DON’T HAVE A COW: How Bad is Beef?

Submitted by aatkins on

“All animals are equal,” Orwell’s pigs proclaim in the novel Animal Farm, “but some animals are more equal than others.”

I've always loved this quote and the round-about ways the pigs describe their own special status. But lately while researching the myriad problems around beef, I've thought about this quote again and again. Meats are often seen as interchangeable when we talk about their place in our diets. Eating animals can be seen as equally problematic from a humane standpoint. Similarly, we often don't differentiate between meats with the labels we use for one another -- "vegetarians," "vegans," and "meat eaters." But the more I read, the more it became apparent that from an environmental standpoint, meats are not equally damaging.

Chances are you’re aware that beef is bad for the environment –if you've kept up with our blog series on the subject or read the lead article of our last magazine issue, you'll know that beef has a disproportionately large impact on our water, climate and even our own health.

But a study conducted by Gideon Eshel, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov and Ron Milo published earlier this summer quantifies this disproportionate impact in a way that knocked me out of my socks. The study notes that while there’s a general understanding that meat has a higher environmental cost than plants, there isn’t a lot of information comparing the different types of meats on the same standards. The study authors sought to remedy that lack of comparative data.

They found that “beef production requires 28, 11, 5, and 6 times more land, irrigation water, GHG and Nr, respectively than the average of the other livestock categories.”  Let's take a look at that fact in a more visual format. The study authors were kind enough to send me the numbers behind their summary graphs. I've reproduced them here (without standard deviation included).

Here's the resources used by various meats and plants.

co2 and land

n and water

The study authors note that beef – the least efficient on all four counts – is the second most popular animal category in the average US diet “accounting for 7% of all consumed calories.”

So what's the solution? In an interview with us Denis Hays, the author of Cowed, explains that while he admires vegetarians and vegans, his first priority is to convince meat eaters to reduce the amount of beef they eat. "If we can persuade those people to reduce their consumption from 1.6 pounds of bad beef every week to, say, one-half pound of good, healthy beef from the right sources, the benefits for human health and the environment will be profound."

And Dr. Alon Shepon, one of the authors of the study agrees about the potential impact of curbing beef consumption. "Beef's inefficiency in GHG, water, land and fertilization towers over all other" categories, he told us. "Exchanging beef with other animal products including other sources of meat reduce the environmental impacts associated with food production."


If you're reducing the amount of beef you eat, make sure you're replacing it with other yummy foods. I particularly like savory apple recipes in the fall.

So for all you vegetarians and vegans -- keep up the good work, and consider focusing on beef if you talk to your friends or family about meat consumption. For you meat eaters who want to make a difference, the "low hanging fruit" in your diet is beef -- reduce that and make a world of difference.

If you'd like a more personalized analysis of your diet, take our food-print quiz to find out how you can make your diet even more climate-friendly and how you compare to other Americans.

Finally, don't let yourself equate beef-reduction with depriving yourself of good food. Check out some of my favorite autumn vegetarian recipes here and here.

More from the Blog