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How Eating Less Beef Will Benefit the Environment

Food

The planet and its inhabitants will always welcome recycling and decreases in water and energy usage, but take a look at your beef consumption if you really want to help the environment.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says livestock production puts more of a strain on our air and water quality and ocean health than most realize while ramping up greenhouse gas emissions regionally and globally. All told, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, dairy and plant food production combines for the largest use of land around the world.

Still, beef stands far above the production of other livestock for its negative environmental impact. According to the study, beef production requires 28 times more land, 11 times more water and six times as much reactive nitrogen as the average of the other forms of livestock.

Livestock production uses more land than any other process, but beef production takes the cake for its strain on the environment.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“For people, the obvious answer is: Whenever possible, replace beef with something else," Gidon Eshel, the study's lead author and a geophysicist at Bard College, told the Los Angeles Times.

"If you really need it to be from animal sources, that’s still OK. You can still have bacon and eggs and whatever you want. As long as it’s not beef, you have always made a significant step forward, because beef is so much more intensive than the rest.” 

The good news is that the USDA projects its lowest per-capita consumption of beef since the '50s. Additionally, the study prompted Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, to remind people that the U.S. beef industry produces its products with fewer emissions than any other developed country.

The Times also spoke the author of a study in the Climate Change journal that examined methane and nitrous oxide emissions during the production of 11 livestock populations in 237 countries. Beef represented more than half of the emissions, followed by dairy cattle at 17 percent and sheep, buffalo, pigs and goats all in single digits. While emissions from U.S. livestock production dropped by 23 percent since 1970, they have more than doubled in developing countries, the Climate Change study's co-author Ken Caldeira, a Carnegie Institution ecologist, said.

"More and more of the developing world is adopting the bad habits of the developed world,” Caldeira said.

In talking to the Huffington Post about his study, Esehl encouraged consumers who won't stop eating beef to consider more than if your meat is from a local source or if it was fed grass. He said the climate of the area where the animal was raised is more important, as are the particular farming methods that were used.

"I really appreciate the good intentions of many individuals who strive in their personal choices to lessen their environmental impact," Eshel said. "I would just caution ... against adhering to canned solutions that are purported to make matters better with little or no evidence that they in fact do."

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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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