Be a Patriot, Eat Less Beef

This is your favorite protein’s carbon footprint.

Sue Ogrocki/AP

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As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States’ single biggest source of methane—a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That’s one major reason why beef’s greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it’s consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal’s smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)

And EWG’s estimate of beef’s impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

So what should you eat instead of beef? One answer: chicken, which has a carbon footprint roughly a fifth the size of beef’s. Happily, earlier this week, the National Chicken Council released new research showing that Americans are eating chicken in 17 percent more meals and snacks than they did in 2012. As the chart below shows, chicken consumption has actually been rising steadily for decades. Red meat consumption, meanwhile, has steadily declined over the same period.

The group attributes the spike in chicken consumption to consumers’ perception of poultry as healthier than beef, not its smaller carbon footprint. But the environmental benefits are a great side effect, says Emily Cassidy, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group. “If every American simply switched from beef to chicken, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 137 million metric tons of carbon a year, or as much as taking 26 million cars off the road,” she says, citing a recent EWG report

Still, even as the American appetite for beef has declined over the years, other countries are picking up the slack. Globally, beef and veal production has increased almost 20 percent between 1995 and 2012, according to the Organization for Economically Developed Countries. It’s projected to increase another 11 percent by 2022, a trend that’s largely driven by rising incomes in Asia (and, increasingly, in Africa).

In the face of this environmental onslaught, says Cassidy, really measurable change could only happen if everyone ate vastly less meat—and the only way to achieve that is to change policies that favor livestock feeds like corn.

“Essentially, cheap corn encourages meat to be a big part of our diets,” she says. “If crop subsidies were reined in, meat and especially beef consumption would likely go down.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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