Saturday, December 12, 2015

Red meat : all meat :: coal : all fossil fuels


(Source, p. 16)

I only recently became aware how much worse red meat is than other meat for GHGs. The reason why this gets little attention is likely because it doesn't fit into the standard ideological division between meat-eaters and vegetarians. The reality for climate is that there's closer to three categories, not two:  beef and sheep are worst, all other meats have half or much less than half the effect, and then vegetarian foods have less than half the effect of the other meats.

This is a simplification of course - here in the SF Bay Area, free-range cattle grazing provides an alternative land use to low-density sprawl in the hills, so I think that ranching has a positive climate impact. Still, the disparity speaks for itself.

Switching to vegetarianism can be a difficult change in personal behavior, but as someone pointed out in a presentation I saw this summer, getting chicken instead of beef isn't that big of a switch. The same presentation claimed a 20% reduction in GHGs from a "typical" Californian just by making the switch.

The policy implications of this are less clear. Getting an adequate price on carbon equivalents could sort things out in theory, but we're still from that day. Letting people know for their personal choices can help, and institutional food providers like schools should keep it in mind as well.

UPDATE:  this came with the carrots today - Climate impact of beef: an analysis considering multiple time scales and production methods without use of global warming potentials

Abstract: An analysis of the climate impact of various forms of beef production is carried out, with a particular eye to the comparison between systems relying primarily on grasses grown in pasture (‘grass-fed’ or ‘pastured’ beef) and systems involving substantial use of manufactured feed requiring significant external inputs in the form of synthetic fertilizer and mechanized agriculture (‘feedlot’ beef). The climate impact is evaluated without employing metrics such as CO2e or global warming potentials. The analysis evaluates the impact at all time scales out to 1000 years. It is concluded that certain forms of pastured beef production have substantially lower climate impact than feedlot systems. However, pastured systems that require significant synthetic fertilization, inputs from supplemental feed, or deforestation to create pasture, have substantially greater climate impact at all time scales than the feedlot and dairy-associated systems analyzed. Even the best pastured system analyzed has enough climate impact to justify efforts to limit future growth of beef production, which in any event would be necessary if climate and other ecological concerns were met by a transition to primarily pasture-based systems. Alternate mitigation options are discussed, but barring unforseen technological breakthroughs worldwide consumption at current North American per capita rates appears incompatible with a 2 °C warming target.

So there's the 1000 year viewpoint. See also this from the paper:

What kind of beef consumption and production scenarios are compatible with a 2 °C warming target? If consumption were to grow by a factor of three from its present 58 Mt yr−1 value, and the beef were produced by the midwest feedlot system, the equivalent cumulative carbon would be 504 Gt, which all by itself is enough to use up the remaining allocation of cumulative carbon corresponding to a probable warming below 2 °C. 

That might put you off your feed.


Thehaymarketbomber said...

But why should grazing beef and sheep be such big producers of CO2?

I think some explanation is in order.


Time to shoot some more deer.

Come to think of it, we have rather a lot of rabbits too.

Gingerbaker said...

"But why should grazing beef and sheep be such big producers of CO2?

I think some explanation is in order."

It beggars belief because it simply is not true.

That CNN article takes it info from an infamous U.N. report, a report whose figures for the Co2 and water impact of meat (especially beef) production has been shown to be way off the mark.

To give you an idea:
* rainfall which fell on grazing or crop areas was counted as water use.

* Grain chaff (the byproduct of grain for human consumption) is animal feed, but is counted as actual grain consumption. Along with all the CO2 and water that supposedly represents.

* Brazilian rainforest burning is CO2 counted against all beef production.

* Belched methane from cows is counted as GHG production. If the cows were not there, the grass or grain chaff they did not eat would also rot and give off CO2 and/or methane. Was that subtracted against the cow's tally? No way.

The graph on "Virtual water use" - key word is "virtual". I mean... cows still respire and urinate, don't they? Does anyone think these studies subtracted that recycled water from the consumption figures?

This constant propaganda against meat and beef is based on very bad data. It does us no good to concentrate our efforts in the wrong direction.

Brian said...

Haymarket - it's carbon equivalent, i.e. includes methane.

Ginger - got a cite for all that? I do agree btw on the water issue for free-range animals, although in the US most of them get confined at some point.

Unknown said...

Belched methane from cows is counted as GHG production. If the cows were not there, the grass or grain chaff they did not eat would also rot and give off CO2 and/or methane. Was that subtracted against the cow's tally? No way.

Because you need up to 20 calories of vegetable matter to produce 1 calorie of beef, there are up to 19 calories worth of extra vegetation to produce methane.

Unknown said...

Carnism is not incurable:

PhilScadden said...

Lengthy discussion on this at Skpsci If you look only at emissions grazing can come out worse than it really it. You also have to look at soil carbon sequestration under grazed grasslands.
has big outline. Note that the SOC rates are definitely not seen everywhere. In NZ, 2-3 decade figures on SOC under grazing are often negative or stable. On the other hand, the no.s here over 4 decade in US, in this reference, are truly stunning. Under these figures, such grazing land are CO2e sinks.

Suwannee Dave said...

This is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Unknown said...

All well and good, but what percentage of livestock is raised by grazing in the US? Is it 1 or 2%? The rest is raised in intensive factories.

EliRabett said...

Pigs and chickens are raised in intensive factories. Beef starts out grazing and then is finished in feed lots.

jrkrideau said...

Switching to vegetarianism can be a difficult change in personal behavior

Not all that difficult if one does not expect to do a one-to-one substitution of a cheeseburger for a vegetarian cheeseburger. I don't think I have ever had soya hotdog and I shudder at the thought.

A visit to a few vegetarian cookbooks shows that a change to some vegetarianism is not all that difficult (well except when in some restaurants ) one just need to think a bit differently. Something like this Baljekar, M. (2011). Vegetarian Cooking of India offers some nice alternatives.

More adventuriously one might want to have a look at Huis, A. van van, Gurp, H. van van, & Dicke, M. (2014). The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet.

In much of the world insects are a major food source and often gourmet items. See van Huis, A., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G., & Vantomme, P. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.

Must run, I need to pick up some bacon. :)

Brian said...

I have both subjective and objective reasons for saying switching to vegetarianism is difficult. Subjective because I personally find it difficult and don't want to do it (cue the tiny violins). Objectively, there are many reasons for the vast majority of the population to be entirely or almost entirely vegetarian, especially in wealthy countries, and they don't do it. This isn't just marketing - people like to eat meat.

Having said that, yesterday we went to one of our favorite burger places after I finished the blog post (Jack's Prime, in San Mateo CA, very recommended). I forced myself to skip their great standard burgers and ordered the veggie, in-house prepared black-bean veggie burger, and it was fantastic. Heavily fried, probably almost as bad for me as beef, but delicious.

Mark said...

The post doesn't mention nutrient runoff from agriculture (I don't know the numbers to compare N & P from feed corn with that from sweet corn or soybeans), or concentrated feedlot runoff. Chicken seems fine to me, at least until I hear about contamination rates of chicken parts. Disposal of chicken manure has been a problem as well. On the other hand, some farmers are generating energy from manure. Other factors to complicate matters include overuse of antibiotics, pesticides, soil erosion, and problems linked to irrigation in drier regions. No easy answers.

Hank Roberts said...

I recall visiting one of those grazing areas in West Marin a few decades ago -- a group of us had permission to fly hang gliders on the site. The owner was very emphatic about not taking vehicles off the narrow graveled road. At one point he showed us why -- moved a vehicle so one tire circled over the protected soil. It sank six inches into the ground, and as the wheel moved away, the soil rebounded. It had compressed like a damp sponge.

Few people have even seen deep living soil, these days. It's remarkable and worth protecting.

By the way, West Marin is protected from development not merely out of the goodness in the hearts of the real estate developers and county politicians -- but also, I recall reading long ago, by the fact that developers can't get liability insurance to cover the eventual leaks from the Farallones nuclear waste dump site.

More on that aspect at:

PhilScadden said...

According to this
14% of beef in US is from feedlot.

USDA is emphasising many benefits from MIRG. With increased SOC, is also reduced fertilizer input. As the exchange I pointed to on skpsci shows, I am somewhat skeptical. We dont see those benefits in NZ but their data is pretty convincing.

Chickens are basically grain-fed. CH4 from manure only (if unmanaged) but still an inefficient food chain. If you want grass-eating non-ruminant, try rabbit, guinea pigs, - or kangaroo.

Fernando Leanme said...

I can see Eli trying to help the cows. They are all vegetarians. But it's more important to go after cement and biodegradable plastics. Making cement emits a lot of co2. We can get around it building with wood. And biodegradable plastics emit co2, while regular plastics are almost forever.

Unknown said...

Philscadden Beef is only part of total livestock. Although table 1.2a shows 14% on feed, table 1.1 shows a total of 31,376,000 head of beef cattle, whilst table 1.3b mentions a us total of 11,009,000 on feed inventory. The NRDC claims that 97% are fattened in feedlots: See also

Is there any chicken or pork production that is grazed? What about dairy?

Unknown said...

This isn't just marketing - people like to eat meat. Sure, just like people have always wanted to set fire to carcinogenic leaves and inhale the smoke. And remind me again why you decided to consume baby bovine growth formula?


" And remind me again why you decided to consume baby bovine growth formula?"

Because yer FDA advocates putting vitamin D in me milk, iodine in me salt and ascorbic acid in me spinnach , ya swab.

Now where's me pipe ?

jrkrideau said...

@ Nigel Franks

“Is there any chicken or pork production that is grazed? What about dairy?”

Well, dairy yes, but minisucle 'organic' farming types in NA but this may be quite different in different climates : I think New Zealand and Denmark have much more grazing but my reading is a goo 15 years out of date.

Chickens & pork-- I believe, technically, no as they don't consume much if any grass (i.e. graze) but there are free-range chickens and pigs.

Hank Roberts said...

> CH4
Don't forget to count the fossil carbon that goes into the fertilizer to grow the feedlot grain.

Ya know, if we were breathing only fossil-based CO2, without the extra C14 the nuclear tests added ... I wonder what difference that would make. But I digress.

Actually there'd be one huge public health result from eliminating beef entirely -- antibiotic resistance would quit increasing and, perhaps, slowly decrease. Although that resistance already selected for may be irreversible.

Onetime usable DNA doesn't go away when the selection pressure eases, it's conserved in the descendants at low levels so the next time there's a flood full of antibiotics, some will survive and prosper.

Of course the pharmas will tell you that if they weren't selling more than half of their product to the feedlot business they'd have to charge far more for that used in people.

And nobody mentions how much of big pharma's research money is actually developing feedlot antibiotics, not human protection.

Someone should look into that.

"The more you pay the more it's worth."

BBD said...

Hank Roberts

Actually there'd be one huge public health result from eliminating beef entirely -- antibiotic resistance would quit increasing and, perhaps, slowly decrease. Although that resistance already selected for may be irreversible.

Actually, the truly terrifying problem is Chinese pigs.

We are in a whole heap of trouble with this.

drf5n said...

Regarding "The same presentation claimed a 20% reduction in GHGs from a "typical" Californian just by making the switch." with your charts and tables -- it looks like a beef -> poultry switch might be nearer to an 80% reduction, or a reduction to about 20%. Am I reading them wrong?

Unknown said...

Soya or wheat protein hotdogs are quite tasty. I wouldn't want to eat one of these:


If you eat hot dogs, you are what your hot dog eats .

Stephen Leahy said...

Lots of studies now showing meat has big climate, water, enviro impact.

Chatham House one of the latest re climate,30JL0,BHZILT,AUGSP,1

More recently at COP 21 press conference a guy explains climate problem easily solved with veganism and reforestation - ok 7 billion vegans but still the IPCC needs to model this

Brian said...

Drf5n - The claim was total emissions for the typical Californian would decrease 20%. Non-food emissions for Californians are relatively low, so proportions will differ in other areas.

I don't have a cite for this anyway, so I wouldn't put a lot of faith in the numbers.

Aaron said...

Pre-industrial :Post industrial -- We reduced pre-industrial herbivore methane production by killing off the bison. Grazing cattle herbivores simply recycle carbon within the biome. Nitrogen in the waste acts as fertilizer, and the forage sequesters carbon on the same time scale as methane breakdown in the atmosphere. If we are going to count cattle/pork/poultry waste as a carbon emissions then we also need to count all human waste as carbon emissions.

As late as WW I, both hogs and chickens were sometimes raised free range, without additional grain.

Cattle in a feedlot consume grain and hay that is produced with cultivation, fertilizer, pesticides, and pumped irrigation water, all of which results in more fossil carbon releases than transportation of the products. Poultry and hogs are feed with grain that is fertilized, cultivated, and transported. In a grazing or free range situation, the waste would go back to fertilize the land. In feedlot or confined animal facilities, if carbon emission costs are ignored, then grain field fertilization with animal waste is considered too expensive. Now, it is commonly biotreated locally- resulting in carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

Smaller growing facilities with the animal waste going to local grain field fertilization would be much more carbon efficient. Organic farms use less fossil fuel derived fertilizer, which is a very large part of conventional agriculture's carbon footprint.

The carbon footprint of lettuce now comes mostly from fertilizer production, cultivation, pesticides production, and pumping irrigation water.

Gingerbaker said...

"Because you need up to 20 calories of vegetable matter to produce 1 calorie of beef, there are up to 19 calories worth of extra vegetation to produce methane."

Yes. But the question is - where do these calories come from.. A lot of it is grass. A whole lot of it is called "grain" but in actuality it is grain chaff - stuff that is left over after grain is harvested for human consumption. What happens to this chaff (or pasture grass) if it is not used for animal feed? Answer: it rots, producing GHG.

Some of those twenty calories IS grain (and its grain chaff) grown specifically for cattle - like feed corn. But, whatever is grown in that field, if not fed to humans, is going to decompose also.

Another thing to remember is that livestock provide a lot more than meat. Milk, cheese, leather, pet food, gelatin from cows. Pigs are a source of over 100 products, products which would have to be chemically synthesized to replace them, with all the carbon and water usage that might imply.

It simply is simplistic thinking to draw the conclusion that livestock are a huge unneeded source of GHG.

Steve Bloom said...

Links (footprint and health) for a potentially more thorough look at this topic. Re the footprint one, IIRC the USDA guidelines are to a degree a product of industry lobbying; it might be interesting to go back and compare the draft recommendations.

Me: Lacto-ovo veg for 30+ years, vegan for 5+. I didn't find either transition too tough. FWIW my personal psychology lent itself to clean breaks (i.e. no tapering off).

PhilScadden said...

NZ dairy is pretty much all grazed. There is some winter barning in the deep south but that is new development. A proposal for cubicle dairy in a mountain area caused huge uproar.

"free-range pork" isn't uncommon, but they are not "grazers". Still being fed food and dairy waste. Our "local" is this

Marlowe Johnson said...

steve with all due respect that study is of limited value IMHO. Comparing food on a caloric basis is ridiculous. of course fruits and vegetables will come out higher (especially if they're of the California variety. A better comparison would be on a protein to protein basis (i.e. soy vs beef).


A delicious study published last month suggests The Surge is entirely Steve Bloom's fault >

afeman said...

The CMU study with the lettuce vs. bacon pull quote is a case of press releases putting snappy contrarian spin on more nuanced results. It compares the results of shifting with and without calorie reduction to a USDA-recommended diet, which replaces meat calories with fruits, vegetables, and dairy (as opposed to grains) in the context of US food production. This article (yes, from HuffPo) summarizes it pretty well:

This is the study's take on the meat issue:

"Additionally, in light of the growing evidence that meat production has negative environmental implications, a number of studies including the aforementioned analyses examine the impacts of reducing meat consumption on
resource use and emissions through the food supply system. The results of these studies ... demonstrate that adopting a vegetarian diet or even reducing meat consumption by 50 % is more effective in reducing energy use, the blue
water footprint, and GHG emissions through the food supply system than adopting a healthier diet based on regional dietary guidelines."

Marlowe Johnson said...


the point i take issue with is the idea of using calories to normalize the results. while this might be sensible in other parts of the world where caloric intake is a problem, in the developed world it is exactly the opposite. this makes the prescriptive value of the study virtually nil.

afeman said...


Their point is that it depends, and that it's complicated.

Marlowe Johnson said...

well since that's what it says on my business card I guess they can't that bad ;)


I fixed the BLT perplex link.

Steve Bloom said...

Right, Marlowe, although I would add at least nutrients to protein. My main hope was that the study would contain data sufficient to allow other calculations to be made (not that I'm going to be doing that).

afeman and Marlowe, see this much more through exposition of the study and its implications, although again no mention of veganism.

So Russell, you've never even heard of climatarianism? Disappointed I am that up with the times you are not.

Steve Bloom said...

Oops, seafood not doing so well. What's a ravening carnivore to do?

Bernard J. said...

Fisheries are in deep do-do. A few of us have posted on the subject over the years but anyone wanting to get a leg-up should find Daniel Pauly's work - he's a central node in a lot of the best stuff in this discipline.

I was only thinking about this topic today, and about the models used by many insitutions that advise about harvesting regimes. The Canadian cod failure of the early 90s is the archtypical example, but there are many others, and many simmering collapses in the wings. The problem is that many models used were/are statistical in nature, and not ecological...

On BBD's reference to antibiotic resistance, there's another kick in the arse in the queue along with resource depletion and global warming. Quite frankly, vested interests wanting to sell as AB much as they can, as quickly as they can, are in exactly the same sociopathic groove as fossil fuel companies.

At the risk of starting a further poo-fight or several, some GM tech has similar dangers (protestations of safety aside), and even some vaccination will have adverse evolutionary selection consequences should humans somehow manage to muddle through a millenium or several without completely fouling the nest.

If only there were more responses in the vein of that taken to address the issue of ozone-depleting gases - one of the few vaguely bright lights in an otherwise dim civilisational history of lackluster responses to pressing human-caused problems.

Steve Bloom said...

Speaking of antibiotic resistance. Mmmm, so so worth it for that luscious cheap meat, though.

Unknown said...

Beef is good for health but on the other hand chicken which is also peoples most like it. Currently there are different diseases are spreading just because of the chicken which is not breeding well.
Thanks for providing all the stats here. Games