Meats: A Health Hierarchy
By James Hamblin /

In case you've not yet purchased your weekend meat, here is a pretty harrowing/empowering case for choosing chicken instead of beef when you can.

About a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. First, here’s the hierarchy of meats (well, proteins) in terms of impact on the environment:

Greenhouse Gas Emission, by Protein

Bringing lamb into human mouths involves a superfluity of greenhouse gas. Lamb isn’t a major player in U.S. meat markets, but the runner-up, beef, is huge.

Farming cattle produces about four times as much greenhouse gas as does poultry or fish. If livestock are basically just converters of grain to meat, cattle and their four stomachs might be the work of Rube Goldberg—cool, but not every light switch needs to involve dominoes. Here’s how beef compares to chicken:

Greenhouse Gas Emission, Beef vs. Chicken

July is the pinnacle of the U.S. meat obsession, because of the cookouts, with all the burgers, steaks, meat fights, meat helmets, etc. Americans lead the world in meat consumption at 260 pounds per year (Europeans eat 190 pounds, and world-wide the average is more like 93 pounds). It feels normal to just have meat around all the time everywhere, but for most of history, meat has been incredibly hard to get; precious and prohibitively expensive. But when was the last time you even thought to call your meat precious?

Diane Rehm hosted a patriotically apropos discussion on her radio show this week, in which experts called for the U.S. to be global leaders in assuaging climate change—with our meat choices. Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (which conducted thestudies that created these charts), said, "If every American stopped eating beef tomorrow—which I don't expect—and started eating chicken instead, that would be the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road.”

Even if their projection is off by a few million, that’s a lot of cars. It's also probably more manageable for people to substitute chicken for beef than it is to, say, change how they power their homes or how they get to work. Those just feel like bigger concessions. At the current rate, Faber said, meat and milk production are forecast to double by 2050. 

More than half the water and grain consumed in the U.S. are consumed by the beef industry. “If we took half the land that we're now using to produce corn and beans to feed animals, and instead dedicated that to produce food for people right now,” Faber said, “we could feed an additional 2 billion people."

“If China chooses to eat meat at the rates we do,” said Michael Pollan, professor of science and environmental journalism at Berkeley, during the same discussion, “we're going to have an enormous problem because the resources that it takes are just too great.”

Pollan and Faber say American meat-heavy diets are spreading around the world. By 2050 there will be 9.6 billion humans. At current rates, there will be 3 billion more meat eaters—double what we have now. Massive expanses of forests will need to be cleared to create pastures to raise the animals, and to grow the grain to feed them. Managing their waste will become an even bigger problem, with methane emanating from "waste lagoons" and nitrous oxide from fertilizer.

So, in celebrating Independence Day, nothing could be less American than eating beef. Or, well, that's overstatement. If you think Americans are generally wasteful and inconsiderate, maybe eating beef is the most American thing you can do. I just want there to be a superlative in there.

Jude Capper is a livestock sustainability consultant in Bozeman, Montana, who rounded out the discussion with some industry perspective. Capper noted that, pound for pound, chickens and pigs actually use more human-edible feed than cows.

“We looked at the life-cycle impacts of beef, chicken, turkey, all of these meats," Faber countered, "and the feed impacts, the methane emissions—it's very clear that beef is far worse for the climate then many of the other alternatives."

Sources of nitrous oxide emissions (EPA)

And then there’s the question of hormones. Capper said, "As a mother of a baby, obviously, I'm incredibly concerned about my daughter’s upbringing and growth and health. But if we look at one individual eight-ounce steak that's from an animal given hormones—that does absolutely have estrogen in it—but the average female would have to eat over 3,000 pounds of beef every single day to get the same amount of estrogen as she does in one teeny tiny birth control pill." 

"That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about hormones," Capper said, "We should all be concerned about everything in our food. But we have to put it into context. Whether it's an apple, tofu, cabbage, or beef. It all contains hormones."

"I agree we should be concerned with hormones in the food supply and in plastics and everything else," Pollan said. "But why add to the burden? There are hormones in lots of things and we have this mystery on our hands, which is why girls enter puberty now at a much younger age than they once did. Here is the case of a completely unnecessary addition of hormones, however small, to the food supply."

Pollan's long-standing argument has been that truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, but in small numbers and on farms, not feed lots. Plants feed the animals, animals fertilize the plants, and it's a closed nutrient loop.

Also, a whole other concern (Emergency? That’s probably legit) inseparable from any discussion of the health effects industrial farming: 80 percent of antibiotics are being used in animals, cattle and chicken alike.

“I don't argue for a vegetarian utopia," Pollan said later. "I think meat has always been an important part of the human diet, and it's very nutritious food. I think the problem is we eat too much of it."

I argue against even the pairing of the words vegetarian and utopia. Choosing chicken instead of beef whenever you’re on the fence, though, feels less draconian than trying to give up meat altogether, or convincing 50 neighbors to install solar panels, or growing in-vitro meat in your lab.

JAMES HAMBLIN, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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Meats: A Health Hierarchy