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Meat Facts

From the New Scientist:

A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

As always, the issue isn't that people shouldn't eat burgers. They should just know what's entailed in eating that burger. Plenty of folks are appalled to see a living room light left on but would never think to trade the cheeseburger for a grilled cheese. More here.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 8, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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“U.S. society is extremely naive about the nature of agricultural production.

“[I]f the public knew more about the way in which agricultural and animal production infringes on animal welfare, the outcry would be louder.”

Bernard E. Rollin, PhD
Farm Animal Welfare
Iowa State U. Press, 2003

Posted by: AZProgressive | October 8, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

A news network (not Fox... a real news network) is already echoing your argument by polling its viewers to see if they realize the amount of carbon produced by a human child. This takes the argument a natural step further: by eliminating beef-eaters -- human children, especially those of the "wrong type" -- you eliminate more carbon.

T. Roosevelt, the first Progressive President, agreed wholeheartedly: it is he who first made the quoted comment regarding children of the "wrong type".

Posted by: rmgregory | October 8, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

You recommend grilled cheese instead of hamburgers. I love cheese (being from Switzerland), but it comes from the same cows that are so CO2 rich when slaughtered.
Do you know a good source for dairy products impact on the climate?

Posted by: albrecht2 | October 8, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Lentils are great, but they are grown in the upper plains states and Canada, and so require transportation. Rice is grown in abundance in Northern California and shipped all over, but the amount of water it requires puts it in serious competition with crops grown in the Central Valley. And the entire agricultural (fruits and veggies) regime in the Central Valley is based on and immense system of dams and aqueducts that are destroying the San Francisco Bay-Estuary, the largest on the west coast of the Americas. The dairy industry in all parts of California (and, I'd guess, the whole couhtry) has serious problems with cow waste as with the water needed to grow feed.

There are problems and trade-offs in everything we do. I drive about 3500 miles a year and rarely fly. I am frugal with heating and electricity. Eating is a great pleasure and though I do not eat ground meat and haven't for many years, I do like organic chicken, pork and beef which, fortunately, is available pretty locally. And I weigh a good 20-30 plus pounds more than I did at Ezra's age. Everyone makes choices and has to live or die with them--and even then any of us could succumb to a freak accident at any time.

Live responsibly, but let others make their choices too.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 8, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I don't disagree with the underlying premise, Ezra - I really don't - but there's a crucial difference between eating a piece of meat and leaving a lamp burning in an unoccupied room. Can you detect it?

Here, I'll make it easy:
Plenty of folks are appalled to see a living room light left on but would never think to work in the dark.

Different activities have different carbon impacts, and all have costs and benefits. But no one benefits from waste. Consuming meat may be profligate, but it's not wasteful - the meat is consumed and, generally, enjoyed. Nobody enjoys a lamp in an empty room or an engine left running for 5 minutes while someone runs into the store.

Now, reducing meat intake is pretty easy and doesn't represent a loss in quality of life (I've cut down my family's intake by about 30% without missing it), but it's a choice between two different activities, both beneficial and with carbon impacts. But cutting out energy waste is no tradeoff at all. I'd hate to imagine someone blithely leaving lights on because they virtuously abstain from meat.

Posted by: JRoth_ | October 8, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse


Good news punk there is a new feed for sheep and steer that increases their methane production by 50% a day. Check it out.

Obviously Mr Rollin doesn't have a clue about raising livestock and has never been out in a field with a herd of cattle or sheep. I have and have the scars, bruises and broken bones to show for it. and my dogs ahve suffered the same injuries.

Stupid AR folks need to leave the country.

And damn I love my milk fed veal raised in little cages were it can't turn around.

ANd before you or Rollin open your pie holes I raise organic humanly raised sheep here in VA. I know what I am talking about from first hand experience. Neither of you two little boys has a clue!

Erza your welcome to come out and work anytime. Wear boots, bring your wellies, work gloves. Leave you iphone etc in your Smart car.

Uhhhh! I just added to my sheep's methane production for the day ladies!

Posted by: vaherder | October 8, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I stopped eating meat in 1981, when I was seventeen. I was on a long bike trip, and we didn't have the budget for expensive items, and we needed a lot of calories biking up to 70 miles a day. When I got back home, I found I had lost the taste for meat. Frankly, it tasted disgusting to me, and has ever since. I later found out about the economic and social costs of meat, but all that's peripheral. However, I recently thought about how many animals have not been killed in those 28 years, and how much less waste of food for other humans may have resulted from that one choice. Doctors always seem shocked at how healthy I am at 45. I love food, and I enjoy it profoundly every day.

Posted by: andy29 | October 8, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

vaherder, of what relevance is your comment to the topic of the post?

Posted by: constans | October 8, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse


vaherder didn't read the post. He assumed that because it was from Ezra about meat it must have to do with animal welfare. It just goes to show you how really engaged in the debate someone is when they comment on something not mentioned in the post.

Posted by: jjhare | October 8, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I can't eat grass. But I can eat a cow that eats grass. Cows are great ways to turn non-edible crops into nutrition.

Posted by: Alsatian1 | October 8, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

As we all know, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat (leaving aside ethical concerns for the sake of this discussion, which is focused on greenhouse gases and other non-ethical concerns).

So where was I? I do this all the time. Anyway, as we all know, it's not about eating meat but instead an issue of unpriced externalities. If meat was priced in accord with the damage the industry causes, we'd probably eat less meat, and that drop in demand would probably resulting in fewer meat animals would be raised, reducing the greenhouse impact of the industry. If this were repeated across the various "greenhouse industries" (my copyright 2009), similar reductions would occur. Or the industries would become cleaner to avoid greenhouse pricing. Either way, good things happening.

And vaherder can continue to fart his anger to the skies. But it'll cost him.

Posted by: spudpuppy2000 | October 8, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

A couple of years ago, I started paying more attention to how I feel after eating various meals. Not how much I enjoyed eating them, but how my body felt afterward, with the idea of eating more of the foods that seemed to give me more energy and stay with me longer.

The best way to describe my diet now seems to be that of a 'carnivorous squirrel'. Lots of nuts, berries, fruit. Whole grains and veggies. And the occasional good steak (emphasis on good), even though it doesn't work as well for me as food. Certain things - red meat, rich, fatty Italian and Mexican dishes, cake and chocolate, for example - I eat (in much smaller quantities than I used to) because the taste and overall experience is enjoyable every now and then. I just don't pretend they provide as much nourishment per calorie as what has become my normal diet.

Posted by: jadedoptimist562 | October 8, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

“A kilogram of beef...”

… which is about 9 quarter-pounders. So the equivalence is more like driving 20 minutes per burger. Still a surprisingly large comparison.

As for the ability of cows to transform grass into human food, yes, it's wonderful. Many are, of course, corn-fed and so inefficiently turn human-digestible protein into much less human-digestible protein. I'm no monster advocate for a mono-diet of corn but the same croplands that work for corn also are fine for soy, grains, legumes, other veggies, etc., all of which are healthful in our diet.

Posted by: WaltFrench | October 11, 2009 1:28 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate that continued attention that Ezra Klein is giving to this matter.

As suggested already though, grilled cheese over a hamburger isn't much of an improvement on many of the issues of environment or animal welfare. We derived milk and ground beef from dairy cows.

Also, it's important to reiterate that food miles don't matter so much, and if it does matter to someone, they need to take a holistic look at everything in their life that comes from far away.

As a thought experiment, pretend that unlimited clean renewable energy is invented tomorrow, no one would care about leaving lights on or driving cars. Agriculture would still impact the environment we just would care so much how far food travels aside from issues of such as local freshness of certain produce. However the multiplied factors inherent in industrial meat production (and fishing!) would still have the most impact requiring land, water, and generating waste (and depleting fisheries). It would top the list as an environmental concern in a hypothetical world of limitless clean energy.

Posted by: Peaceloving | October 14, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

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