Thursday, April 24, 2008

Another Reason Not to Eat Beef

Assuming of course you care about the environment and are worried about global warming. If you don't and you're not, this post doesn't apply to you.

There's a new word being bandied about to go alongside words like carnivore or vegetarian and that word is locavore and it refers to individuals who strive to eat locally with their predominant rationale being that it'll help the planet to not truck tomatoes in from Mexico or garlic in from Chile.

Strict locavores may limit their dietary choices to foods that come from within a 50 mile radius of where they live. The word (and presumably the practice) has become so trendy as to have been voted the 2007 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Well a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology says that while indeed eating local does reduce greenhouse emissions, if you're a local carnivore who likes beef, you're probably not helping much.

The researchers estimated that shifting to an entirely local diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving a hypothetical 1,600km (1,000 miles) less per year.

They also estimated that switching one day's beef meal to anything other than beef would likely have the same impact.


Because transportation of food apparently only contributes 4% to total food supply greenhouse gas emissions, while production of food contributes 83%.

And what food contributes the most?

Beef. Delicious, bad for you, cancer-inducing, beef. On average beef production contributes 2.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than those from emitted during the production of chicken or fish.

What's the second worst?


Really want to help the environment?

Become a vegetarian - the study authors estimate that doing so would be the equivalent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a hypothetical 12,800 transport kilometres (8,000 miles) per year and this is even if you're not a locavore.

Food for thought?

[Hat tip to loyal blog reader and eagle-eyed Rob]

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  1. I think it should also be noted, not only is a vegetarian diet good for the environment, it's good for your overall health as well. Environmental impact, is one of the reasons for my vegan lifestyle.

  2. Noelle11:55 am

    What if you live in an area with a thriving grass-fed beef industry, like in Humboldt County, California, USA? It's raised and processed right here.

  3. Hi Noelle,

    It's not about where the beef comes from - it's the fact that cattle are quite flatulent and the methane produced by herds of cattle, including local cattle, contribute dramatically to greenhouse gas formation.


  4. More for Noelle,

    The other impacts of cattle farming include:

    -soil erosion
    -waste of water

    All those things carry their own impacts as well, and so on... and so forth...

  5. Weren't bison flatulent? Thank god we massacred those suckers in the 19th century!

    I hate to say this, but all these effects have more to do with population than with anything else. We can gradually spin down our lives until we're foraging off the weeds in our backyards (oh, wait, we won't have backyards anymore). Or we can forget about it and leave it to the next generation, which is what I'm gonna do.

    Those of us without kids will be eating beef, and we appreciate that you guys are abstaining for our benefit. How's that for a fair trade?

  6. Anonymous2:08 pm

    Yoni, claims like this: "The researchers estimated that shifting to an entirely local diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of those produced by driving 1,600km (1,000 miles)." are useless unless you specify a time period for the reduced greenhouse gas emissions. ie, is that per year, per month, per life time ??

  7. Hi Anonymous,

    You're right. I had assumed people would recognize it as a "per year" statement.

    I've clarified the post.


  8. Anonymous5:03 pm

    I find it interesting that this post tries to support its point with research and facts but fails to mention that the basic theory of global warming due to greenhouse gases is widely debated in the scientific community. I do not appreciate it when theories are disguised as truth. It only misleads the public. People can certainly care about the environment without believing that global warming is true!

    Also, I believe it's very extreme to encourage people to become vegetarians. Human beings as animals are omnivores. We're supposed to eat meat IN MODERATION! I don't think it's right to scare people into vegetarianism, especially by falsely describing beef as "cancer-inducing."

  9. Here's an eye-opening article about food and its impact on an individual's carbon footprint.

    "the basic theory of global warming due to greenhouse gases is widely debated in the scientific community"

    Um, no. No, it's not.

  10. I tossed that link into TinyURL.

  11. Hi Yoni,
    Great post!
    It's actually "locavore" though...
    Isn't a locovore an individual who strives to eat crazy things? Just kidding.
    (I blogged about it as well- - let me know what you think of the blog if you get a chance!).

  12. I think the stats on that graph could be misleading. Does beef contribute so much more because each pound of beef represents more greenhouse gases? Or is it because people eat more beef than chicken? If everyone who now ate beef ate chicken, wouldn't the contribution by chicken go up?

    Any graph is misleading if they don't define their terms.

  13. Anonymous12:21 pm

    Well, actually, garlic is from China.

  14. Anonymous12:22 am

    It's a simple matter - vegetarians and vegans among you find it great that there is now supposedly another reason/benefit of following that dietary pattern. A nice pat on the shoulder. It makes you feel good. Congrats. Now you can get another pat for being locavores. But "We conclude that food miles are a poor indicator of the environmental and ethical impacts of food production" Edward-Jones, Trends in Food Science and Technology 2008, 265-274.
    Thanks to those providing more balanced posts. I am slowly getting sick of being told what I should do and eat to protect the environment, especially if it is based on "estimates" that are contradicted by other researchers. Oh, and I had steak for dinner. A small one. I carpooled to work today. I also ran 5K. I think I feel well enough not to need that pat on the shoulder.

  15. Anonymous8:34 am

    I just can't find that paper... It would be nice if you posted the citation. However, I found this quote from E. G. Hertwich (Norvegian University of Science and Technology): "“What you really need to compare is beef to avocados or beef to sources of protein in a vegetarian diet,” he notes, because vegetarians don’t always stick to the staples, which have a low impact. Instead, they often tend to prefer more exotic foods that get transported over longer distances and take more energy and fertilizers to grow." (from:

  16. Anonymous1:27 pm


    Your right global warming is just a theory, just as the theory of relativity and the theory of gravitation. Yes, global warming is only a theory because worst of the castrophic effects have not happened, yet. Give it time smartass, on the curve that we are on you'll get your stamp of approval soon enough. Dumfounded, sitting in your rowboat sunscorched floating above what had once been the Kansas City skyline and pickin your nose, you will come to the conclusion "Huh.. I guess it was a fact!";

  17. Another reason not to eat beef is because it's violent, and reduces living individuals to disposable commodities.

    Animals value their lives like we value ours; thus we have an obligation to them to refrain from inflicting avoidable harm upon them - the Golden Rule. Ideally, we would have enough empathy for other creatures so that we not want to do that in the first place.

    Omnivorous means that we are able to consume some animal products, not that we have to. Humans' digestive systems (saliva enzymes, jaw motion, stomach acidity, intestine length, etc.) much more resemble those of herbivores than those of carnivores or even omnivores. There are plenty of healthy vegans, and in studies, vegans on a reasonably well-planned diet fare quite well.

    It's easy to be vegan in the developed world, and doing so brings peace of mind. The main barriers to going vegan are psychological, and one good way to overcome those is to take it in steps.