Footprints of a cow

by Ketil Malde; May 2, 2013

Many environmentalists seem happy to fight climate change by switching off their lights for one hour per year, or unplugging TVs, or using non-disposable shopping bags. Highly visible as these actions are, they also share the interesting property of not having any noticable effect on the environment.

But one thing you can’t avoid to notice if you look into the numbers, is that beef (and lamb) has a dramatically higher impact on the environment than almost any other kind of food. Although there is some CO2 emissions, the real impact comes from emissions of methane (from the digestive system of ruminants) and nitrous oxide (from fertilizer needed to grow feed). The emissions amount to the equivalent of 16-18 kg CO2 per kg meat. Also, we eat a large amount of meat, in Norway the consumption is on average 71kg meat per person, split about 40:60 on red (beef, lamb) and white (pork, chicken). Taken together, this means that beef alone is responsible for half a ton of CO2 per person. If everybody replaced beef with the next worst alternative, pork, we’d save about 340kg per person, or over 3% or the national emissions. If we replace beef with fish or vegetables, we save even more.

Of course, cattle also is used to produce dairy products, and these have their own acconts in the CO2 budgets. Milk clocks in at 1.1kg CO2 per kg, cheese at about 10 times that. Multiplied with Norwegian consumption, I find that dairy products are responsible for about 300kg CO2 per capita.

Other reasons

Even if you don’t care about climate change (or believe in it), there are good reasons to pass the beef by. Maybe you want to preserve the rainforests? Soy and grain production for cattle fodder is a major reason for deforestation.

Or perhaps you care about your health? Saturated animal fat is considered a major risk factor for colon cancer, one of the most common and deadly cancers. The health recommendation is for Norwegians to reduce their consumption of red meats. And although the use is limited here, the use of antibiotics in agriculture breeds resistance genes which, thanks to lateral gene transfer, make their way into human pathogenes.

And if you don’t mind dying young, perhaps you care about economy? Western agriculture is often hopelessly subsidized, and e.g. Norway subsidizes overproduction of milk, and then adds export subsidies to dairy products - in other words, taxpayers pay the bill twice. Total subsidies and import protections amount to more than the farmers have in income.

There’s also eutrophication of lakes and rivers from fertilizer, and pesticides that makes its way into the ecosystems. And, of course, animal welfare issues. Or the questionable morality of using arable land for feeding animals - growing food instead of feed would be able to sustain at least five times the population using the same land.

I guess it is fair to remark that not all alternatives are better than beef here, for instance pork and chicken also depend a lot on grain and soy feeds, as well as antibiotics. Fish is generally better on all counts (with wild fish caught with nets or lines having negligible impact, and farmed or trawled being only about twice as climate-friendly as chicken), and vegetables usually best.

Does it matter?

Yes, it does! If we all cut out beef and lamb entirely, we could drop total greenhouse emissions by 5%, and if we include dairy products, close to 7-8%. This is about the same as our total CO2 emissions from cars. At least to me, cutting out beef is no big deal, there are plenty of good alternatives. So from now on, no beef on my table. Consider doing the same.

comments powered by Disqus
Feedback? Please email