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The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report in 2006 on the carbon footprint caused by livestock production. The FAO said 18 percent of greenhouses gases could be attributed to raising animals for food. The World Bank followed with an even starker report. Producing meat requires huge quantities of feed, pesticides and water. Also, cattle and other animals release methane gas and waste. The meat industry and other critics say environmental harm from livestock has been greatly overstated. For this month’s Environmental Outlook, how meat consumption affects the planet.
- Michael Pollan Professor of science and environmental journalism, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."
- Jude Capper Livestock sustainability consultant in Bozeman, Montana; adjunct professor of animal sciences at Washington State University and an affiliate of Montana State University.
- Scott Faber Senior vice president for government affairs, Environmental Working Group; former vice president, the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Ask The Experts: Scott Faber and Michael Pollan Answer Your Questions
We took listener questions about meat and the environment from our website, along with our Facebook and Twitter pages, and asked our experts to offer some insight.
How Have Our Eating Habits Changed?###
Click through each category to see which kinds of meats we’re eating more — and which are being consumed less.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the past decade, several major reports by the U.N. and other groups have claimed that raising animals for food does significant harm to the environment. The reports inspired many in the U.S. to reduce the amount of meat in their diets. Still, only about 5 percent of Americans are vegetarians. And meat consumption per capita has risen sharply since the 1950s. For this month's environmental outlook, how eating meat affects the planet.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio, Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, from a studio in Bozeman, Mont., livestock sustainability consultant, Jude Capper, and by phone from Berkeley, food expert and author Michael Pollan. I do invite you to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. And thank you all for joining us.
MR. SCOTT FABERThank you. Glad to be here.
REHMGood to have you all.
MR. MICHAEL POLLANGood to be here.
MS. JUDE CAPPERGood to be here.
REHMI'm glad to have you all with us. Scott Faber, I'll start with you. Tell us about the Environmental Working Group studies on meat consumption and the environment.
FABERSure, thanks, Diane. So we stepped back and looked at what are the climate impacts of the meat choices we have every day. And what we found was that lamb -- eating lamb produced the most greenhouse gasses per kilogram consumed. But of course Americans don’t each much lamb. Coming in second is beef. And of course Americans eat a lot of beef. There's nothing more iconic than the hamburger. And beef -- eating beef produces really significant greenhouse gasses when compared to other meats, especially poultry and seafood.
FABERIn fact, pound-per-pound, beef produces four times the greenhouse emissions of any other animal. So reducing our consumption of beef, in particular, and even shifting from beef to chicken can produce significant benefits for the climate. In fact, 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.
REHMWow. Have we increased our consumption of meat over the last few decades?
FABERWe are continuing, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, to lead the world in meat -- beef consumption and meat consumption overall. We eat an enormous amount of meat every year. Overall we eat 200 -- almost 260 pounds of meat per year. By contrast, the average European eats about 190. And people around the globe eat about 93 million -- 93 pounds, sorry -- 93 pounds of meat per year. So we are eating more than our fair share of meat and certainly more than our fair share of beef.
REHMWhat about what we feed livestock? How much does that matter?
POLLANWell, that's a tremendous part of the story that Scott is telling. The way we typically grow cattle in this country is that we feed them lots of grain. And the growing of that grain has a huge climate footprint, because if you're growing corn, you're using nitrogen fertilizer, which is itself a tremendous contributor to climate change -- both the making of the fertilizer and then what happens to it when it's spread on the land. It turns into nitrous oxide when it's exposed to oxygen. And that is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon.
POLLANBut the problem with beef is also that it just -- it converts so little of that grain into meat. It takes about 10 pounds of grain to get one pound of meat, edible meat. Whereas with chicken, it's like, I don't know, two-to-one. Pork is six or seven-to-one. So the problem with cattle is that they're pretty inefficient converters of grain into meat. But of course there are other ways to grow cattle. You can grow cattle on grass, in which case they're eating something that we can't eat. They're not competing for humans. And the research is a little equivocal on whether grass-fed beef is better or worse from a climate-change point of view.
POLLANIt's a hard thing to calculate. But there are certain advantages to growing beef on grass, because you can -- if you do it properly and you graze well, you can actually sequester carbon as you're doing it.
REHMJude Capper, as a livestock sustainability consultant there in Bozeman, what's your opinion of the Environmental Working Group's assessment?
CAPPERI think it's really important to understand that every food that we eat has some environmental impact every day, whether it's apples or tofu or beef or lamb. But I'd like to come back to a point that Michael Pollan made. Because, in fact, in the states, the pasture, the grass, is the foundation of the beef industry. Corn only accounts for 7 percent of the total feed used per pound of beef. So we use millions of acres of pastureland and range, which can't be used to grow any other food or feed, every day. So, yes, we absolutely use corn, but it's a very small percentage of the total feed.
CAPPERAnd we also use feeds like apple pomace, citrus pulp, pea silage and many other wastes, effectively, from the human food and fiber industry, that we can't use for anything else. So cattle effectively recycle every day.
REHMSo what you're saying is that the U.S. beef industry has actually cut its carbon footprint. Is that what you mean?
CAPPERAbsolutely right. If we compare to 1977, per pound of beef now, we use 30 percent fewer animals. We use 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, and we've got a 16 percent decrease in the carbon footprint per pound of beef. And we should keep doing that over the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years to improve the planet in the future.
FABERAnd we've certainly made progress. But despite that progress, meat production produces 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and for three reasons. One, because we clear a lot of land in order to grow the feed necessary to feed those animals. And when we clear those forests, we release a lot of soil carbon to the atmosphere. We apply a lot of fertilizer and especially animal manure to those lands to grow those feed crops. And animal manure, as Michael said earlier, produces a lot of nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
FABERAnd probably most importantly, by producing so many more animals, we dramatically increase emissions of methane or what we politely call enteric fermentation in the animal world. And animals alone account for 37 percent of the methane emissions that contribute to climate change in the world.
REHMNow, Michael Pollan, you're a journalist. You've been writing about food for many years. What's your sense of just how accepted among scientists these estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock actually are?
POLLANWell, there's a lot of controversy about. I mean, I think Scott is citing the U.N. numbers...
POLLAN...which is worldwide. And some people argue that in our country, we're somewhat more efficient at doing it. But there is dispute about these numbers. But there is no dispute about the fact that meat eating and meat production is a very important part of climate change we don't spend nearly enough time thinking about. We're very attuned to the impact of, or the way the kind of car we drive and how we heat our homes. But how we eat is right up there as something we need to address. And it's a real blind spot in the administration's policies around climate change.
POLLANYou know, they've really done a very forceful job of going after energy generation. And for some reason that I don't totally understand, they've left the meat industry alone. So, for example, they recently announced regulations to govern methane production in energy generation. You release methane when you frack and things like that. But when it came to the biggest source of methane, which is agriculture, they punted and they went with voluntary rules, which is kind of meaningless. So...
REHMAnd what do voluntary rules actually consist of, Michael?
POLLANWell, that's still being drawn up. But encouraging feedlots where a lot of the methane is produced to try to capture that methane with things called methane digesters, which try to capture the methane and burn it as fuel. And when you burn it, you turn it into carbon dioxide. Plus you generate energy. So they're programs to encourage that kind of behavior. Research to change feed. If you feed different things to animals, you get different amounts of methane.
POLLANBut on balance, when it comes to dealing with agriculture, which is a very important part of climate change -- somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, if you look at agriculture overall, of our contribution to greenhouse gasses comes from agriculture.
POLLANAnd this administration has really chosen to do very little about it.
REHMYou know, it's fascinating. I think we grow up in this country thinking as -- of meat as a central portion of our diet, something that helps us grow strong, something that creates muscle, something that we really need as an essential part of our diet. Is that thinking changing?
FABERI think it is changing. You're seeing increased sales of meat substitutes. You're seeing more and more people participating in things like meatless Mondays. But by and large, Americans are sill eating far more meat, and especially beef, than we should if we want to be global leaders in the fight to reverse climate change. And we're eating far more meat and especially beef than we should if we're worried about our health, because of the impacts that, in particular, beef have on disease.
REHMScott Faber, he's senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Taking a short break here. I'm anxious to hear about what you think. So give us a call, 800-433-8850. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about meat consumption in this country and its effect on our planet. Here in the studio with me, Scott Faber. He's senior vice-president for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group. And on the line with us from Bozeman, Mont. is Jude Capper. She's adjunct professor of animal sciences at Washington State University. And on the line with us from California, Michael Pollan. He's professor of science and environmental journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He's the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and most recently a book titled "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."
REHMAnd here is a question for you, Jude Capper, from Phil in San Antonio, Texas. He says, "A number of researchers have pointed out that more than half the water consumed in the U.S. and more than half the grain consumed in the U.S. is consumed by the beef industry. If beef production were not subsidized heavily by the government, hamburger and other beef products would be unaffordable." How do you respond to that, Jude?
CAPPERSo there are obviously lots of numbers out there and indeed, lots of opinions on how we should raise beef. But modern beef uses only 441 gallons of water per pound of beef. That compares, for example, to about 713 gallons per T-shirt or 39,000 gallons per car. And every single day farmers and ranchers are doing everything they can to improve and to cut that water use. Because we all understand that that's really, really important.
CAPPERNow, some of the figures out there are inflated. We can calculate numbers in many, many, many ways. But we also have to understand that not all of the water used in agriculture is coming out of urban reservoirs, as it were. We use an awful lot out of the streams, out of the rivers that goes straight back in. So water isn't being used, as such. It's being used for the crop and then going back into the environment as a resource.
FABERWell, in fact, animal products have a much larger water footprint than plant-based foods, other sources of protein. And overall -- different estimates are made but overall the estimates are that anywhere from eight to ten percent of our global fresh water supplies are used in the production of meat, mostly to irrigate the feed crops that are ultimately fed to animals. So -- but that's not all. According the UN and others, livestock production is probably the biggest source of water pollution around the globe. And we don't have to look any further than the dead zones that form here in the Chesapeake Bay every year, or maybe further away in the Gulf of Mexico.
REHMSo here's an email for you, Scott, from Rob who says, "So what's your solution? That we all become vegetarians? Apparently the reductions that the beef industry has made and promises to continue to make in the future are just not good enough for him. What is his end game?"
FABERSo it's a great question, Rob. I think we need an all-of-the-above strategy. That begins with consumers that all of us, whether we eat meat or not, can consume less meat. We can shift in particular from beef to chicken. And by doing so that would significantly reduce our carbon footprint because of the -- all of the methane that's emitted from particular eating beef. There's certainly a big role for government.
FABERGovernment could be doing much more to help farmers produce beef and other meats more sustainably by helping finance the cost of better fertilizer applications, more efficient use of water, buffering streams, capping these big waste lagoons that emit enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. And there's certainly a big global leadership role for the U.S. If 3 billion more people become meat eaters as is expected by 2050, that is going to put an enormous strain on our natural resources. We'll clear more forest, we'll emit far more methane from our animals and we'll apply a lot more manure producing a lot more nitrous oxide emissions.
REHMIsn't China's consumption of beef also going up?
FABERAll around the globe, as people enter the middle class, they want to eat more like Americans, Europeans, Australians. And that...
POLLANThis is the big problem, you know, I would contend, is that American meat-eating habits are spreading around the world. And if China chooses to eat meat at the rates we do, as Scott says, we're going to have an enormous problem because the resources that it takes are just too great. I think it's also important to remember that the beef you eat does not come off of -- I don't -- you shouldn't have the image that it's coming off of these large cowboy ranges out west. Most of it's coming off of feedlots, very intensive production places that are enormous sources of both air and water pollution.
POLLANThe animals may begin out on the range but when they're about six months old, they move on to feedlots where they move on to a grain diet, almost exclusively grain diet, about 80 to 90 percent grain. And their waste is not treated. It's just left to fester in lagoons and pollute the air and pollute water downstream when it escapes. And these factories -- which is really what they are, we can't call them ranches, we can't call them farms -- are in large part unregulated. And are very often exempted from clean air and clean water laws.
POLLANIn fact, the Republicans recently made it impossible for the USDA to even survey the location and size of these feedlots, making it virtually impossible to regulate them.
FABERAnd I'll just add quickly, Diane, that if we stay on the course we're on, meat production is forecast to double by 2050. Milk production is forecast to double by 2050. Meat production alone will grow by 68 percent just by 2030. And just think about what the impacts would be on the planet if we continue to see people adopt our heavily meat-based diet.
REHMScott, give us a sense of how meat consumption has perhaps driven deforestation.
FABERAbsolutely. So all across the world, but especially in Latin America, forests are cleared initially for pasture to pasture-raise animals and then ultimately to produce the feed grains that Michael mentioned, corn and soybeans.
REHMAnd Jude, tell me what percentage of corn that's grown in the U.S. goes for making ethanol and how much for animal feed?
CAPPEROh, that's a good question and I don't have the numbers right in front of me. But to go back to Michael Pollan's point, if we look at the beef industry, the cow/calf operation does account for almost all of the calves born and bred in the states. And that's bred on pasture. But after those calves are weaned, 85 percent of them go into a background operation. What that means is, again, they're largely on a forage-based diet, eating things that we, as humans, can't eat every day. And they're only fed grain for the last three to four months of their life.
CAPPERAnd the waste from those animals isn't just left to fester, as it were. It's used on the land to again grow more crops. So we recycle every single day.
REHMMichael, do you want to comment?
POLLANYeah, I mean, how long animals spend on feedlots really depends on the price of grain. And when corn prices are high, they spend more time on grass. And when corn prices are low they spend a lot more time on feedlots because they grow faster, they're fattier, they grade better. In other words, they have more intramuscular fat. So, I mean, I think that depends on the price of corn. It's gone down a little bit in the last few years because we've had very high corn prices. But as soon as corn prices start trending down , as they are, they'll be spending more time on feedlots.
POLLANSome feedlot manure is put on fields as fertilizer but many farmers don't want this waste because it's so full of pharmaceuticals. It has, you know, all sorts of growth promoters and hormones in it that it's a challenge to get farms to take some of this waste. And that's why so much of it spends most of its time in lagoons where it releases methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
REHMWell, let me follow up on that, Michael. How does livestock production affect water, both the quality and the quantity?
POLLANWell, you know, the numbers about water use to produce beef, I have seen numbers, you know, from as low as Jude's numbers to as high as, you know, 4,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. And that's including rainwater falling on crops. And I don't know whether you should count that or not. But there's also the water pollution problem.
POLLANI mean, you have -- there's a feedlot out west that has something like 150,000 head of cattle. I don't remember exactly where it is. And it produces as much solid waste as the entire city of Chicago. The city of Chicago is required under the Clean Water Act to treat all that waste and deal with it in such a way that it is not released into the environment without being treated. But the feedlot is not required to treat its waste. And that seems to me kind of an unreasonable distinction why we should be making it.
FABERSo, you know, there is concern about the water downstream of feedlots, which does have various pharmaceuticals in it and has effects on the fish. We have many studies of fish being turned into hermaphrodites because they live downstream of feedlots.
REHMAnd yet, Michael, I understand you actually defend meat eating. Talk about why?
POLLANYeah, I'm not -- I don't argue for a vegetarian utopia. 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 would also argue that a truly sustainable agriculture will have animals in it in much small numbers and on farms rather than on feedlots. But if you think about it, in nature you always find animals with plants together in a symbiotic relationship. And on a really sustainable farm what you find is that the animals are producing fertility for the plants with their waste. And the plants, in turn, are feeding the animals. And it's a closed nutrient loop. And that is one of the most sustainable ways to farm.
POLLANWendell Berry has a wonderful quote about this. He said, when we took animals off of farms and put them into feedlots, we took a solution, which is that the plants use the waste of the animals and feed the animals. We took a solution and neatly divided it into two problems. One is a deficit of fertility on farms, which we remedy with chemical fertilizers. And the other is, a surfeit of waste on feedlots, which we really don't remedy at all.
REHMMichael Pollan. He's at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and most recently "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now. Let's hear what listeners have to say, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Scott in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air, Scott. Go right ahead.
REHMHi, go right ahead.
SCOTTOkay. Yeah, I'm sorry the two men beg all credibility. Most cows on farms are no problem. They go drink out of the stock pond. They pee or poop in the grass and it goes to, you know, help the soil. The feedlot is not after six months, it's the last six months of the cow's life that they're on there. Those are very problematic. Clear cutting is very problematic. But the first guy's an activist and the reporter doesn't really -- he keeps missing the facts.
REHMAll right. Scott, are you missing the facts?
FABERSure, sure. Well, you know, certainly many farmers and livestock operators are taking steps to improve how they raise animals. The challenge is, we're just producing so darn many of them. And that's why even if we were able to adopt the most modern techniques of feeding animals, raising animals, managing their waste, we're still going to produce a lot of methane, nitrous oxide and wind up clearing a lot of land to feed all those animals, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
REHMJude, do you want to comment?
CAPPERYeah, absolutely. I think it's really important to understand that we have improved, as is being said, but we can continue to. I saw some data for a company just recently that showed that by 2050 when on the planet we'll have more than 9.5 billion people, if we continue to improve as we have over the years, we can make enough pork to supply all of those people using less land and water and carbon than we do now. And we can do exactly the same in the beef industry if we still have access to the tools, the technologies and the management practices that have made the beef industry as efficient as it is today.
REHMWhat about that, Scott?
FABERBut here's the real question. If we took half the land that we're now using to produce food crops -- sorry, feed crops that produce corn and beans to feed animals, and instead dedicated that to produce food for people right now, we could feed an additional 2 billion people. So it's really a question -- you know, those are choices that will be driven by lots of decisions in the marketplace in capitals around the world. But the simple fact of the matter is, is that because producing meat is so inefficient that we are not using the land, the arable land, the cultivated land that we have at our disposal to feed as many people as we could.
REHMMichael, what about our caller's point that you and Scott are simply exaggerating the whole problem?
POLLANWell, you know, my own research on the beef industry goes back to a chapter I wrote in "Omnivore's Dilemma" where I actually bought and followed a steer from insemination to slaughter. And this was back a few years when corn prices were somewhat lower than they are now. But this animal was on the range until he was six months old and then put in the back grounding pen for about a month. And then he moved to the feedlot where he lived out the rest of his life. And by 14 months he was slaughtered. So he spent more of his life on the feedlot than he did on the range.
POLLANAs I said, this changes. The number of months on the feedlot depends on the price of corn basically. So it goes up and down with that price. But, yeah -- no, I would disagree. I think that we have -- feedlots are a very important part of the way we conventionally raise beef.
POLLANI should say though that there is another beef economy rising right now. And that is beef that lives its entire lives on grass, it's finished on grass and makes for a very nutritious product. And I would argue a more sustainable one.
POLLANBecause if you rotationally graze those animals, they actually contribute to the health of the soil.
REHMAll right. Short break here and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're talking in this hour about meat consumption and how it affects the environment. Here's a posting on Facebook from Juan who says, "Nitrous oxide has a short lifetime and is not a contributor to global warming. Please, do not mislead the audience." What about that, Michael?
POLLANIt's not true. I mean, it has a shorter time in the atmosphere then, then carbon dioxide as does methane. But they still contribute to, to climate change. To give you an example, Wal-Mart was -- whose done a lot of work to improve their sustainability, has taken a good hard look at where their carbon footprint is and how they could lower it.
POLLANAnd they discovered, much to their surprise, that the single biggest contributor to their carbon footprint is the nitrogen fertilizer applied to the corn fields at the base of...
POLLAN...so many products. So, you know, these are, these are very well qualified sustainability experts who take a dimmer view of nitrogen fertilizer than your poster.
REHMAll right. And if you'd like to go to our website, drshow.org, you can see a chart showing how our meat consumption has changed since the 1950s. And one more question, an email, "Can anyone comment on the potential of lab-grown beef?" Scott.
FABERYeah, there's just a, a fascinating article that's come out recently in Environmental Science and Technology that looked at a cultured meat production, in three different countries. I believe it was Spain, Thailand and California, the United States, and found that, potentially, although it's a, a new technology that's not reached commercial scale, that growing meat in the lab could have really significant greenhouse gas impacts because you avoid all the methane emissions from animals because you avoid all of the nitrogen applications associated with growing feed crops.
REHMBut doesn't that have more muscle in it and thereby chewier, much chewier.
FABERIt's, a good friend of mine has, has eaten it himself and says there's, there's still some work to be done unfortunately. Michael's the expert on the cooking.
REHMYeah. I bet. Michael.
POLLANSo the, you know, the problem with these lab grown meats, so far, is they're cloning muscle. But, of course, if you eat meat, you realize, it's not just muscle, it's fat and...
POLLAN...it's in use in all sorts of other elements. And they haven't quite figured out how to make something that is a remotely, like a hamburger. I think, the more interesting and hopeful developments, on this side of meat substitution are some new plant based meat substitutes. And there's a lot of work going on out here in Silicon Valley to devise alternatives to, to eggs and things like mayonnaise and there's a product already on the market called Hampton Creek Mayo.
POLLANAnd there's another company working on substitutes for cheese, for frozen pizzas and things like that and substitutes for ground beef, made from various plant proteins. Simple processes, not using a lot of, you know, petro-chemical additives, really just, in many cases, using fermentation techniques and processing of, of proteins in various plants, like cowpeas. And that these offer some hope, I think, to reduce our meat consumption.
POLLANA lot of our meat goes to products and a lot of dairy goes to products where the quality is, is not, you know, the bar shouldn't be very hard to hit. I mean, all you need is white gooey stuff for a lot of cheese applications. And if you can do that without having to raise whole cows, that seems to me, a worthwhile thing to, to pursue.
REHMAnd Jude, I wonder if the livestock industry is sort of preparing itself for these new products that eventually will come onto the market.
CAPPEROh, absolutely. I believe so. The livestock industry is so successful, in part because we adapt, because we innovate every day. And we, obviously, have to adapt to the market. And that's why farmers and ranchers improve every single day, because they understand the vastly important to care for the land and the air and the animals and the water. And if we don't do that, then we'll absolutely have issues, but we have done that and we'll keep doing that over the next 10, 20, 50, 100 years.
REHMI wonder how much less meat the American public would have to consume to make a real difference in the environment. Scott Faber.
FABERYeah, you know, I just -- as I said at the outside, just shifting from beef to chicken would be the equivalent -- would produce the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road. It's, it's probably a lot easier for people to substitute chicken for beef then it is, maybe, to change how they power their homes or how they get to work, although people should do all of those things, obviously. I, I -- there are, there are easy steps that allow people to continue to enjoy meat but that have really big, short-term, climate benefits, primarily because beef is produced by an animal that has multiple stomachs and that produces a lot of methane through enteric fermentation.
REHMJude, what do you think of synthetic meat?
CAPPERI think, it's an interesting, exciting concept. I'm, I'm not entirely sure it'll ever take off.
CAPPERWe all have this feeling and this faith as food -- as it always has been, you know, food that tastes good and that's why beef is so good for most people.
CAPPERBut to come...
REHMGo right ahead, sure.
CAPPER...to the point, earlier, if we shift from beef to chicken, it can absolutely do that. But I think we're missing two important points, firstly, on a pound for pound basis, chicken and pork actually use far more human edible feed. So things like corn and soy ban cattle doo, there's a really nice paper that came out that showed, if we actually look at the human edible protein and energy, going into beef and dairy versus that that comes out, beef and dairy are far more efficient on a human edible feed and food input versus output basis then chicken.
CAPPERAnd secondly, beef and dairy, every single day, provide ecosystem services in terms of range lane, biodiversity, protecting wildlife that we simply can't do with pork and chicken.
FABERBut when we looked at those questions in our meat eaters guide to climate change and health and when we looked at the lifecycle impacts of beef, chicken, turkey, all of these meats, and in particular looked at all of the impacts, the feed impacts, the methane emissions, the -- all the other impacts from meat production, it's very clear that beef is far worse for the climate then many of the other alternatives.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Dan in Moody, MO. Hi there, you're on the air.
DANGood morning. I wanted to make a comment regarding your program of a week or so ago about Aqua-Culture. I am retired Aqua-Culture scientist and I was very disappointed that no one on your panel and none of the people who called in, pointed out a very important fact about this approximately 50 percent of our seafood that now comes from Aqua-Culture, and that is, generally speaking with a few exceptions, Aqua-Culture does not produce food. It changes a low quality food into a high price food.
DANAnd the reason is for the feed conversion. The very best feed conversions that have been well documented are three or four to one. So that means, you're putting in -- and lets say in the case of a salmon, you're putting in three or four pounds of some fish or other feed ingredients to get a pound of salmon. So you're not producing food, net food anyway, you're just making it more valuable.
REHMAll right, sir, thanks for your call.
FABERAnd in fact, our meat eaters guide found that farmed salmon produces more greenhouse gasses then turkey and chicken, just for those reasons.
DANCan I -- Diane, can I just throw something in to you about this?
DANYou know, it -- this can be a discouraging conversation for people, particularly people who like to eat meat, but you know, the way we eat meat is -- has changed dramatically. We -- you know, we have this idea that a dinner consists of a big chunk of animal protein surrounded by some little cowering vegetables on the sides of the plates. But for most of history, people have loved meat and they've figured out very creative ways to get the flavor and experience of meat without using a lot of it.
DANI mean, you think of the Chinese stir fry, for example, where you have lots of little pieces of meat but mostly vegetables. And if we merely change the balance on our plates between the amount of meat and vegetables, we can continue to have the pleasure of eating meat without using quite so much of it. And, of course, this is what the history of cooking and cuisine has really been about, how can you get the biggest bang out of a small amount of meat. 'Cause meat, for most of history, has been incredibly hard to get, incredibly precious and incredibly expensive.
DANAnd now we're in this -- we're operating in this very strange world where, you know, these large pieces of meat are affordable to billions of people but at great cost. So if we recover a little bit of our skill in the kitchen, we can, you know, have our meat and eat it too.
REHMReally good point. Let's go to Jess in Northport, Mich. You're on the air.
JESSWow, thank you so much. What I really wanted to say and I'm out here weeding my field in our farm and my farm crew's right next to me. I don't mean to insult them but my best employees are my pigs. We -- you know, our pigs, we have eight pigs on our three acres of vegetables and we move them around our field and whenever we're done harvesting a crop, we move our pigs in, they eat all the leftover food and they fertilize the field. At the end of the year, we send them to market.
JESSAnd it's just been so great to see our fields get improved every year from these pigs going over it, doing their work to, you know, turn up the field and it's just been remarkable. And I think, what I really want to say, is that Mr. Pollan is absolutely right about how, you know, pigs and we don't want to decouple animals and vegetable agriculture. Those two things together make a lot of sense. We don't have any kind of nitrogen input or synthetic nitrogen inputs. For animals, fertilizing the field and our plants, feeding our animals, it's just great. And so, that's just what I wanted to say.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Michael.
POLLANWell, you know, I think he raises a good point. On the most sustainable farms, you don't talk about feed conversion rates. You know, there's a lot of very good farmers now experimenting with raising pigs in forests where you don't have to deforest but -- and they get a lot of their own food. They eat the nuts and the acorns and things like that. And it takes -- they can get between 50 and 80 percent of their feed on their own while actually improving the health of the forest.
POLLANSo if we really learn to farm with nature, ecologically, a lot of these calculations we're making are really based on an industrial model that is not the only way to do it. And pigs have historically been great recyclers.
REHMNow, the other thing, I think people have becoming increasingly concerned about regarding beef are the hormones that go into the feed, the hormones that may be somehow transmitted to us as humans. Jude, how do you address that issue when it comes up?
POLLANWell, there's a lot of dispute about that. The Europeans have banned the use of hormones in beef out of concern that they're getting into the human diet or into the environment. And I don't know if most people realize but most of the beef that comes off of feed lots has had growth hormones, implants basically, in the animals, which speeds up their growth. And I remember asking a feedlot operator, well, you know, there is some question about this and if everyone stopped doing it, you wouldn't -- no one would be at a competitive disadvantage.
POLLANYou know, it would add a few days to the -- to how long it takes to get to slaughter weight. And he looked at me like I was crazy and says, we're not competing with each other, we're competing with chicken. And..
POLLAN...beef takes longer. And so that's kind of what's driving it, you know...
POLLAN…who's got the cheapest protein in the store.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jude, I know you wanted to get in there.
CAPPERThank you. Yes. Absolutely, we use hormones in the states and they don't in other regions for various political type reasons. But I think it's really important to put them into context. As a mother of a baby, obviously, I'm incredibly concerned about my daughters upbringing and growth and health. But if we look at one individual eight ounce steak, if that's from an animal given hormones, that does absolutely have more estrogen in it. But to put it into context, 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, which are taken every day by a 100 million women.
CAPPERNow, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about hormones. We should all be concerned about everything in our food. But we have to put it into context. And all food contains hormones, whether it's an apple, whether it's tofu, cabbage or beef. It all contains hormones.
POLLANAnd, you know, we -- I mean -- and I agree we should be concerned with hormones in the food supply and in plastics and everything else but why add to the burden? I mean, there are hormones in lots of things and we have this mystery on our hands which why girls, now, enter puberty at a much younger age then they once did. So here is the case of a completely unnecessary addition of hormones, however small to the food supply. And, it seems to me, we should be working to reduce that exposure any way we can.
FABERAnd I know, many consumers including this father of two babies who are now 14 and 10, they're still my babies, very concerned about the use of antibiotics and whether or not the overuse of antibiotics, 80 percent of antibiotics are used to -- used in animal production.
REHMWhy? To keep them...
FABERWell, you know, historically it's been to help promote growth but also prevent disease. Now, it's -- now, they can only be used to prevent disease. But nevertheless, the use -- the heavy use of antibiotics in animals means that, ultimately, they're becoming less effective for humans and that's terrible news.
REHMSo, Scott, how much meat do you consume?
FABERLess and less. I eat -- I enjoy meat, I try to avoid red meat because of its enormous climate impact and -- but I enjoy seafood and chicken and every once in a while...
REHMHow about you, Michael?
POLLANI guess I'm what's called the flexitarian, this is someone who eats meat once or twice a week. I really enjoy the taste of meat. But, yeah, I have -- the more I've learned about how we produce meat and its impact, I -- you know, I'm very careful about eating sustainable meat that comes from small farms and if you try to do that you'll find it's very expensive and therefore you eat less of it.
POLLANSo I go for quality over quantity.
REHMWe'll let it go at that. Thank you all, so much. Scott Faber, Jude Capper, Michael Pollan, think about what you choose on the menu the next time you go to a restaurant or the grocery store, keep it all in perspective. Thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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