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The Beef Burden: How Cows Greatly Hurt the Environment

Jul 22, 2014 11:56 AM EDT
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Hilarious video shows cows completely mesmerized by traditional Irish music

Researchers have found that the beef industry alone is around 10 times more damaging to the environment that any other meat production, contributing gas emissions, water consumption and land wear.

According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beef cattle require 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, eggs, poultry or even diary.

"We have a sharp view of the comparative impact that beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs have in terms of land and water use, reactive nitrogen discharge, and greenhouse gas emissions," lead author Gidon Eshel, from Bard College in New York, told BBC News.

To reach their findings, Eshel and his team collected and analyzed data on five edible livestock industries from 2000 to 2010, as provided by the US Department of Agriculture. Based on consumption models, they then calculated what kind of burden each of these industries placed on the environment.

Being exceptionally inefficient energy converters and a hugely popular source of food, cattle have long been known to have a greater environmental impact compared to other livestock. However, this is the first time that their impact has been quantified.

According to the report, land and irrigation burden aside, the emissions from cattle alone nearly make up the ten-fold impact seen, compared to other livestock.

Methane gas (CH4) has increased in average world volume by an estimated 50 percent compared to pre-industrial levels, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Alarmingly, this gas is far more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

"Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period," the EPA reports.

"The result is that the researchers estimate that over 60 percent of the environmental burden of livestock in the US results from beef," commenting expert Mark Sutton, from the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, told BBC. "Although the exact numbers will be different for Europe, the overall message will be similar: Cattle dominate the livestock footprint of both Europe and US."

But don't go thinking about veganism just yet. A past Nature World News report detailed a new proposed solution for the environmental burden of sheep in Europe - genetically tweaking the animals to reduce their methane footprint. If a similar technique could be used in cattle populations, we all can keep munching on hamburgers even as the "beef burden" is lightened.

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