper in Nature Climate Change on this subject, although I wasn’t involved in the Global Change Biology review).

They found that ruminants use 28 hectares of land, on average, to produce a ton of food, versus just 1.4 hectares for “monogastric” animals such as chickens and pigs. Even if you ignore the ruminants’ pasture needs, and just look at the cropland used to produce their feed, they still require twice as much as chickens and pigs — 2.8 hectares per ton.

From the climate point of view, poultry and other kinds of animal protein are far preferable to beef.

From a climate point of view, poultry and other kinds of animal protein are far preferable to beef.

In terms of biomass, ruminants consume a total of 6.22 billion tons annually, while the monogastrics consume only 0.79 billion tons. Yet the amount of food that results is almost the same — 0.14 billion tons of food (dry biomass) from ruminants, versus 0.12 from monogastrics.

Read the full report for more details — not only about the problems, but also our recommendations about what policies are needed to deal with them. It shows how we can make this world “a less wasteful planet.”


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