The Environmental Impact of Meat Eating

Apparently, Norway’s army is going to serve only vegetarian meals once a week in order to cut down on their carbon emissions.

Is meat consumption a major factor in carbon emissions?

According to this story last year from NPR, red meat does take a fair amount of energy to produce, in the form of feed and fossil fuels (in the form of production expenditures and transportation).

The story does go on to note that the actual number of cattle around has declined since the 1970s, as cattle farmers have become far more efficient at getting more meat out of each cow.

The story does suggest that U.S. total meat consumption has increased, but strangely the story doesn’t adjust for population (a per capita figure would be useful here).

And as we get to the next graph we see the sleight of hand. While in the earlier graphs, the discussion on the energy intensive nature of meat production focused on red meat, here we now see that red meat and chicken are being conflated together into a generic meat category.

This explains how the total number of cows can be declining while total meat consumption continues to rise. Because “meat” in this story now means beef AND chicken (and pork, though the numbers there don’t change much), and per-person chicken consumption is way up.

U.S. beef consumption, per-person, is now lower than it has been since the early 1950s.

And chicken has now passed both pork and beef as the most commonly consumed meat in the United States.

So concerns about the environmental impact of red meat seem ungrounded. If our desire for red meat, coupled with the energy intensive nature of cattle farming, pose a major problem in terms of carbon emissions, then we ought to reduce the number of cows, harvest meat from them far more efficiently, and possibly even reduce the amount of red meat each person eats…which is precisely what we have done over the past 60 years to a stunning degree – it appears per-person beef consumption has dropped more than 40% since the late 1970s.

The red meat story is in fact an environmental success story. Over the previous two generations industry innovations coupled with market-driven (red meat is expensive) and personal-choice driven (red meat appears to have a large carbon foot-print) consumer behavior have dramatically reducing the overall environmental impact of red meat consumption.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating this?

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