Why you shouldn’t eat beef

“Don’t eat beef.”

Such a statement does not go down well in New Zealand,  especially in Waikato, where the cow reigns supreme.

I don’t say it as someone who wants to peddle a “Meat is Murder” message. I don’t believe that at all. I say it as someone who wants New Zealand to take Climate Change seriously.

Quite simply, producing a serving of beef produces a staggering amount of carbon dioxide, as the diagram here from Poore and Nemecek (2018) demonstrates:

[Source:  https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714  ; original data from: Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987-992. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216  ]

This might need to be put into more context.  Driving 100 km in my car produces something around 14 kg of carbon dioxide.  One serving of high-impact beef tops this. Even a low impact serving of beef is similar to driving about 30 km in a typical car, carbon dioxide-wise. Or put it another way: about 10 kWh (10 units) of electricity from coal-fired Huntly power station will give about 9 kg of carbon dioxide, a smidgen more than an average serving of beef.

But, one should also observe that meat in general is bad news for the Earth’s climate. While beef is by far the largest offender, one should note that plant based-foods in general are far better that all animal-based foods.  So, while I won’t claim that it is morally wrong to eat meat on the basis of the feelings of animals, as some do, I will claim that it is morally wrong to eat meat, especially beef, (to any substantial degree) on the basis of climate change.

Actually, it is interesting to delve into Poore and Nemecek’s data a bit more.  As well as CO2 emissions, they look at land use, phosphate use & eutrophication, and water use. The variation across a food type from the ‘best’ to the ‘worst’ can be staggering. For example, the median stress-weighted water use for producing one ‘nutritional unit’ of tofu is 20 litres, but the mean is 3 thousand litres!  What this means is that a lot of production requires very little irrigation, while a minority of production requires huge volumes. (It is also an example of why one needs to be careful with quoting medians and means, and how a story can be spun to suit one’s own ends by picking the ‘right’ statistic.) One obvious conclusion that Poore and Nemecek make is that we (as a world) must be smarter in how we use agricultural land and resources

Finally, in relation to my last post, and climate change, it is good to hear that the “right-to-repair” campaign is making some progress, in Europe at least…  https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46797396

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