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Jan Lee headshot

Researchers Tally Up the Ecological Cost of Eating Beef

Words by Jan Lee

Bad news for beef eaters: That juicy steak dinner that many Americans look forward to each week now has a clear ecological price to it – and according to researchers it’s a lot higher than the tally associated with raising poultry and pork-based products.

Researchers from two different institutes in the U.S. and Israel tabulated the environmental and financial costs of producing different kinds of foods, such as beef, poultry, dairy and eggs. They wanted to find out what the environmental impact would be, particularly in areas where drought exists or climate change has affected the overhead associated with such industries. Released late last month, the study was headed by Dr. Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Plant Sciences and involved researchers at Yale University and in New York. Their results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Tallying the ecological cost of eating beef

It was no surprise that beef was the most costly of the five to produce, said Milo and his research assistant Alon Shepon: “The surprise was in the size of the gap: In total, eating beef is more costly by an order of magnitude – about 10 times, on average – to the environment than other animal-derived foods, including pork and poultry.”

To calculate the ecological cost of each type of food industry, researchers looked at the costs per nutritional unit. For instances in which climate change has impacted the way animals are fed, such as in California’s arid ranchlands, those factors were taken into account. So were costs in areas where cows were not grazed but fed in feedlots and depended on food stocks that took more irrigation and less ranchland.

The bottom line, said Milo and his associates, is a clear indication that beef production has significant impact on the earth’s environment.

“[The] research shows that the price of irrigating and fertilizing the crops fed to milk cows – as well as the relative inefficiency of cows in comparison to other livestock – jacks up the cost significantly." The production of poultry, dairy, egg and pork sources “all came out fairly similarly,” which was also surprising to researchers since dairy production is often "thought to be relatively environmentally benign."

Cows generally require "28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water," the researchers reported, and release as much as five times more greenhouse gases than either poultry or egg production.

Cattle require on average 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water, are responsible for releasing 5 times more greenhouse gases, and consume 6 times as much nitrogen as egg production or poultry. - See more at: http://www.weizmann-usa.org/media/2014/07/21/the-real-price-of-steak-comparing-environmental-costs-of-animal-based-foods#sthash.SVaQrbLy.dpuf

While this may be the last thing that beef eaters want to hear, Milo said the research may help people make improved food choices as they calculate the hidden costs of their favorite foods. It may also help scientists and food producers find new ways to reduce production costs.

And what about those who don't eat meat?

Vegetarians who drink milk but have always squirmed at the idea that the cow ultimately ends up on dinner tables will be happy to know that the no-kill milk industry is catching on. The cows that provide the milk in this case are allowed to live out their senior years in relative comfort on the back forty, rather than be sent to a meat-processing plant.

After the U.K. company Ahimsa Dairy began offering no-kill milk in 2011, the idea caught on here in the States. Pennsylvania-based Gita Nagari Creamery, which has actually been providing milk to a select number of vegetarian communities for some years, has now opened up a public mail-order service.

Of course, the milk isn’t cheap. One gallon of Gita's no-kill milk runs about $10; that includes a $2.50 contribution to the cow's private entitlement fund, which helps to ensure that she and her offspring can live out their years in a respectable setting, and $1.50 that goes toward the care of the bull. (Of course, I'd be tempted to ask why the guy gets less.)

For many vegetarians who want to drink their milk but don’t want to contribute to animal slaughter, the financial price of no-kill milk (and the maintenance of such animals after they stop producing) is within reason. According to the Weizmann study, however, that too may one day bear an ecological cost we just won't be able to afford.

Image credit: USDA



Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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