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How Eating Less Beef Will Benefit the Environment

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How Eating Less Beef Will Benefit the Environment

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."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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