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Soaring Meat Consumption Bigger Problem Than Thought: Study

New research suggests giving up red meat in particular would be more impactful environmental choice than giving up your car

Jon Queally

Eating meat is turning up the heat.

That's the message from a team of international researchers whose just-published study shows that the raising of livestock and consumption of meat—especially beef—is becoming an increasingly aggressive driver of planetary global warming and climate change.

Published this week in the journal Climatic Change and posted in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research reveals the alarming increase in global consumption of meat from raised livestock and discovered that beef cattle in particular are releasing more methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases, than previously thought.

Carbon dioxide is the most-prevalent gas when it comes to climate change. It is released by vehicles, industry, and forest removal and comprises the greatest portion of greenhouse gas totals. But methane and nitrous oxide are also greenhouse gasses and account for approximately 28 percent of global warming activity.

As Damian Carrington reports for the Guardian:

The heavy impact on the environment of meat production was known but the research shows a new scale and scope of damage, particularly for beef. The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.

Agriculture is a significant driver of global warming and causes 15% of all emissions, half of which are from livestock. Furthermore, the huge amounts of grain and water needed to raise cattle is a concern to experts worried about feeding an extra 2 billion people by 2050. But previous calls for people to eat less meat in order to help the environment, or preserve grain stocks, have been highly controversial.

According to one of the lead researchers, in order to mitigate the threat posed by this rise in meat consumption, world government's should end the pattern of subsidizing the mass production of beef.

“The big story is just how dramatically impactful beef is compared to all the others," said Professor Gidon Eshel from Bard College in New York.

“I would strongly hope that governments stay out of people’s diet," Eshel continued, "but at the same time there are many government policies that favor the current diet in which animals feature too prominently. Remove the artificial support given to the livestock industry and rising prices will do the rest. In that way you are having less government intervention in people’s diet and not more.”

According to the research, livestock emissions in the world's more developed countries peaked in the 1970's, but the proliferation of meat-based diets—fueled by a growing global middle class and aggressive expansion and marketing by the beef industry—has led to soaring overall emission rates.

This consumer trend—the study notes—is expected to increase further going forward, as demand for meat, dairy products, and eggs is predicted by some scientists to double by 2050.

“The developing world is getting better at reducing greenhouse emissions caused by each animal, but this improvement is not keeping up with the increasing demand for meat,” said Professor Dario Caro, a member of the research team at the University of Siena in Italy. “As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock keep going up and up in much of the developing world.”


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