The Beefy Environmental Cost of Eating Steak

By April Reese | July 22, 2014 10:57 am

beef cattle

A top cut of sirloin at your local grocery store will cost you about $7. But behind the price tag is a hidden cost: its beefy environmental impact.

To carnivores, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a thick, juicy steak. But how many of us think about what resources it consumed on its way to our plate? Cattle, along with other livestock such as dairy cows and chickens, typically fatten up on grains and hay grown with fertilizers that can pollute waterways. And the animals need water to drink and land to live on, some of which is cleared of trees or native grasses for pastureland or to grow feed. But just how much of an environmental impact do these tasty protein sources have? And is one “greener” than the other?

The Price of Protein 

To find out, Ron Milo of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Tamar Makov of Yale University and other colleagues mined federal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources to calculate the land area, irrigation water, and nitrogen fertilizer requirements for all feed consumed by the five main sources of protein in the U.S.: beef, dairy, poultry, pork and eggs.

Crunching the numbers was particularly tricky for beef, because cattle are raised differently depending on where they are: cattle grazing on grasslands in the arid West, for example, require huge amounts of land, but relatively little irrigation water because the animals often drink directly from streams. Cattle in feedlots, on the other hand, are raised in close quarters and eat mostly corn, which requires less land, but much more irrigation and nitrogen fertilizer.

Accounting for these differences, the researchers found that overall, cattle require 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, five times more greenhouse gas emissions and six times more nitrogen fertilizer — per calorie consumed — than the four other animal food sources.

First of Its Kind

While several studies have looked at certain aspects of animal protein production, this new study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first thorough analysis comparing the environmental costs of various types of animal protein.

Milo says the tool the team created for teasing out the environmental costs of livestock could be tweaked to help determine the relative cost of plant-based diets, or the diets of other countries. And the tool isn’t just useful for comparisons — the authors hope it will be tapped for improving production methods to lessen environmental impacts and strengthen food security.


Photo credit: B Brown/Shutterstock 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    The Victory Chocolate ration has been increased from 250 grams to 150 grams each month. Victory Chocolate is made from chicory, okra, and lint for your health and pleasure, and to Save the Environment. Prepaid mandatory voluntary purchase of the full 500 g/mo Federal allocation is required.

  • Keith Distel

    What a load of crap.

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    • Mink

      The cancer cells you might be activating eating that animal flesh won’t be a load of crap though. But you don’t care, you want to give your life savings over to Big Pharma as you age! Everyone is doing it!! (or has been doing it) How do you think they engineered Billions, I mean, Trillions in profits?
      80% of anti-biotics are sold to agriculture. lmao.

      • Matt

        Plants contain 1000s of chemicals. Likely many more potentially carcinogens that you will find in meat.

  • Buddy199

    You think Oprah, Michael Bloomberg or Michelle Obama think about the environmental impact their mega-carbon spewing 1% life styles have on the environment? I’ll feel guilty about grilling a steak after they give up private jets and 30,000 sq ft mansions.

    • Scott Davis

      Seriously? That is the most ridiculous argument imaginable. Coupled with the fact you painted a picture of yourself as a “stereotypical” ignorant right-wing extremist searching for a liberal scapegoat to justify your otherwise intolerable behavior. I’m sure Bill O’Reilly and the countless Republican business titans (cattlemen included) would toast and give you a warm regard for pointing out “the facts”. Do you really believe the environmental impact of a handful of wealthy people can compare to the magnitude of destruction needed to supply the world’s fast food chains and super markets with cheap beef? Get a grip, and read a book. Hopefully something other than the bible for once… ‘Murica, home of the meat eating potato heads!

  • preciousbwallace

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail

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