Report links beef production with deforestation, threats to climate and health

June 30, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Scientists Recommend Americans Replace Beef with Poultry or Pork

Image RemovedWASHINGTON (June 28, 2012) – With the Fourth of July just around the corner, millions of Americans are planning to fire up the backyard grill for one of the top family events of the summer. Few of them realize, however, that the beef they’re going to barbeque threatens not only their health, but the future of the planet.

A report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat,” found that if Americans shifted their diets toward less beef and more poultry or pork, they would protect their health, protect forests, and protect the planet by reducing carbon emissions.

“We have a big beef with beef,” said Doug Boucher, director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and a co-author of the report. “Because of the way it is produced, the more beef we eat, the worse global warming gets.”

Beef is what scientists would call an ‘inefficient’ protein,” Boucher explained. It requires substantial resources to produce compared with what it contributes to the human diet. For example, the report found that beef production uses about 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land but produces less than 5 percent of the protein and less than 2 percent of the calories that feed the global population.

Most Americans are probably aware of the health threat posed by eating beef. It has been linked to a variety of health problems, including coronary heart disease and breast, colon and prostate cancer. But most are likely unaware of the environmental problems of beef production.

Cattle ranching requires large tracts of land. In Brazil—the biggest net exporter of meat in the world—and other Latin American countries, ranchers clear-cut tropical forests to provide pasture land for their herds. This contributes to global warming in two ways. First, when ranchers cut down trees, much of the carbon they store goes into the atmosphere. Second, grazing cattle produce methane—a powerful gas that has 23 times the warming effect of carbon—which is released from their stomachs and manure.

Tropical deforestation is responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s heat-trapping emissions—more carbon pollution than the emissions from every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth. As demand for beef goes up, so too does deforestation.

And conversely, because beef production is a global market, as the demand for beef is reduced in the United States or anywhere else, the price of beef will decline and the incentives to deforest for beef production will also be reduced.

“There are many tasty alternatives to the beef hamburger” said Boucher. “Why not try spare ribs, a pulled pork sandwich, a turkey burger, chicken kebabs, or a veggie burger? If you want fewer cancers, less heart disease, more forests, and less global warming, eat less beef.”

Note: “Grade A Choice?” is the second in series of reports highlighting the major causes of deforestation. The first report, “Recipes for Success,” analyzed the connection between vegetable oils and deforestation. The third report, about the wood products industry, is expected this fall.

Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat

Our meat choices have direct implications for the world’s forests and climate.

Download: Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat (2012)

Producing meat, especially beef, requires large amounts of land. Global meat consumption has increased in recent years—and much of the new land for meat production has come from clearing tropical forests. This trend is a leading driver of deforestation and a significant contributor to global warming emissions.

Beef in particular requires vastly more land than meats like chicken and pork, which use much less land to produce the same amount of protein. Thus a simple diet shift from beef toward chicken would greatly reduce the pressure on land and the resulting pressure for deforestation. Even without a dietary shift, a variety of other practical solutions can help significantly reduce the impacts of meat production.

Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat looks at how smart choices by consumers, businesses, and policy makers can help reduce the impacts of meat production on deforestation and reviews the global history, economics, and environmental impacts of the meat industry.

Beef production uses more agricultural land than all other food sources combined

  • Nearly 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than two percent of the world’s calories.
  • Beef makes up about 24 percent of the world’s meat consumption, yet requires 30 million square kilometers of land to produce. Poultry (34 percent of global meat consumption) and pork (40 percent) each use less than two million square kilometers of land.
  • Beef production is an inefficient use of food resources. Chickens need to consume two kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Pigs need four kilograms. For beef cattle the ratio is 10 to 1.

Livestock production has global impacts

  • Tropical deforestation is responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s global warming emissions and adversely affects the planet’s biodiversity.
  • The expansion of meat production, epecially beef, has been a major driver of deforestation over the last 20 years, responsible for about 45 percent of the heat-trapping gases produced by deforestation.
  • Cows produce extensive amounts of methane during the digestive process, a potent heat-trapping gas that exits the cow from both ends and causes about 23 times as much global warming per molecule as carbon dioxide. Large amounts of manure are also a leading cause of water pollution.

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Report outlines deforestation-free solutions for consumers, policy makers, and meat producers

  • Consumers can make smart food choices that lessen the adverse impacts of meat production, including simply choosing pork or chicken instead of beef. Consumers can use their collective power in the marketplace to urge grocery stores and companies to purchase only deforestation-free meats.
  • Meat producers can increase the productivity of land already in use through methods such as improving pasture, using rotational grazing, and developing silvopastoral systems that combine meat production with tree restoration. The use of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is not an acceptable solution to deforestation due to its accompanying pollution, animal welfare problems, and other issues.
  • Policy makers, especially in the tropics, should eliminate subsidies that support the expansion of beef production onto new lands and develop and enforce strong agricultural zoning laws that shift agricultural development away from forests and other natural areas.

Excerpts from the report (Grade A Choice?)


The consumption of meat has a major effect on deforestation because producing meat, particularly beef, uses large amounts of land. In recent years, much of the new land for meat production has come from clearing tropical forests. Large areas, especially in the Amazon basin, have been turned into pastures for direct use by livestock or else into felds that produce soybeans to be fed to livestock. We can reverse this trend, however, and eventually reduce the net global deforestation resulting from meat production to zero.

This report analyzes the pressures that meat production exerts on global land use, causing the loss of tropical forests and thereby causing the emission of large amounts of global warming pollution. But we also show how the industry -including ranchers, slaughterhouses, distributors, exporters, and supermarkets – can reduce those pressures and expand in ways other than through forest clearing. Solutions include: producers increasing the productivity of their land and livestock; businesses changing their sourcing, marketing, and pricing practices to favor meat-production options that use less land; governments modifying subsidy, tax, and procurement policies to discourage deforestation; and consumers shifting their diets toward consuming less beef and more chicken. Because most of humanity is connected to the meat industry in one way or another, whether as producers, consumers, distributors, or policy makers, we all can help transform it toward zero deforestation.

The Meat Revolution

In the last two centuries the world has gone through a “meat revolution” (Steinfeld et al. 2010). Globally, meat production has grown 25-fold since 1800 (Galloway et al. 2010), with enormous new expanses being converted from natural ecosystems — especially forests — into pastures and land for growing feed crops for livestock (Figures 1 and 2). While much of the increased production was stimulated by population growth, per capita consumption grew steadily as well (Figure 3). For hundreds of millions of people, meat went from being an occasional
luxury to the centerpiece of one or more meals per day.

At first this growth was mostly in the industrialized nations, especially in Europe and North America, but in the latter part of the twentieth century meat consumption in these regions plateaued and increased consumption began spreading to large developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Mexico (Figure 3). Urban consumers tend to eat more meat than their rural counterparts, even with the same levels of income (Neumann et al. 2010). Thus, as major developing countries continue to increase in per capita income and become more urban, we can expect their per capita meat consumption to grow as well.

Per capita consumption of livestock products in developing countries has grown faster than for other food groups (Figure 4). Since the 1960s, meat consumption has tripled, milk consumption has doubled, and egg consumption has increased fivefold.

On the other hand, growth in per capita consumption of cereals and roots and tubers has remained flat. Among the different meats, average world poultry consumption has increased the fastest — by 3.4 percent annually from 2000 to 2011, followed by pork (1.7 percent) and beef (0.4 percent) (Figure 5a).

A Globalized Meat Market

The rapid increase in worldwide per capita meat consumption, along with ease of transportation, has led to major growth in the global trade in livestock products (Galloway et al. 2007; Nepstad, Stickler, and Almeida 2006). Developments such as the expansion of refrigerated transport and freezing have made it easier to ship meat and livestock long distances.

The Inefficiencies of Different Kinds of Meat Production

Plant production is the most efficient of all, but some kinds of meat production are much more
efficient than others, creating opportunities for continued growth in meat consumption while
causing much less deforestation.

The Underlying Ecological Principles

There are fundamental biological reasons why meat production requires more land and resources than plant production, related to the fact that meat consumption occurs at a higher level on the food chain than plant consumption. When we eat a certain number of calories’ worth of steak, we are consuming not only those calories but also, in effect, all the calories consumed by the cow that produced the steak (i.e., the calories in all the food it processed during its lifetime). Producing all the food the cow ate — pasture grasses, feed grains, soy supplements, and forages like alfalfa — requires a great deal of land. For a given amount of energy, it would take far fewer calories and less total land if you were to eat the grain and soy directly rather than feed it to the cow to make the steak. A diet primarily based on meat consumption requires far more land than a vegetarian diet.

Benefits of Meat Production

Despite the greater land use needed to eat higher on the food chain, there are benets to meat consumption. First, meat is higher in protein than most plants, so you do not need to eat as much to get the amount of protein necessary for a healthy diet.

Second, livestock often eat things that humans cannot (or do not) directly consume: cattle eat grass, poultry eat insects (as well as grains and fruits), and pigs will eat just about anything.

This allows us to produce food from land and resources that would otherwise be unusable. Cattle, for instance, are able to gain sustenance from large areas of rangeland in arid regions that are not suitable for crop production. Further, livestock offer a store of wealth and a form of food security in regions where crop production is inconsistent (Herrero et al. 2009).

… Pastures have higher productivity for meat production than does range. Pastures are found in moister climates, they are planted with high densities of faster-growing and more-edible (for cattle) grasses, and they benefit from added inputs such as fertilizer. Pastureland could also be used for crop production, such as cereal grains for bread or pasta, or for animal feed.

Not All Animals Are the Same

Cattle, pigs, and chickens all produce meat, but in doing so they are very dierent animals. Cattle, sheep, and goats are ruminants; their digestive system includes a section called the rumen, which is home to a prodigious variety of bacteria and other microbes that can break down cellulose, the molecule that makes up the largest proportion of plant matter. Thus ruminants are able to eat cellulose — something that most other animals can do only poorly or not at all. Because most living plant matter on earth is cellulosic, much more of the biosphere’s total productivity is potentially available to ruminants as food than to non-ruminant animals (including humans).

This ability to digest cellulose is the reason why ruminants are able to survive and produce meat, although not very efficiently, when eating rangeland plants. Pigs, chickens, and other non-ruminant livestock cannot do this. However, on better quality agricultural land, including the areas that could potentially be used either as pasture or as cropland, the advantage shifts to pigs and chickens. 

There are two main reasons for this.

First, the digestive efficiency of the smaller livestock animals is considerably higher. They convert more of their food into edible meat than ruminants, especially cattle. Non-ruminants’ diets need to have foods richer in protein, sugars, starches, and fats, but they convert these foods into meat more quickly, and in considerably higher proportions relative to the amounts that they eat, than ruminants. Chickens need to consume two kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat, and pigs need four kilograms, but for beef cattle the ratio is 10 to 1 (Rae and Nayga 2010).

Second, land that is good enough to be used either as pasture for ruminants or as cropland to produce grain for pigs and chickens will yield much more edible feed, and of higher quality, when producing grain.

Thus ruminants are less-efficient meat producers than non-ruminants. Ths lower efficiency of ruminants means they produce more waste products, just as lower-mileage cars tend to emit more pollutants. Less of what they eat is turned into meat on their bodies, while more remains undigested and becomes waste. Often those waste products can have very negative effects on the environment. For example, the microbes that digest cellulose in the rumen (particularly the multi-billion-year-old types known as Archaea) also produce methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that exits the cow from both ends and causes about 23 times as much global warming per molecule as carbon dioxide. Moreover, the large amounts of manure produced by cattle are both a leading cause of water pollution and an additional source of methane, causing even more global warming (Fiala 2008).

Overall, given the differences in productivity among livestock animals and the lands that produce most of their food, pigs and especially chickens are much more efficient meat producers than beef cattle. They use much less land to produce an equal amount of protein.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world. UCS combines independent scientic research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. More information is available about UCS at

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Food, Health