Beef, Tropical Forests, Our Climate, and Our Health

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | July 3, 2012, 9:35 am EDT
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In preparing our new UCS report on meat and deforestation, I’ve been surprised at how often people think you’re saying “meat” when you actually said “beef.” Beef is meat, of course, but it’s not the only kind, and in fact it’s not even the most popular kind. Worldwide, pork actually has the largest share of meat consumption (40 percent) with poultry second at 34 percent. Beef makes up only 24 percent, and is continuing to decline in relative terms.

Well, so what? Actually, the difference is important — for the future of tropical forests and our climate, and for our health. From all those points of view, chicken especially is a lot better than beef. Shifting our diets, not away from meat altogether but simply towards different kinds, is an excellent way to lower our pressure on the earth’s resources, and make ourselves healthier in the bargain.

And this is starting to happen. Even just in the United States, the idea of our being a nation of beefeaters is out of date, as shown by this graphic, “A Century of Meat” from the New York Times in March of last year:

“A Century of Meat”. Graphic: Jonathan Corum, The New York Times, 15 March 2011


We’ve actually been eating less beef since the mid-70s, while our consumption of chicken is what really has been growing. (While the graphic seems to want to link these changes to events like the first KFC, new dietary guidelines, mad cow disease  and the “Where’s the beef?” and “The other white meat” ad campaigns, I’m actually struck by how little impact  any of these seem to have had on the trends.)

These changes in our diet are related to health concerns, animal welfare, environmental impacts and just plain cost, as shown in a new poll released by NPR. They’re a positive trend as far as deforestation is concerned, because beef production takes an enormous amount of land, and in recent years more and more of that land has come from tropical forests. Essentially, beef production is a very inefficient way to produce food, in terms of its needs for land. Two graphs from our report make this contrast evident.  The first shows how agricultural land is used, globally:


How we use our agricultural land


Most of the pasture, and about a third of the “cropland used for livestock feed,” is for beef production. Thus about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to producing beef. And note that this is using a conservative definition of “agricultural land,” which leaves out the enormous amount of rangeland (e.g. savannas, shrubland, desert) that is dry and usually unusable to produce crops. The great majority of that rangeland goes for beef production too.

The second graph shows how much food we get from all that land devoted to beef, in terms of protein:


Where our protein comes from

Less than five percent of our protein comes from beef, in global terms. Measured in calories it’s even less – under two percent. So we use an enormous amount of agricultural land and get very little food from it.

This deforestation causes global warming, as we’ve explained in various publications, and there’s also considerable additional global warming pollution from the cattle directly. This is in the form of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, which comes out of the cows from both ends (burps and farts, to put it crudely) as well as from their manure.  So more beef consumption means more global warming.

Chicken, and to a lesser extent pork, are much more land-efficient and less climate-damaging than beef, so shifting our diets in their direction — a trend that’s already underway, as the New York Times graph shows — is a good thing to do, for both forests and the atmosphere.



Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming Tags: , ,

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  • Giuseppe LaManna

    Good article Mr. Boucher. Thank you.

    I have two concerns, related to livestock: first, there is no agreement on the size of the global GHG emissions produced by them. The UN FAO report, “Livestock’s long shadow” claims 18%. CSIRO in Australia claims 30% and The Worldwatch Institute in Washington claims at least 51%.

    If a consensus was reached, then policies could be implemented to reduce that number. Currently, not even UCS in their recommendations mentions anything about a change in diet to help cut GHGs.

    My second concern, is that expensive, lengthy to implement and technically difficult solutions are being put forth and no mention of the diet is said anywhere.

    In my presentation “Nutrition, Health and Climate Change” I take into account the findings of the China – Oxford – Cornell study and combine it with the WWI report to come up with one powerful solution for personal and planetary health – cut down to less than 5% of animal protein and be more effective than all of the other measures combined: simple, quick, no cost and w/o involving governments, politicians, UN, committees, and agreements needed. Just our decision to do so.

    I will be asking UCS to consider studying the Livestock GHGs debate. As I indicated, it is a huge number that can make a huge difference….and quickly.

    All the best,


    • Giuseppe,

      Thanks very much for your comment. We actually do have recommendations about changing diets in our new book Cooler, Smarter ( That book’s chapter 7, “A Low-Carbon Diet”, talks not only about the issue of beef versus other meats, as in my blog post, but also various other questions — palm oil, vegetarianism, organic food, local food, and more. We don’t recommend a specific diet but do try to show how people’s eating decisions have a big impact on global warming.

      I’d be very interested in seeing your presentation. It sounds like you’ve looked into these issues in a fair degree of detail.

      One point about numbers. The issue of what percent of GHG emissions is due to livestock has been controversial, and some of the estimates have been shown to be based on doubtful assumptions. For example the 51% figure published in a World Watch Institute report by Goodland and Anhang (2009) has been shown to have a number of problems in a peer-reviewed article by Herrero et al. (“Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: the importance of getting the numbers right”, 2011, Animal Feed Science and Technology vol. 166-67, pp. 779-782).

      I tend to be conservative on this, and based on recent FAO studies (e.g. the book edited by Steinfeld et al., Livestock in a Changing Landscape, vol 1, 2011) it seems that a reasonable estimate would be more like 15 or 20% — including both direct emissions (e.g. methane from cattle and manure) and indirect effects (e.g. deforestation to create cattle pasture).

      But whatever the exact number, there’s no doubt that this is an important issue for climate change. We look forward to seeing your work on it.