The Real Environmental Impact of Red Meat: Part 1

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This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

After reading my recent articles about red meat, I hope none of you are concerned that eating it will negatively impact your health. But I realize that nutrition is only one of the factors that motivate people to limit or eliminate red meat consumption; one of the primary reasons many go vegetarian is their concern about environmental impact.

We’ve all heard the claims that red meat production is harmful to the environment, so in this two-part series, I’d like to address some of those concerns. In many ways, the environment is as complex as the human body, so measuring the impact of meat production isn’t clear-cut. But at the very least, I hope to shed some light on the topic, dispel some common myths, and put the issue in perspective.

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Greenhouse Gases

A commonly cited statistic is that cows produce more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation combined, or 18% of all greenhouse gases. This statistic originated from a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Association called Livestock’s Long Shadow, and has since been cited frequently in the media and elsewhere as a reason to stop eating red meat. If you think that figure sounds unbelievable, you’re right; it turns out that the researchers were quite biased in their calculations, resulting in numbers that were skewed. One of the authors of the report even admitted later that it wasn’t a fair comparison. A more accurate analysis of the data resulted in a much more respectable estimate: that cattle contribute less than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (1)

However, even the revised figure doesn’t take into account that grazing livestock can actually help remove carbon from the atmosphere. (2) Grasslands are capable of sequestering more carbon than any other ecosystem, and livestock can enhance the incorporation of carbon into the plants and soil. (3) One study showed that grazing cattle can also reduce the land’s natural emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that environmentalists agree is more damaging than carbon dioxide. (4) Some research shows that when cattle are raised on natural pasture with no additional fertilizer or supplemental feed, their ability to enhance carbon sequestration actually outweighs their greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, under the right circumstances, cows are carbon negative!

Water Use

Another common argument against red meat production is that it supposedly uses way more than its fair share of water. Graphics like this are often used to display how water-intensive red meat is compared with other foods. But are these figures accurate? Consider that previous studies have come up with water usage figures anywhere from 209 L/kg of beef to 105,400 L/kg of beef. (5) That’s a huge difference! When there’s that much variation, it usually pays to look a little deeper into the research to see what’s going on.

One reason for this variation is simply location. Water usage is going to be very different, say, for a feedlot in the US than for a pastoralist in Australia. But another reason is that researchers don’t always agree on how to classify ‘water use,’ and this creates some serious methodological inconsistencies in the literature.

Feed production is the most water-intensive part of raising livestock for red meat, whether the feed is grain, soy, or forage-based. (6) Some of this water comes from natural rainfall, while some is supplied through various irrigation methods. The problem is that many researchers don’t distinguish between rainfall and other forms of water use. This means that a large portion of the water attributed to red meat production is simply rain that falls on the fields or pasture used to feed the livestock.

Although measuring in this way does give an accurate depiction of the sheer amount of water that’s necessary to produce red meat, it gives little to no indication of how environmentally friendly red meat production is. It doesn’t make sense to say that raising cows on non-irrigated pasture drains water resources, when the only water being used is natural rainfall. Even feed crops often receive much of their water through rainfall, and it just isn’t logical to classify that in the same way as, say, drawing water from a nearby reservoir for irrigation.

Luckily, some researchers from Australia thought the same thing, so they did their own analysis. (7) They measured the actual water usage of three different production systems in southern Australia over the course of two years. They classified ‘water use’ as water that was “removed from the course it would take in the absence of production or degraded in quality by the production system.” Thus, under their calculations, things like rainfall and evaporation weren’t counted towards the total ‘water footprint’ of beef unless the water quality was somehow reduced when it reentered the water cycle. To me, this approach gives a much more accurate picture of the impact red meat production has on water resources.

The researchers analyzed a small organic beef supplier, a larger supplier where the animals spend part of their time in a feedlot, and a mid-sized sheep meat supplier. For the systems without a feedlot, they came up with a range of 18-214 L/kg of meat, depending on the year and whether they were measuring water use based on input amount or output quality. For the feedlot system, they came up with a range of 34-540 L/kg. Compared to earlier estimates of 15,000 L/kg and beyond, these new estimates are tiny! However, these results can only be generalized to southern Australian production systems, and systems in the US tend to be more irrigation-intensive.

For a US-specific estimate, we can look at an older study on the average water required for beef production in the US. (8) This study was based on national government statistics as opposed to actual water usage measurements from individual production systems, but they classified ‘water use’ in a similar manner to the previous study by excluding rain and only counting the water needed for irrigation, drinking, and processing. They came up with 3,682 L/kg of meat, which is significantly higher than the Australian estimate. This reflects the higher use of concentrate-based feeding in the US, which usually requires more irrigation than natural pasture. However, this estimate is still much lower than some of the most commonly cited numbers, and demonstrates that red meat isn’t singlehandedly draining the world’s freshwater resources.

In the second article of this two-part series, I’ll discuss the claim that grazing livestock leads to soil erosion and desertification, as well as the different environmental impacts of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Greg Marlow says

    Does red meat from mammals provide any benefit over meat from fish and birds? I personally don’t like red meat from mammals because we are from the same animal kingdom.

    • says

      Just because it was bothering me so much, I have to point out that we (humans) mammals, fish, birds and other reptiles are ALL from the same animal Kingdom,
      Now, I believe if you are actually referring to the Classes of vertebrates as traditionally defined in the Linnaean Hierarchical method of taxonomy, and the fact that humans are mammals… then your question makes more sense. Of course the answer as to whether fish and birds provide any nutritional benefit that mammalian meat and organ sources do not – will vary a lot based on wether they are wild game, free range, or CAFO sources. But in general, they all have their pros and cons, balance is key, a little of everything is probably optimal.

  2. says

    Industrialized food production of any kind is not that great for the environment. Your package of “vegan tofu burgers” are bad too. For food production based in nature, where “virtuous cycles” are created in the environment, meat production can be sustainable because it enhances its environment. So this piece is a little off the mark, even while dispelling some myths. Red meat production symbolizes the worst of the industrial food complex, for sure. But it’s the industrial food complex that creates the worst environmental impact, regardless of which foods are produced. Corn is probably the worst offender, rather than cattle.

  3. says

    Industrialized food production of any kind is not that great for the environment. Your package of “vegan tofu burgers” are bad too. For food production based in nature, where “virtuous cycles” are created in the environment, meat production can be sustainable because it enhances its environment. So this piece is a little off the mark, even while dispelling some myths. Red meat production symbolizes the worst of the industrial food complex, for sure. But it’s the industrial food complex that creates the worst environmental impact, regardless of which foods are produced. Corn is probably the worst offender, rather than cattle.

  4. says

    I’ll be interested to read part II, because that is really where the action is. I’d be skeptical if you were to claim that meat raised via industrial ag ishealthier than a meat-free diet, from a strictly environemental perspective. It is true that the animals are raised at least partially on pasture for most of their life, but they are generally supplemented grain, and then they finish their days in a feedlot, which is environmentally (not to metion ethically) indefensible.

    Of course, if you are talking completely pastured ruminants, we are in a completely different ballpark, and I think you’d be right on the money. The problem with agriculture can basically be summed up as this: annual agriculture inherently damages the fertility of the soil, causes erosion, uses incredible petroleum resources in terms of operating the heavy machinery used to tame the fields and requires tons of chemicals to make up for it’s lack of natural resilience (annual monocultures are completely vulnerable to pests and weeds). Feedlot beef actually multiplies this problem, pastured animal products REMEDY this problem. In other words, the vast majority of red meat in this country, as currently produced, is an ecological catastrophe. But the rise of perennial polyculture, as grass farming certainly is, is a hopeful development.

    I wonder what might happen to your argument on the convergence of health/ecology if Wes Jackson were to succeed in his endeavor to breed perennial grain-producing grasses. His vision is a perennial polyculture of various grains. Soil building, frugal with resources and resilient, his Natural Systems Agriculture would be an environmental breakthrough.

    • Chris Kresser says

      I do not argue that a vegetarian diet is not more environmentally sound than eating feedlot meat. But the issue does become a lot murkier when we compare a diet with local, pastured meat vs. an industrialized vegetarian diet, for example.

      • says

        Thanks for the reply. I don’t think it becomes murkier, I think the case for pastured anything, even if it isn’t local, is very strong in comparison with business as usual. Have you heard of Wes Jackson? He’s a plant geneticist who runs the Land Institute and writes on agriculture, particularly regarding soil health. Good stuff.

  5. Courtney says

    I was a vegetarian for 8 years in large part because of my concerns about the environmental impact of meat consumption. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my soy/veggie burger/seitan diet that was manufactured with raw products from who-knows-where and processed across the country and shipped to me was far worse than meat that comes from pastured cows raised 30 miles from here (here being central Virginia). I started ethically-sourced red meat/poultry/seafood again a year and a half ago and it does not weigh on my conscience.

    • Grahame Rees says

      Thanks Tim, I came to post this TED talk link as I think Allan explains how grazing our grasslands correctly is really now the only option we have to reverse and rejuvinate land.I have many clients who practice these Holistic methods in Australia. The healing of the land increases production and profit for the farmer who then can invest more into his land.Human health requires healthy soil – a teaspoon of healthy soil has over 6 billion life forms in it that are essential to create food health.Nora Gedgaudas does a great job of explaining the link between Allan Savory’s work and human health.Watch this video now if you want the truth on reversing desertification.

    • Charlene says

      My raw milk farmers have been practicing Allan Savory’s management intensive grazing practices for almost 20 years in the upper Midwest, mimicking the pattern of large herd migration (i.e., like the buffalo). They found not only greater profitability because of lower input costs – no herbicides (ruminant animals like to eat weeds); very little fertiilizer (because the animals spread the manure); healthier animals (out in the sunshine getting exercise and fresh air); and a return of more native plants and songbirds. They also saw more lush growth of grasses and reversal of soil erosion because the hoof action of the animals breaks up soil clumps providing more soil contact with grass seeds existing in the soil bank, allowing the seeds to germinate. It’s a beautiful system. And when you consider the health benefits of consuming the animals and raw milk from pastured animals, wow! Can you say Win, Win, Win?

  6. Jessica says

    Thank you! I get so frustrated by the skewed and biased claims about red meat! I get really frustrated that all red meat is clumped together in most discussions, when there is such a huge difference between pastured, local and CFAO junk wannabe meat. Thank you!

  7. says

    Once again Chris, thank you for pointing out the spurious correlations or relationships that Ag Industry and industrial touts in so called industry driven research have visited onto the gullible.
    The beasts of a thousand hills, plant eaters, modern cattle, have always been environmentally beneficial and allowed our position as apex predators through our synergistic relation ship not to mention our brain development . It is no coincidence that beef bone marrow from grass fattened beef is one of the healthiest nutrient dense foods, almost a mirror of our brain fats.
    Further it is annual cropping of grains to feed to mainly CAFU chicken is the biggest environmental disaster waiting to happen.
    I estimate that over 60% of all grain crops are for this purpose and they always sneak under the radar with the blame being put on the most beneficial species, I e cattle.
    Yes even feedlot cattle have a smaller carbon footprint.
    Most natural grassland ruminants allow the ground to conserve moisture and the grass is often the same dry matter content as their rumen content and unless dry land dormant season they need little water.
    Thank you again for trying to get the whole truth out.

  8. Bob says

    I believe that the principal objection to meat is its caloric intensity relative to other sources of food i.e. to raise cattle that yield X kcal and Y grams of protein requires Z kcal of feed, whereas to produce the same kcal/protein from grains (or some other source) requires vastly less than Z kcal of inputs.

  9. says

    Another excellent topic, Chris. There’s one item that I would want more verification for. I can understand how “livestock can enhance the incorporation of carbon into the plants and soil,” since livestock manure is an important contributor to fertility. But grasslands capable of sequestering more carbon than any other ecosystem? Including old growth rainforests?

    • says

      Jason,
      The NASA report is about a 3 day solar storm’s effect on the thermosphere. Even Anthony Watts (skeptic that humans cause climate change) says that to interpret the NASA report as saying that CO2 causes global cooling instead of global warming is “the worst form of science misinterpretation I’ve seen in a long time.”

      He also writes, “Yes, of course the upper atmosphere is going to deflect and re-radiate the energy of solar storms, that’s why we don’t burn to a cinder when they happen. There’s nothing new here, this is what the upper atmosphere (thermosphere) does. CO2 (and other greenhouse gases – GHG’s) in the lower atmosphere also re-radiates long wave infra red energy (LWIR) as backradiation coming up from the surface of the Earth as it dumps the shortwave solar energy absorbed returns as LWIR (heat) and makes its way to the top of the atmosphere.”

      In other news, A new survey of over 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers by the citizen science team at Skeptical Science has found a 97% consensus among papers taking a position on the cause of global warming in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are responsible.

  10. says

    Hi Chris,

    This is a very informative article. I never thought eating red meat can be harmful to our environment. Are there any solutions for this problem? Food scarcity is also a problem. What’s more important? Feeding people or environmental impact of mass producing food supplies like red meat?

  11. says

    Chris,

    I wish a lot of my colleagues would read your article as it really highlights the misconceptions we have towards red meat. There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on but I think you have really encapsulated the root cause. Can’t wait for part 2.

  12. williamjacobs says

    This may be more propaganda, but this article indicates a large potion of greenhouse gas influence by cows is due to methane.

    http://timeforchange.org/are-cows-cause-of-global-warming-meat-methane-CO2

    If methane is 23 times more potent at trapping infra red radiation than CO2, it doesn’t matter if they’re carbon negative if enough carbon is converted into methane.

    Kangaroos, as it happens, do NOT produce methane. Could we get people to choose kangaroo meat over cow?

  13. says

    Interesting comments. People believe what the want to believe without regard to the evidence cited. Few seem to understand the synergies between cattle, grass and soil, which are all beneficial considered as a whole otherwise we would not have civilization. Plant eating ruminants of which the most beneficial is now domesticated cattle, not only are an essential part of the carbon cycle and soil health/ fertility, but they convert or sequester carbon or Co2 equivalents from the grass into more nutrient dense matter, which in turn is life giving to our symbiotic and synergistic relationship with them.
    Numerous studies now indicate that healthy soil bacteria more than offset any methane belched by the cow (see ETS lifeline: soils capable of absorbing cattle methane, etc.)
    All in all do not fall into the traps of partial truths and spurious correlations Chris is trying to address with cited evidence, the preponderance of which, considered as a whole is irrefutable. Enjoy your grass fattened beef with a clear conscience and help save the planet, sequestering carbon in the natural cycle of life, and at the same time help yourself to good health, mitigating health care costs. These are many times the cost of beef and can be calculated to be an average of over $2,000 per capita. Optimum Heart health is over 5 ounces per day(Penn State study) and grass fed can change blood lipids for the better in as little as 4 weeks with 3 servings per week. (Cambridge UK study)

  14. says

    Anyone who thinks raising ruminant animals is destructive to the environment needs to take a trip to their nearest grass-based livestock farm and see how *little* input it actually requires. (Feed-wise.)

    Some extra grain for the chickens and pigs, yes, but as Robb Wolf once said so beautifully and succinctly, “WHAT is so difficult to understand about ‘COW + GRASS?!’”

    I’ve been to several local farms in VA & MD and it is clear as day that the ecosystems there are THRIVING. So obviously I’m not talking about feedlot meat production. But for anyone sounding alarms about the environmental impacts of raising beef, they need to understand that it’s the conventional “bigger, faster, cheaper” (to quote Joel Salatin) philosophy that might more harm than good. It’s not anything *inherent* to cows/ruminants themselves and the way they eat and live. It’s the conditions *we’ve* created so we can get steaks for $3.99/pound.

    • says

      Amy, you are so right, in the 40′s
      I grew up on UK grassland, beef and sheep farms with 2000 + plus years of continual grassland stewardship in Roman Wall country.
      My first impression of US was the intruduction to Desparate Dan and cow pie. Weekly beef supply then was 20% of weekly wage and I actually believed that men like Desparate Dan and bully beef helped win the war(still not far from truth)
      It really took one days wage for the weeks family beef. Today, at a much lower nutrient value beef costs about one hours wage for a family of five but health care costs on average for the same family attributable to food have risen by over $200 per week.
      Are we really ahead. I would rather live healthy like my boyhood hero than pay the hidden costs in health care.

  15. says

    Here in Sweden there is a lot of talk about this, but no one is talking about the big difference between grass fed and grain fed.

  16. says

    Chris,

    It seems like water usage is somewhat of a red herring all the way around. Water isn’t destroyed on the path to forrage and then into a steer. It comes out the other side and goes back into the ground or evaporates, reentering the water cycle. Yes, it’s true, that if you irrigate a field, you can’t use that same water drop for other activities (e.g., human consumption), but what’s the big deal, as long as you still have enough for your other uses? The only time we should be concerned with water usage is when there simply isn’t enough to go around and we need to prioritize. I would think, however, that the only debate would be, do we feed the grain to the steer to try to grow protein, or do we simply eat it ourselves, not whether water should be used to irrigate at all.

    Keep up the good work. Great article.

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