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The Real Environmental Impact of Red Meat: Part 1


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red meat impact on environment; red meat environment
What kind of impact does red meat production have on greenhouses gases and water usage? istock.com/boogje

I hope none of you are concerned that eating red will negatively impact your health (and if you are, I encourage you read more about my views on eating meat). 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.

Is eating red meat really more harmful to the environment than eating a vegetarian diet? #paleo #chriskresser

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.

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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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Join the conversation

  1. Chris seems to be the most perfectly Biased person i have ever met willing to bet my bottom dollar he works in a meat related industry!! Those facts he states seem totally inaccurate!!!
    My Thoughts are I would never tell a meat eater to “stop eating meat!”
    But I do Wish, hope there are meat eaters out there Getting Inspired to be Nice to our mother earth By eating less Meat!!

  2. I find the notion of a vegetarian diet as more “environmentally friendly” than meat a complete head-scratcher! For feedlots and grain-fed animals there may perhaps be an argument. But for extensively grazed pasture systems – some pasture ‘improvement’ may have occurred but mostly animals graze in the natural landscape, in amongst native trees and animals … vs a vegetable farm (even an organic one!) where the land has been stripped bare, plowed and seeded with an introduced crop!!

  3. The water per kg issue is using the wrong measuring metric. It compares yield, not nutrition. The assumption with the Litre/kg metric is that 1kg of meat is calorically equal to 1kg of lettuce.

    The proper metric is L/calorie. Under these metrics California Drought Lettuce uses 30% more water per calorie than Holistic Pastured Beef calories.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.