Beef most costly protein based on environmental harm, US study finds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 9:53am


Beef is by far the most costly protein when it comes to the environmental damage wreaked by feeding and raising cattle, according to a study.

Beef requires 28 times more land than the average total needed to produce eggs, poultry, pork or dairy products, according to the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Raising beef also required 11 times more irrigation water than other proteins, said researchers at Bard College in New York, Yale University in Connecticut and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Beef released far more pollution into the environment, producing five times as many greenhouse gas emissions and six times the reactive nitrogen from fertiliser compared to the other proteins, the study found.

"Beef is consistently the least resource-efficient of the five animal categories," said the study, which said on average beef was about 10 times as costly as other proteins. Beef also made up about 7 per cent of all consumed calories in the US diet, it said.

To "most effectively" cut back on those environmental costs, the authors recommended "minimising beef consumption".

Raising livestock for food was a practice that contributed to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and also polluted water and interfered with biodiversity, according to the study authors. The study was based on a decade of data on land, irrigation water, and fertiliser from US government agencies.

Researchers used the 2000-2010 data to calculate the amount of resources needed to produce feed for each edible livestock.

For every calorie we obtain from eating poultry or pork, roughly 10 calories of animal feed is needed. This ratio was nearly four times higher for beef.

The costs of producing poultry, pork, eggs and dairy products were similar overall, while beef was consistently the most expensive.

They did not include fish in the study due to lack of data on the feed used and the relatively small percentage of the average American diet fish makes up.

Representatives of the US beef industry questioned the methodology of the study, and said environmental improvements have been made in recent years.

"The study represents a gross oversimplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain," said Kim Stackhouse, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

According to Amy Dickie, who led a study on agricultural strategies for cutting back on global warming, the findings were in line with recent research that has shown the high greenhouse gases involved in beef production.

"I am glad to see that the authors also considered water, nutrient, and land use which are all important resources and are intensively used by beef and dairy cattle," said Dickie, who works for the consulting firm California Environmental Associates.