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Rick Berman, Published July 11 2012

Honest review of the data reveals red meat is green

As the thermometer continues to rise this summer, grillmasters and average Joes alike are bearing the heat and lighting up some charcoal. But before you dig in, you’ll have to wade through incessant lectures from animal rights and environmental activists about why burgers and barbecue are secretly killing Mother Earth.

In a recent editorial, Princeton professor Peter Singer questioned why the United Nations had meat on the menu at its Rio+20 conference, in which participants discussed global strategies for combating climate change. To Singer, a godfather of the animal rights movement (not to be confused with animal welfare), the obvious answer is to attack animal agriculture.

It’s a refrain heard not just among those who want to “liberate” animals for ethical reasons, like PETA or the Humane Society of the U.S., but among the environmentalist crowd, too. The evidence, however, doesn’t have much meat on its bones.

A 2006 U.N. study cited by Singer – an oft-cited gospel of the environmental movement – claimed to calculate that animal agriculture worldwide is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. More than even transportation.

The only problem? One of the report’s authors has since walked it back, acknowledging methodological flaws. “We factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport,” he said. In other words, it is an apples-and-oranges comparison.

Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency keeps an inventory of what’s responsible for domestic greenhouse gas emissions. And the EPA reports that the entire agriculture sector is responsible for just 6.3 percent of emissions.

And that figure includes everything from broccoli to carrot farming. Animal agriculture is responsible for only about 2 percent of total domestic emissions.

Two percent. That’s a far cry from the 18 percent of global emissions as alleged by the United Nations.

Well, you might ask, could I improve my emissions profiles by ditching regular meat for grass-fed, pasture-raised, or organic meat? As tempting as it is to think that doing things the old-school way is more “in harmony” with nature and better for the Earth, it turns out that on-farm technological progress has brought with it, well, advancements.

Washington State University professor Dr. Jude Capper, who studies agriculture and environmental issues, quantifies just how much agriculture today has improved on farming from just a few decades ago. Capper finds that the dairy industry was able to reduce its carbon footprint by 44 percent from 1944 to 2007 despite now producing more milk. How? Advances in management, animal nutrition and genetics.

Similar trends exist for beef, Capper found. In 2007, beef used 34 less land per pound than in 1977, and its water usage had been reduced by 14 percent per pound. The overall carbon footprint of beef went down 18 percent in 30 years.

The answer isn’t that we need to go backward. It’s that the rest of the world needs to catch up to our technology and standards.

So relax with a drink at a cookout this weekend. You can even help yourself to seconds without a side of eco-worry.

Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.