Between 2005 and 2014, American beef consumption decreased 19 percent, according to a new study from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The report, entitled, “Less Beef, Less Carbon: Americans Shrink Their Diet-Related Carbon Footprint by 10 Percent Between 2005 and 2014,” looks at USDA and EPA data on consumption habits as well as the environmental impact, as livestock production, particularly cows, produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases. The reduced beef consumption reportedly led to a reduction of methane emissions “roughly the equivalent of the annual tailpipe pollution of 39 million cars,” the report notes.
“Americans’ reduced consumption of other products—such as milk, pork, shellfish, and high fructose corn syrup—accounts for the remaining emissions cuts,” which amounts to a total combined reduction of 57 million cars’ worth of emissions, even though the U.S. experienced a nine percent population growth over the same decade.
“Pollution could have been cut even deeper had Americans not simultaneously increased consumption of other carbon-intensive foods like cheese, yogurt, butter and other foods,” the report explains, but the group says the move away from beef is still vitally significant for the environment.
While the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) linked the declined consumption to a reduced beef supply due to rising exports, a recent survey published by Mintel pointed to a rise in alternative proteins, like plant-based foods, as a key factor for the shift. In that survey, 35 percent of consumers said they were opting for alternative proteins, and more than 25 percent said the shift was due to personal health concerns rather than environmental reasons.
The NCBA reportedly called the link between beef consumption and automobile emissions “fallacious,” pointing toward U.S. food waste as a more significant culprit, suggesting that consumers could reduce more emissions by not throwing away so many fruits and vegetables, rather than decreasing their beef consumption.
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But the NCBA’s reasoning doesn’t diminish the impact reduced beef consumption has had on the environment, notes Sujatha Bergen, a policy specialist in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program.
“Whether we realize it or not, Americans have been fighting greenhouse gas emissions with their forks,” Bergen told the New York Times.
“[Of] all the foods Americans eat, beef has by far the biggest footprint,” reports the Times. “ The feeds given to cattle are grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, and the animals’ digestive systems produce methane, a pollutant 25 times as damaging to the environment as carbon dioxide. The manure, which is spread on fields or collected in large tanks, also emits greenhouse gases.”
."Despite a drop in consumption," reads the report, "beef still contributes more climate-warming pollution than any other food in the American diet. In fact, it comprised approximately 34 percent of total diet related per capita climate-warming pollution in 2014."
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