No Need to Panic on Animal Agriculture Efficiency

National Public Radio is airing a series this week on “The Making of Meat-Eating America.” And as sure as the sun rises, there is much excited muttering about how eating all that meat is killing the planet. Morning Edition warns that meat has “more of an impact on the environment than any other food we eat.” As evidence, NPR notes that a quarter-pound of beef requires 1,036 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy to produce. That sounds like a lot, right?

It isn’t. One gallon of gasoline yields over 114,000 BTUs of energy. (And who doesn’t think a gallon of gas is worth 110 quarter-pounders?) A late-model car will only go a few blocks on 1,000 BTUs worth of gasoline. It’s no surprise then that the EPA found that only about two percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions come from “enteric fermentation” (loosely, the scientific name for cattle digestion). The EPA estimated that all animal agriculture processes combined account for about four percent. For the context that NPR’s online report lacked, transportation accounts for about 27 percent. So next week, we should expect a series on riding your bike or walking to work, right?

NPR also notes that it takes about seven pounds of feed to make a quarter-pound of beef. But the fundamental problem with this is the implicit assumption that people somehow want to eat feed-corn. They don’t — hence why it’s used for meat. In fact, it was only a few years ago that evangelizing semi-vegetarians tried to wean people off chicken nuggets by laughably claiming that they were “56 percent corn.”

What about intensive farming, the kind that Mark Bittman and other members of the foodie commentariat say is evil? It’s actually helping reduce the total impact of animal agriculture on the environment. (Shocking, we know.) NPR cites a paper by a Washington State University animal scientist to generate scary-sounding, out-of-context numbers that supposedly show how environmentally unfriendly meat is.

We read that paper, and even if the numbers are right, NPR’s narrative leaves a bit to be desired. The paper tells a very different story from one of imminent meat-caused environmental doom. Instead, there’s a hopeful story for sustainable beef involving improved efficiency from modern agricultural practices:

The C [carbon] footprint per billion kilograms of beef produced in 2007 was reduced by 16.3% compared with equivalent beef production in 1977. As the US population increases, it is crucial to continue the improvements in efficiency demonstrated over the past 30 yr to supply the market demand for safe, affordable beef while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact.

Like per-pound carbon emissions, per-pound feed and land use also declined:

Improvements in efficiency between 1977 and 2007 reduced total feedstuff use within the beef production system by 18.6% (13,563 × 106 kg) per billion kilograms of beef. […] The previously discussed effects of improved productivity upon population size and time to slaughter, in combination with increased cropping yields within the time period covered by this study, reduced land use per billion kilograms of beef from 9,116 × 103 ha in 1977 to 6,106 × 103 ha in 2007, a 33.0% decrease.

So in the end people have a choice—they can follow the activists who “go on feelings” and try to revert agriculture to the way it used to be when it was less eco-efficient, or they can support cleaner, more efficient practices. And in spite of the proselytizing from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), PETA, and other vegan preachers, those efficient practices apply to meat production, too.

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