Meat and Climate Change: Beef in the Crosshairs (Again)

CNN Sutter

There’s growing interest in meat’s carbon footprint. Beef, in particular, is a frequent target. CNN took its shot at beef’s environmental impact this week via its “2 Degrees” project — which aims to involve readers in climate change coverage.

The 2 Degrees site proclaims, “Environmental policy experts say if we can avoid warming the planet by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the planet can avoid climatological catastrophe. Columnist John D. Sutter polls readers regularly on topics they’d like to see addressed.

2 Degrees’ feature this week is titled, “Why beef is the new SUV.” Although acknowledging that burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation is the main driver of global warming, Sutter writes, “Eating beef has come to be seen, rightly, in certain enviro circles, as the new SUV — a hopelessly selfish, American indulgence; a middle finger to the planet.”

Executive editor Ram Ramgopal tweeted a chart from Sutter’s coverage to his 25,000 followers showing beef and sheep have the largest carbon footprint among various food items.

CNN Chart

@CNNHealth tweeted coverage to its 363,000 followers. CNN International (@CNNI) tweeted an invitation to its 4.2 million Twitter followers to join Sutter for a Facebook chat session that generated around 1,200 likes, 190 shares and 500 comments, many of them saying, “Leave my beef alone!”

In a blog post titled, “Do We Eat What We Preach?,” Dr. Jude Capper, an animal science professor, writes, “Could we give up growing crops for animal feed and feed more people with tofu and Quorn? Absolutely. Yet there’s a huge gap between philosophical ideology and real world behavior.”

The reality is that a growing number of people around the world are no longer growing their food — they’re buying it — and they can now afford and prefer to eat meat. Meeting demand means livestock and poultry producers must produce more using fewer natural resources. As the World Bank asked in a blog post last year, “What if all livestock farmers could become as efficient as the top 10 percent?

Producers in the U.S. are making inroads on environmental impact. The EPA says agriculture, including livestock production, accounts for about only eight percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — lower than in other parts of the world (14 percent globally) due to improved breeding and feed practices and the adoption of modern technology. The data further shows animal agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have remained nearly constant since 1990, during a time meat production increased by 50 percent, milk production went up by 16 percent and egg production gained almost 33 percent.

Being concerned about protecting the environment is a good thing and some concerned about climate change are looking to take action to reduce their individual impact on the environment. Agriculture has a bigger impact on the planet than any other human activity and people have a right to expect their food is grown responsibly.

To meet the growing global demand for food, the focus of food producers must continue to be on producing more and using fewer natural resources through innovation and the responsible use of technology, which farmers have been doing for decades.