Chicken or Beef? Chicken, Please

Like me, you want to preserve the earth and its climate so your children can enjoy the blessings of God’s creation.  But it’s not so easy.  You’ve got no place for solar panels, your landlord prohibits clotheslines, there’s no commuter rail serving your town, and you couldn’t sell your inefficient suburban dream-house if you wanted to.
Relax.  There are a thousand things we can change to take better care of our Father’s world.  How about starting with the food we eat?
Chicken, or beef?
Did you know that your choice of meats and vegetable proteins contributes in a big way to the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) you pump into the atmosphere?  A new study by the Environmental Working Group has examined protein foods from lamb to lentils, and has calculated the amount of CO2 and equivalent amounts of methane generated during the entire life-cycle, from field production to your compost pile or landfill (get it here).
The EWG study performed life-cycle assessments of 20 popular protein foods, looking at all phases of their life from “cradle to grave.”  They considered on-farm sources of GHGs, like pesticides, fertilizers and animal raising.  But they also looked at “post-farm-gate” sources, like transportation, processing, spoilage and cooking.  And they even considered the impact of food that gets left on the plate or leftovers thrown out days later.
As you’d expect, meats account for more heat-trapping GHGs than most protein vegetables, like peanut butter and dried beans.  But to me, one of the most interesting findings is the big difference between beef and chicken.  Chicken is way more climate-friendly.
Units CO2 per unit consumed food: beef, chicken, and 18 others

The bottom line is striking:  For every pound of beef that makes it onto your fork, 27.0 lbs. of CO2-equivalent GHGs get released into the atmosphere.  27 lbs!  But if you choose chicken instead, the GHGs from your food choices are reduced by 75%, to 6.9 lbs.  Here’s why:

Beef cows are ruminants, with a special digestive organ that permits them to digest grasses.  In the rumen, a cow’s digestion produces methane in mind-numbing quantities.  And methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.  So for every pound of meat, a cow produces the methane equivalent of 7.5 lbs. of CO2.  Chicken aren’t ruminants, and produce no methane this way. 
But wait!  There’s more!
Beef cattle also eat about three times more feed per pound of meat than chicken do.  So when you add up the greenhouse gases that go into growing the corn and soybeans they eat, beef’s impact of 4.7 lbs. CO2 is way above chicken at 1.3 lbs.
Add to that the greater amount of nitrous oxide emitted by beef manure, the higher emissions from transporting beef, and the greater amount of methane from cow manure, and beef production is off the charts, compared to chicken.
Raising beef produces methane and nitrous oxide, deadly GHGs
Once the food leaves the farm, the playing field levels out a bit.  The processing of chicken generates a little more greenhouse gases, because of all the water that has to be pumped into the process.  But then comes waste on your plate:  Americans waste 16% of the beef they are served, and 12% of the chicken.  All that GHG pollution, going for food we throw into the trash.
So, what does all this mean?  Well, for starters, caring for the creation in our day might involve passing up the beef more often, and having other proteins instead, like chicken, eggs, milk, nuts or beans.  The EWG report figures that if we eat one less hamburger per week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles, or line-drying your clothes half the time. 
Remember, you don’t necessarily need to have a wind-turbine above your roof.  Everyone can do something.  And smart food choices are a good place to start.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you!
J. Elwood
P.S.  If you’re reading this in Kenya, Chile or Uganda, this data might not be exactly applicable.  The EWR Study was based on USDA data from conventional U.S. meat and vegetable production methods, not grass-fed, free-range and organic processes.

One thought on “Chicken or Beef? Chicken, Please

  1. Nathan

    Very thought provoking piece. This is the sort of thing that one doesn't normally think of, so thanks for the information, and for reminding us that our decisions have effects on the world we live in.

    Reply

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