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Will reducing meat consumption help the environment?

Beef Central, 04/10/2011

A recent report from the US Environmental Working Group stated that reducing consumption of meat will help the environment. However the conclusion has been questioned by Dr Judith Capper from the Animal Sciences Department at Washington State University in an article on the US website Best Food Facts. Here is a sample of what she had to say – reprinted with kind permission from the Centre of Food Integrity.

Does cutting back on meat really benefit the environment?

Dr Capper: It's important to realise that all human activities have an environmental impact. Although some groups promoting a vegetarian or vegan agenda may suggest that reducing meat consumption would have a significant effect upon the environment, if the entire U.S. population adopted the "Meatless Mondays" concept and eschewed red meat and dairy for one day per week that would reduce the total US carbon footprint by only 0.44pc. This is a negligible effect.

How are products that are certified organic, humane, and/or grass-fed least environmentally damaging?

Dr Capper: There is no link between certified "humane" products and environmental impact. Such products are only certified on the basis of animal handling and welfare standards set out by the certifying organization, which bear no relationship to environmental impact. It is philosophically tempting yet scientifically and biologically incorrect to suggest that organic or grass-fed systems have a beneficial carbon footprint compared to conventional production. Organic and grass-fed systems have considerably lower growth rates and slaughter weights than conventional systems and as such require a greater amount of resources (land, water, energy) and emit more greenhouses gases (methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide) leading to a considerably increased carbon footprint per pound of meat.

If we were to analyze the entire system, the calculation would have to include all environmental costs of growing crops, grain transport, and animal transport. In terms of beef production, conventional beef would have a smaller environmental impact than grass-fed beef relative to land, water, energy and carbon. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, livestock production accounts for 3.12pc of total emissions.

  • This article reprinted with permission from the Center for Food Integrity in Gladstone, Missouri. The goal of the Center for Food Integrity, which administers the Best Food Facts website, is to build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system. The centre’s work includes helping people involved in food production understand the questions and concerns consumers have. 

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