The Scientists Speak
Humans have been polluting the surface, water, and atmosphere of our planet for millennia, but the pace and magnitude of these insults to our natural world has increased substantially with the surge in population and technology over the last century. We have commandeered and rewired the biogeochemical cycles of nearly every element of the periodic table, from the light biologically reactive elements such as nitrogen and carbon, to the heavy, sometimes radioactive elements used in military, computer, energy and medical technologies. While these perturbed cycles can spell trouble for natural ecosystems, of primary global concern is the buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere--specifically carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Indeed, because of fossil fuel combustion, the atmospheric concentration of the longest-lived of those gases, carbon dioxide, has risen from preindustrial levels of 280 ppmv to 405 ppmv in May of 2016, a greater than 40% increase. And because carbon dioxide is so well mixed in the atmosphere, no part of the Earth surface has escaped its warming influence—the summit of Everest, the southern polar ice cap, the farthest reaches of Siberia have all been altered by humans. While politicians continue to bicker about Earth science and basic physical principles, a younger generation of voters and future leaders, including the authors of this report, understand that humans must find a way to live sustainably and in harmony with nature. They have long since moved from deliberation over the scientific evidence, to action. The combined effort of this new generation is directed toward a global search for politically and societally tractable solutions that can mitigate the negative impact humans are having on our natural environment.
This report represents the culmination of a one-semester graduate independent study that we were privileged to advise at Columbia University in the spring of 2016. Uncharacteristically, we neither initiated the class nor set out to design it. Rather, it was organized by a group of passionate and motivated students who, after hearing one of us talk about the science of global warming, wanted to know how they could make a difference. We suggested they delve into a significant, yet largely overlooked component of the human greenhouse budget in the United States, namely the agricultural industry. These students, who would ultimately author this report and create the accompanying website, took on this challenge with creativity, commitment, and most importantly, critical and thoughtful analysis. After immersing themselves in the existing literature, the students framed the course as posing, and then answering, a deceptively simple question: Can environmental burdens exerted by agriculture and food production be appreciably reduced by dietary modifications that are neither draconian in nature, nor politically pie-in-the-sky? It quickly became clear to the students that the most impact an individual or institution can achieve is by reducing beef consumption. Quantifying the positive environmental impact of beef reduction thus became the focus of the nascent Hold the Beef initiative, for which this report lays the foundation.
As might be expected from such talented students, in a rapid-fire burst of diligence, long hours, and harmonious collaboration fueled by much caffeine, this group produced a final product that authoritatively lays out an important environmental story in a scientifically sound and aesthetically pleasing format. And while their semester’s work is concluded and they chart their future paths, we all hope to keep the Hold the Beef initiative moving forward as new papers and information emerge. Certainly, this document should form an important contribution to a constructive dialog between beef-friendly, farm-friendly, and environment-friendly audiences.
As we continue to communicate with the public and our professional colleagues on the science and societal implications of global warming, audience members will continue to ask us, “What can I do to help make our future more sustainable?” The answer argued within this document couldn’t be clearer—Hold the Beef!
Gidon Eshel, Research Professor of Environmental Science and Physics, Bard College, NY
Maureen E. Raymo, Bruce C. Heezen Lamont Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, NY
May 5, 2016
 Parts per million by volume.
This web report is the result of an independent study conducted by 5 graduate students at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University in New York City. The aim of this report is to understand and effectively communicate the negative environmental impacts of the beef industry in the U.S.
This effort originated from a discussion with Lamont-Doherty Climate Scientist, Maureen Raymo, and Bard Environmental Physics Research Scientist, Gidon Eshel, about the ways in which the American diet had a disproportionate impact on climate change. It was obvious to these academic experts that beef is a disproportionate driver of environmental problems, including greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global climate change. Communicating this information to the American public and policymakers required a capacity for cross-disciplinary research, time-intensive analysis, and a platform from which this information could be shared.
This report is the first stage of this process, and will hopefully spur further discussion and action.
Other communication tools including social media, conference presentations, and more are in the works-- all with the mission of informing and empowering Americans to “Hold the Beef.”
‘Hold the Beef’ presents a synthesis of research and analysis of the impacts that surround the production and consumption of beef in America. This report also offers areas of opportunity for public choices and policies that will benefit American health, wealth, and environment.
First, the reader will find an overview of the environmental impacts of beef. These include disproportionate and degradative land use for production, intensive consumption of fossil-fuels, habitat alteration and damage that leads to biodiversity loss, massive greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution linked to fertilizer and waste inputs, and excessive groundwater withdrawals for feed production. All of these impacts derived from beef production are substantially worse compared to diets that rely on other forms of animal protein or plant-based protein.
This report then addresses the public health concerns associated with beef consumption. This section of the report specifically focuses on cancer, type II diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human form of Mad Cow disease), and antibiotic resistance.
Next, the report proposes an economic analysis of the beef market and explains why the current price of beef does not represent the true cost of production. Beef’s market price is highly subsidized through direct government subsidies and indirectly through under-regulated use of natural resources. A conservative estimate suggests that the current price of ground beef is at a minimum 240% lower than its real cost.
The report then presents problematic governmental policies related to beef. Dietary guidelines, co-issued by the Department of Agriculture, do not consider environmental issues, and U.S. food production does not align with nutritional recommendations. U.S. regulations aimed at protecting water, air, and human health fall short when it comes to addressing the harms done by the meat industry.
All of these issues characterize beef as it exists in the U.S. From the global perspective, Westernized beef-heavy diets should not be the trend for parts of the world experiencing population growth, economic development, and dietary transitions. It should be stated that a simple shift from beef products to chicken, pork, dairy, and plant-based foods can make a substantial difference in the magnitude of these problems.
This report intends to synthesize and demonstrate the severe consequences of beef production to the social and environmental well-being of Americans. It is hoped that this report will encourage policymakers, and the public, to initiate action towards incremental changes in patterns of dietary consumption and agricultural production. Ultimately, the cumulative findings of this report suggest that exploring the impacts of food systems on our environment certainly deserves more public attention. We hope that this report convinces the reader to be a part of this solution by making a simple substitution, in place of beef, of chicken, pork, tofu, or vegetables.
For a downloadable PDF version of this report, see the Slideshare Link below:
The Environmental Impacts of Beef
BEEF AND ENERGY
The American food system produces 3800 kilocalories of food energy per capita. The energy needs of this system total 10.2 quadrillion (10.2 × 1015) BTUs, annually (Heller and Keoleian, 2000). To put this in perspective, this is about 10% of the total energy consumed in the United States. These same researchers calculate that for every one unit of food energy produced in the U.S., it required 7.3 units of fossil fuel energy (Heller and Keoleian, 2000). In 2002, the food production system required 17% of all fossil fuel use in the United States (Horrigan et al. 2002). The average American uses 17 to 68 million BTUs (1.7 × 107 to 6.8 × 107) of energy for personal transportation and approximately 40 million BTUs (4 × 107) for their food (Eshel and Martin, 2006).
For most any food, the total energy required for that final food product to be produced, transported, and final placement onto an American’s plate is much greater than the actual energy that the food provides to the person eating it (Heller and Keoleian, 2000). However, the energy intrinsic in a beef patty or steak is much greater than other forms of food. For instance, as Pimentel & Pimentel calculate the 375 kcal of energy provided to a person from eating the contents of a can of sweet corn would require 3065 kcal of energy to produce. For the same 375 kcal of nutrition provided by beef, it would require 13,497 kcal of fossil energy! This is especially concerning when one considers that 96% of this energy is used in the production of the beef, itself, as opposed to the processing, packaging, and transportation of this food product (1996b).
By choosing to reduce or substitute beef with comparably nutritious foods, even including other animal-based foods, the average American can stand to significantly reduce their fossil fuel footprint.
BEEF AND LAND USE
World Outlook. It is well understood that beef production is associated with extensive land usage. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) supports this fact with current available data compiled in the Agri-environmental dataset, FAOSTAT.
This data points to a global food economy that is increasingly driven by consumption of meat and dairy. Agriculture, as a system of production, will not only be affected by a resultant increase in livestock rearing, but also through the increased production of feed for livestock. This production and supply chain comes complete with negative environmental externalities such as increased land use, pollution, greenhouse gas emission, among others. “Globally livestock production is the largest user of agricultural land and therefore also leaves a significant imprint on the environment” (FAO UN, 2015).
Some noteworthy statistics from FAOSTAT show the monumental intensity of agricultural activity on the planet’s terrestrial surface. World land area dedicated to agriculture is 38.5%, which is used to produce the food products that make up the world diet, as shown in Figure 1 (2013).
United States Agricultural Land Use. If we focus on the United States, specifically, we can see that agricultural activities have a larger proportional effect on land use than the global statistic. The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) periodically assembles a land use report as part of a series, “Major Land Use.” The Department states about the report, “The Major Land Use (MLU) series is the longest running, most comprehensive accounting of all major uses of public and private land in the United States” (USDA ERS, 2015a).
The land use statistics from this report establish that the approximately 2.3 billion acres of land area in the United States are divided into different uses, shown below in Figure 2.
The USDA Economic Research Service states on its website in the section “Land Use, Land Value, & Tenure” that total agricultural land use is equal to 51% of the U.S. land base. This means that approximately 1.16 billion acres are used for agricultural purposes: crop production, grassland pasture, rangeland, forest-grazing, farmsteads, or farm roads (USDA ERS, 2015a). This includes all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. This dedication of land for agricultural use is alarming given that in 2007, only 86,000 of the 375 million acres of the state of Alaska are suitable for agricultural land use. Adjusting for this, the total percent of land located in the other 49 states classified as for agriculture land use purposes is actually approximately 60% (USDA NASS, 2009).
The massive proportion of U.S. land use, especially in the contiguous United States, dedicated to agricultural purposes is concerning in its own right, but doubly so when this is analyzed for how much of this dedication is part and parcel of the beef industry.
Beef’s Share of Land Use. Within livestock production, beef cattle farming and ranching is the largest sector of U.S. agriculture using both the value of sales and number of farms as a measure (USDA NASS, 2014). This sector is mostly comprised of the ~600,000 farms and ~30,000 feedlots which generated the majority of their income in 2012 from beef cattle production (USDA NASS, 2014a).
Based on an analysis of the 2007 Census on Agriculture, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association stated in 2009 that “In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (31 percent in 2007 and 29 percent in 2012) than any other type of farm (Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 2009) (USDA NASS 2014a).
To think about what this means for number of animals on U.S. lands, we can look at the most current statistics (at the time of this report) for living heads of cattle, published by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): “All cattle and calves in the United States as of January 1, 2016 totaled 92 million head. This is 3 percent above the 89.1 million head on January 1, 2015” (USDA NASS, 2016). This document also indicates that the 2016 number of beef cattle in the U.S. during this time totaled 30.3 million, up 4 percent from  with 13.2 million of these animals being fed with cattle feed, not forage. This is over triple the number of dairy cows, which represent 9.32 million of the total number (USDA NASS, 2016).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service states, “With its abundant grasslands and large grain supply, the United States has developed a beef industry that is largely separate from its dairy sector. With the world’s largest fed-cattle industry, the United States is also the world’s largest producer of beef--primarily high-quality, grain-fed beef for domestic and export use (USDA ERS, 2012).”
From the 2012 Census of Agriculture, it should be noted that within this system of land use, soybeans and corn grown for grain and silage accounts for greater than half of harvested cropland, totaling 163.5 million acres. Land dedicated to soybean and corn for silage had increased by 19 and 20 percent, respectively, between the 2007 and 2012 censuses (USDA NASS, 2014a). Corn is the number one feed grain in the United States and processed soybeans is the largest source of animal protein for feed in the world. Together, these two crops provide the main energy ingredients in feed for livestock (USDA ERS, 2016a).
Eshel et al. (2015) expand on this situation, demonstrating that food production accounts for the largest use of land and freshwater by humans. In more detail, they partition feed and forage into classes, which are then analyzed by which types of livestock rely upon those feed sources.
Through independent treatment of the main feed classes (grain and soy concentrates, processed roughage, and pasture), Eshel et al. are able to calculate the different production-based environmental burdens by livestock type -- which, it turns out, vary widely. Within the current U.S. food system, of all livestock types, beef cattle consume approximately 21% of grain and soy concentrates, 92% of pasture, and 87% of processed roughage (Eshel et al., 2015).
While dairy cows, poultry, and hogs consume a greater proportion of concentrated feed, beef cattle consume an overwhelming majority of all pasture and processed roughage--defined prior as hay and silage. This results in an enormous burden on American land area, which could be otherwise utilized-- such as crop food production for direct human consumption, recreation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and ecosystems, and human settlement. It also results in issues of land degradation, overgrazing, native wildlife habitat modification/fragmentation, overuse of water and soil resources available in those lands, amongst other problems--detailed later in this report.
Indeed, beef cattle need to consume large amounts of forage or feed in order to reach the size at which they are generally considered ready for slaughter, butchering, and packaging-- then to be shipped out to markets for consumer purchase. In livestock production, this plant matter must originate from land-based sources, either rangeland habitats (forage) or agricultural crop systems (feed). Most cattle rely on feed eventually in their lifetime. In the U.S., more than ⅔ of the 25 million cattle sold annually in the U.S. are finished in the four Plain region states -- Kansas, Colorado, Texas, or Nebraska (USDA NASS, 2013).
Eshel et al. summarize the land used by the animal-based portion of the U.S. diet: “~0.6 million km2 [148,263,229 acres] for crops and processed roughage, equivalent to ~40% of all U.S. cropland or ~2,000 m2 [.49 acres] per person. The total requirements, including pasture land, amount to ~3.7 million km2 [914,289,911 acres], equivalent to ~40% of the total land area of the United States or ~12,000 m2 per person [2.97 acres] (2014).”
Beef alone accounts for ~88% of all U.S. land used to produce animal-based calories, with land use split between pasturelands (~79%), land devoted to production of processed roughage (~7%), and land devoted to producing concentrated feed (~2%) (Eshel et al., 2014; Eshel et al., 2010). Eshel and others also find that producing 1000 kCal of beef requires approximately 28 times the land and 11 times the irrigation water as compared to protein calories sourced from dairy, poultry, pork and eggs. Beef also results in the 5 times the production of greenhouse gases, and puts 6 times the average reactive nitrogen load into the environment (Eshel et al., 2014). This means that beef, on its own, as compared to other common animal products in the U.S., has a greater impact and influence on global climate change (due to the comparatively-high GHG loading) and water pollution (due to the reactive nitrogen, which acts as a eutrophication agent).
Using land in the U.S. as a means to eventually produce beef is generally agreed to be an inefficient way of generating calories and protein for human consumption. By moving up the food chain in our consumption (carnivorous consumption versus herbivorous consumption), the land usage necessary for our diet is 3-4x that necessary to produce similarly nutritious plant food for consumption.
According to Eshel et al. (2010), calculated life cycle analyses demonstrate that plant based diets use 2/3 to 3/4 less land than that required to produce similar nutritional outputs for the average American diet, which is heavily reliant on animal protein. Their calculations estimated that 109 million acres of land, which is greater than the size of the state of California (105 million acres) would be available for alternative use if Americans subsisted on a plant-based diet as compared to the average American diet. If this transition were to be fully implemented, and this land were used for plant crop production, an additional 198–260 million Americans could be sustainably fed (Eshel et al., 2010).
It has also been demonstrated by Reijnders and Soret (2003) that per unit protein, meat production requires 6 to 17 times as much land as that for, specifically, soy crops. This is important given that meat in the U.S. and other industrialized countries is often fueled via the production of feed grains and soybeans. “Thus, the environmentally relevant effect of meat production comprises both animal husbandry and the growth of feed grains and soybeans that are eaten by the animals involved” (Reijnders and Soret, 2003).
Indeed, as restated by Reijnders and Soret (2003), Tilman et al. calculated that over the next 50 years, “which is likely to be the final period of rapid agricultural expansion, demand for food by a wealthier and 50% larger global population will be a major driver of global environmental change.” They estimate that by the year 2050, 109 hectares [2.47 × 109 acres] of natural ecosystems would be converted to agricultural use, which not only impacts total land use, but also biodiversity and ecosystem functioning as detailed in this report’s Biodiversity section.
BEEF AND BIODIVERSITY
Biodiversity loss associated with food production is a complex web of causality. Agricultural land expansion has a direct impact on species habitat loss, as Reijnders and Soret discuss (2003). The externalities of agricultural production, such as air and water pollution, pesticide use, and excess fertilization, also leads to stressed ecosystems driving down species populations, as is discussed by Tilman et al. (2001).
Tilman et al. (2001) states that the transition of land into agricultural use is estimated to be associated with “a 2.4- to 2.7-fold increase in nitrogen and phosphorus-driven eutrophication of terrestrial, freshwater, and nearshore marine ecosystems, and comparable increases in pesticide use.” Tilman et al. state that this eutrophication and other associated degradation of non-agricultural lands will lead to severe habitat destruction, ecosystem simplification, loss of ecosystem services, and species extinction. They conclude by stating that “significant scientific advances and regulatory, technological, and policy changes are needed to control the environmental impacts of agricultural expansion (2001).”
While food production impacts biodiversity in a general sense, Brian Machovina and Kenneth J. Feeley point to livestock production as the biggest culprit of species loss within this system. This is due to the fact that livestock production has some association with up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface. As discussed prior in the Land section of this report, agriculture accounts for the largest anthropogenic land use, and based on the aforementioned, it could be stated that livestock production, specifically, holds this title of largest use of land by humans.
Machovina also point to a changing and more affluent diet in China and continued forest loss within the Amazon forest system, driven by livestock production, as being reasons to be concerned for current trends in beef consumption (Machovina and Feeley, 2014a). They discuss how meat consumption and production, as a general trend, is increasing in developing countries that also happen to feature high richness and diversity of species-- leading to biodiversity loss in favor of agricultural systems that support meat production (Machovina and Feeley, 2014a).
Another issue arises in the extirpation of local carnivorous species in the Western U.S. for the purposes of ‘predator and prey control’ in rangelands where cattle are brought to graze. As Bergstrom et al. discuss, “For more than 100 years, the US government has conducted lethal control of native wildlife, to benefit livestock producers and to enhance game populations, especially in the western states (2014).” As these researchers detail, just since the year 2000, Wildlife Services (WS), an agency of the USDA, has intentionally used lethal methods such as poisoning and guns to kill 2 million animals including 20 species of carnivores, beavers, ground-dwelling squirrels, and nontarget species. This kill-off of native species results in risks of biodiversity loss, destabilization of ecosystems leading to the proliferation of invasive species and reduced ecosystem services (Bergstrom et al., 2014).
BEEF AND GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
Around the globe, livestock production is among the main contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 7.1 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent globally, or 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). These emissions are driven by deforestation and land use change in many places in the tropics throughout the globe. In the U.S., where most arable land has already been cleared and converted to agricultural land, agriculture accounts for 9% of national emissions totals (Eshel, 2016). As of 2013, the U.S. EPA estimated that the United States emits 6,673 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent annually (2016). According to Eshel et al. (2014) animal agriculture is responsible for 3.1 x 1012 kg CO2e or 5% of total U.S. emissions. Beef production, the livestock category with the largest GHG impact, is responsible for 275 million metric tons CO2 equivalent or 46% of total U.S. agricultural emissions. According to these calculations, that means that beef production alone contributes around 4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (Eshel, 2016).
Land Use Change. The most substantial portion of beef cattle’s carbon footprint is not produced by the animals themselves, but by production of the cereal crops that the animals are fed. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that feed production and processing contributes 45% to the global livestock emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). Of course, the magnitude of this impact is more nuanced depending on where those crops were grown, and under what production model. For example, some of the highest GHG impact feed comes from soybeans grown in Brazil’s Cerrado. Once a major sink for carbon dioxide sequestration under its dense forests, large swaths of the area have been deforested. Seventy percent of these deforested areas have subsequently been planted with soybean (Niman, 2014). Granted, very little of Brazilian soybeans come to the U.S., so deforested cropland does not represent as large of a share of beef’s GHG footprint in the U.S. as it does globally (Niman, 2014). However, this example stands to illustrate that land use change globally represents one of the main emission pathways through which beef production displaces carbon and other GHGs into the atmosphere (Gerber et al., 2013).
The term “land use change” refers to the expansion of agricultural production into natural habitats, either for feed production or for grazing (Gerber et al., 2013). It is estimated that about 25% of the total GHG cost of feed comes from land use change. Though substantial, land use change represents less than 10% of total livestock sector emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). GHG emissions result from agriculture driven land use change.
Nitrogen Production. Nitrogen production also contributes to the GHG impact of beef production. This may seem at first counter-intuitive, as many readers will correctly assert that nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas. However, the production of synthetic nitrogen through the carbon-intensive Haber-Bosch process for application to croplands dedicated to the production of animal feeds is an indirect impact of beef production. Similarly, through the use of such fertilizers, concentrated nitrogen oxidizes when exposed to water, and produces nitrogen oxide (N2O), which is a highly potent greenhouse gas, with 300 times more warming potential per pound than carbon dioxide (U.S. EPA, 2016c). N2O represents 5% of total U.S. GHG emissions, according to 2013 estimates. The sector that produces most of the U.S.’s N2O is indeed agriculture (79%), through the use of nitrogen fertilizers in soil management (74%), and in the decomposition of animal manure and urine (5%) (U.S. EPA, 2016c).
Animal Manure. The storage and processing of animal manure contributes 10% of livestock agriculture’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). Two primary gases are involved in this process – Nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). As mentioned above, manure decomposes, and the nitrogen within it first transforms into ammonia (NH3), and once in the atmosphere is converted into nitrous oxide (N2O). Methane (CH4) is also released into the atmosphere during this process. N2O emitted from manure management is responsible for 5.2% of the livestock sector’s emissions by volume and CH4 from manure management is responsible for 4.3% of sector emissions (Gerber et al, 2013).
Enteric fermentation, or the process by which ruminants break down plant fibers into digestible form produces the second most greenhouse gases for the livestock sector. According to the FAO, a total of 40% of sector emissions come from methane produced through enteric fermentation (2013). Cattle represent the animal group that produces the most methane globally, accounting for 77% of all enteric methane emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). Some studies suggest that mature breeding cows produce larger amounts of enteric methane than steers, heifers or breeding bulls (Beauchemin et al., 2010). This may indicate that methane mitigation strategies should be aimed at this subsection of the global bovine population.
It is true animal-based diets are more resource intense than plant-based diets. However, even within animal-based diets, there is a gradient of environmental impact. As Eshel et al. (2014) posit, beef production is unequivocally the most environmentally intense mode of production. Greenhouse gas emissions are no exception. Eshel et al partitioned livestock’s environmental impact in the U.S. among five livestock sectors – poultry, beef, dairy, pork, and egg-laying chickens - according to the share of feed, both concentrate and roughage, each sector consumed. Essentially, the environmental impact created by the production of the feed consumed by the livestock group becomes that group’s impact on the environment. This methodology represents a top-down approach in contrast to the more common, bottom-up approach employed by life cycle analyses. Eshel et al. (2014) find that beef production produces about five times more GHG emissions per calorie consumed than each of the other four livestock categories.
BEEF AND WATER
Just as the GHG impact of beef production comes from the feed used to grow these animals, much of the water impact of beef production comes from the farming of grains, legumes, and roughage to feed cattle. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use, and 40% of the crops produced with this water will go to feeding livestock (FAO UN, 2016; FAO UN, 2012). In the U.S., more than half of the grain produced will be used to feed livestock (Pimentel, 2008). While it takes large quantities to water to raise livestock, the impact livestock have on water quality is also substantial. It is estimated that 30% of nitrogen and phosphorous loading in drinking water is caused by animal agriculture (Steinfeld et al., 2006).
Water Scarcity. It is important to note that not all water is created equal when considering environmental impact. For example, most maize production in the Midwest United States is rain fed – meaning it depends mostly or primarily on rainfall for its growth. Indeed, this is typical of most developed countries, as 80% of cereal production in North America and Europe is rainfed (Rosegrant et al., 2002). This type of water is referred to as “green water.” “Blue water” can be simplified to mean irrigated water – either from surface or groundwater reservoirs. “Blue water” draws have a greater environmental impact, particularly when being pumped from aquifers underground where recharge rate is very slow. In the United States, freshwater withdrawals from groundwater totaled 53,500 million gallons per day, or 42% of total agricultural irrigation withdrawals in 2005 (USGS, 2016). Intense consumption of groundwater reserves for agriculture has greatly contributed to water crises in several key groundwater basins in the United States. The High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer is the most pumped aquifer in the U.S., providing water to one fifth of the country’s gross agricultural production, and is already depleted in some areas. California’s Central Valley aquifer (the second most pumped aquifer), provides water to one of the most productive land areas in the world – representing one sixth of the total irrigated land in the U.S. (Faunt, 2009). By surface area, the Central Valley has the highest production of fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S., and agricultural production accounts for the vast majority of surface water and groundwater withdrawals in the area.
Of all other livestock categories, beef is the most water-intensive, requiring about eight times more irrigated water (or “blue” water) per consumed calorie than other domesticated livestock species to produce (Eshel et al., 2014). This has to do with quantity of crops used to feed cattle. Cattle are the least efficient domesticated livestock animal in converting of feed calories to consumable muscle and fat. Cattle require more than double the feed calories required to create 1 human edible calorie than the second least efficient livestock category pork. If pasture and roughage is included in this calculation, beef require more than three times as many feed calories (Eshel et al., 2014). True, not all calories are created equal. Beef and other animal flesh are important sources of complex proteins. That means that in some cases, animal based calories deliver a higher nutritional return than non-animal calories. However, cattle still require at least two to three times more feed calories to produce a gram of protein than does pork, poultry, eggs, or dairy. The physiology of cattle require larger quantities of nutrients and protein to produce edible muscle and fat than any other domesticated livestock animal.
The connection to water consumption is clear. Less efficient conversion of feed nutrients into muscle and fat means more demand for feed grains, which means more water withdrawals for the production of feed crops. Indeed, since the 1970’s 40% of U.S. grain-fed beef have been fattened on grains grown on Ogallala groundwater (Braxton-Little, 2009). Today, entire sections of the Ogallala Aquifer face depletion. However, water quantity isn’t the only resource affected by increased feed crop needs. Water quality suffers with increased demand for feed crops as well.
Water Pollution. Beef production also has a profound impact on water quality – specifically nutrient pollution. All living plants need three macronutrients to grow and survive – nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These three nutrients are naturally present in soils, however centuries of intense agricultural production has rendered many of the world’s soils deficient in these three nutrients. One way to increase soil fertility, and thus production, on poor soils is to fix synthetic nitrogen through the Haber-Bosch process, and apply it to fields. When application is done incorrectly, or as a result of heavy rains and erosion, these fertilizers can end up in waterways instead of plants. Such runoff can catalyze large algal blooms which use large amounts of the oxygen in the water, creating hypoxic conditions under which aquatic life cannot survive. This contributes to large dead zones in aquatic and marine ecosystems.
Nowhere are these dead zones more evident than in the Mississippi River Delta where it converges with the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi river basin drains over one million square miles of land in the U.S. Nutrient runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural land in the basin has collected over decades at the delta, regularly creating algal blooms and hypoxic conditions that threaten sensitive ecosystems within the region. It is no coincidence that the majority of corn in the U.S. is produced within this watershed.
Though every state produces some corn, production is concentrated in the U.S. heartland region which includes Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, eastern portions of South Dakota and Nebraska, and western portions of Kentucky and Ohio (USDA ERS, 2015b). Indeed, of the 90 million acres used for U.S. corn production, this region and the states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are where 90% of corn acreage exists, as shown in Figure 6 (USDA ERS, 2015b).
If viewed on a map, (as in Figures 5 and 6), it becomes clear that the location of high intensity corn production relative to the Mississippi River Basin has a profound impact on nutrient loading in the region. Now consider that corn is the primary crop used for livestock feed, representing 95% of total feed use. Indeed, over a third of all U.S. corn being grown is used to feed livestock, and chief among the livestock consumers of corn—beef.
According to USDA (2012), three conditions must be met in the application of fertilizer to minimize nitrogen runoff into waterways:
1) Applying nitrogen at the rate appropriate for the specific crop being grown – or the agronomic rate.
2) Applying nitrogen at the correct time – i.e. not fertilizing fields in the fall for crops planted in the spring.
3) Integrating, injecting, or otherwise mixing nitrogen fertilizer into the soil rather than leaving it on the soil surface.
Unfortunately, according to 2010 USDA data 66% of planted corn acreage in the U.S. failed to meet these basic nitrogen management criteria (Ribaudo et al, 2012).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines precision agriculture as “a management system that is information and technology based, is site specific and uses one or more of the following sources of data: soils, crops, nutrients, pests, moisture, or yield, for optimum profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment” (McLoud et al., 2007). Even if the implementation of precision agriculture techniques succeeded in reducing water pollution due to crop production along the Mississippi River Basin, livestock’s impact on water resources would still be significant.
Industrial agriculture, the system that allows for the low food prices we experience in the United States, has created a method of systemized, intensified animal agriculture commonly referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). The USDA Agricultural Research Services (ARS) estimated that U.S. animal agriculture produced almost 1 million US short tons of manure (dry matter) per day in 2001. The vast majority of this manure (86%) was estimated to be produced by animals held in confinement (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production).
The unintended by-product of this model is vast quantities of manure that exceed local ecosystems’ capacity to safely absorb. The storage and disposal of this nutrient rich matter is thus problematic. For chickens and poultry, these large quantities of manure are stored in heaping on-site piles, seen in a PBS Frontline special about poultry pollution in Chesapeake Bay (2009). During heavy rainfall events, the manure and its associated nutrients are released into the watershed and make their way into streams, rivers, and lakes in the area. Similarly, concentrated hog farms liquefy manure by adding water, and store it in large lagoons. While not only contributing to large amounts of methane emissions, the water from these pools of manure can leach down into deep layers of soil, contaminating groundwater resources. Note that, as Nicolette Hahn Niman asserts, chicken, pork, and most recently dairy cows spend a larger percentage of their lives in CAFOs than in less concentrated feeding models like pasture (Niman, 2014).
It is true that most beef cattle in the United States spend the majority of their lives grazing on varying types of grasslands and pastures. However, for the vast majority (80%) of cattle slaughtered in the U.S., the last four to five months of their lives are spent in feedlots (USDA ERS, 2012). These cattle are mostly steers and heifers raised in cow-calf operations until they weigh about 550-800 pounds, then they are sold to a commercial feeder. While in the feedlot, cattle are fed 70-90% grain and protein concentrates. The majority of feedlots operate in the Great Plains region. While most feedlots are only capable of holding fewer than 1000 head of cattle at a time, these feedlots represent a relatively small share of beef produced in the U.S. Indeed, the vast majority of beef (80-90%) are finished in feedlots capable of holding 1000 or more animals, with feedlots with capacities of ~32,000 head of cattle at a time producing 40% of marketed beef in America (USDA ERS, 2012).
Feedlot operations are harmful to the environment in two major ways. First, many are located in the Great Plains region – literally on top of the water-stressed Ogallala aquifer. As mentioned before, many of the grains fed to these cattle as 70-90% of their diets are grown on Ogallala fossil water. Second, the amount of manure generated by the large quantity of animals processed in highly concentrated feeding facilities creates an environmental liability. The other 20% of commercial U.S. beef comes from “non-fed” cattle, or those that have not been fed feedlot rations for finishing. These include primarily breeding stock (i.e. beef and dairy cows as well as beef and dairy bulls) (USDA ERS, 2012).
Eshel et al. (2014) estimate that the production of beef in the U.S. results in 182 grams of reactive nitrogen entering the environment per consumed calorie. This is about four times the amount of nitrogen per calorie associated with pork production, and six times the amount of reactive nitrogen associated with poultry (Eshel et al, 2014).
Public Health Concerns of Beef Consumption
In addition to environmental impacts, there are public health implications associated with beef consumption. Specifically, consuming beef is associated with a higher risk of contracting various types of cancer, type II diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (IARC, 2015; Feskens et al., 2013; Kaluza et al., 2012; Song et al., 2004; CDC, 2015). Additional concerns include a multi-generational decreased effectiveness of antibiotics in both humans and livestock, and an increased exposure to pesticides and other environmental pollutants for humans. In this chapter, we present evidence for the connections between the above-mentioned ailments and red meat consumption as a whole. The latter sections in this chapter focus on public health concerns surrounding consumption of beef specifically.
RED MEAT AND CANCER
Among the most controversial ailments associated with beef consumption is cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released findings from their review of over 800 scientific studies from the past 20 years regarding the consumption of red meat (which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat), and concluded that consumption of red meat was likely to be associated with colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. More specifically, IARC found sufficient evidence that for every 50-gram portion of processed red meat consumed per day, the risk of contracting colorectal cancer increased by 18% (IARC, 2015). However, the IARC recognizes that there are nutritional benefits associated with consuming red meat, and thus recommends that governments around the world use this information to limit the intake of meat by reconstructing dietary guidelines (IARC, 2015).
Contrary to the findings of the IARC study, a 2010 study by McAfee et al. (funded in part by the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland) contends that there is no strong evidence to support the claim that there is a link between consumption of red meat (including beef) and any type of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Instead, the authors argue that moderate consumption of red meat has a long-term positive effect on human health due to its positive influence on fatty acid profiles and essential nutrient intake (McAfee, et al., 2010). Another study by Domingo et al. supports these findings, and asserts that red meat in of itself is not carcinogenic. Rather, red meat is potentially carcinogenic because of the traces of environmental pollutants that may be contained within the fat. To reduce the risk of cancer from consuming red meats, the authors argue that this risk can be significantly reduced if consumers remove fat prior to cooking. (Domingo, 2016). Additionally, according to the National Cancer Institute, cooking beef using high-temperature methods (i.e. grilling over an open flame or pan frying) can form chemicals such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—laboratory experiments have revealed that these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer. Furthermore, beef that is cooked to “well done” has a relatively higher concentration of HCAs, thus consuming beef cooked in this way further increases cancer risk (National Cancer Institute, 2015).
RED MEAT AND OTHER CHRONIC AILMENTS
In addition to potentially being linked to cancer, several studies show that there is a link between consumption of red meat and type II diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. In a 2013 study, Feskens and Sluik reviewed the evidence concerning the occurrences of several diseases and consumption of red meat, and found that consumption of red meat is strongly associated with both type II diabetes and coronary heart disease. These conclusions regarding type II diabetes coincide with the conclusions of a 2004 study by Song et al., who identified a positive association between consumption of red meat and increased risk of type II diabetes in women 45 years and older (Feskens et al., 2013; Song et al., 2004). In regard to heart disease, the American Heart Association conducted a study of Swedish men between the ages of 45 to 79, and found a link between consumption of processed red meats and heart failure—specifically, those men who consumed 75 grams or more of processed red meat per day were at a higher risk of heart failure than those who consumed lower amounts. However, this study points out that no such link has been established between consumption of unprocessed red meats and heart failure (Kaluza, 2014).
Additional support for the link between heart disease, type II diabetes, and processed red meat consumption is provided by a 2012 study, in which Micha et al. found that those who consumed 50 grams or more of processed red meats daily had a 51% higher risk of type II diabetes and a 42% higher risk of heart disease (Micha et al., 2012). Likewise, a recent study assessed the impact of processed and unprocessed red meat consumption on Australian women aged 30-74 and found that, overall, there is a positive association between consumption of red meat and cardiovascular disease (Bovalino et al., 2015). Furthermore, the authors concluded that processed red meat has a stronger link to heart disease compared to fresh red meat. Lastly, in regard to stroke, studies have shown that there is a link between consumption of red meat and increased risk of stroke—in particular, the researchers found that consumption of one serving of fresh red meat per day increases a person’s chance of having a stroke by 11% (Kaluza et al., 2012).
MAD COW DISEASE
Mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a neurological disorder of cattle that is believed to have first been transmitted to humans in the1970s—the first confirmed case was in 1984, in the United Kingdom. The number of new cases of BSE peaked between 1993 and 1995, with over 14,000 cases reported in the UK during this time. In the years following 1995, the number of cases of BSE decreased dramatically, and only 4 cases of BSE were confirmed in the U.S. through 2015 (Figure 6) (CDC, 2015). Nevertheless, according to Hayes and Hayes, BSE can stay dormant in the human body for decades, and while the risks of contracting BSE in the UK are higher than in the U.S., consumers still should consider reducing beef consumption (Hayes, 2015).
Cows are infected with BSE through eating feed that contains “neural material” (i.e., spinal cord tissue, brain tissue, and bone meal) of other cattle, sheep, and pigs that carry some form of BSE (Yam, 2009); although BSE was first detected in the UK, it was spread to other parts of the world via the selling of contaminated feed. In the years before the first confirmed case of BSE, meat processing plants boiled the animal parts to be used as feed several times over, to separate the parts to be used as feed, and to kill off any lingering bacteria and pathogens in the parts. However, due to a rise in oil prices in the 1970s (which increased electricity costs), this extra boiling process was eliminated and replaced with separation by machine. This led to the flourishing of harmful prions, which are the vessels that transmit the disease (Yam, 2009; CDC, 2015).
One reason why eating beef contaminated with BSE is risky is that it leads to the development of variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. This disease is the human-equivalent of BSE in cattle, and it has the same effect on humans as it does in cattle (i.e., neurodegenerative disorders). Currently, no cure for vCJD exists and it is always fatal. Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the chance of consuming BSE-contaminated and contracting vCJD is extremely small; between 1996 and today there have been 175 of cases of vCJD reported worldwide, and three of those cases occurred in the U.S. (CDC, 2015; World Health Organization, 2012).
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, approximately 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for livestock and poultry (U.S. FDA, 2015). Of these, an estimated 15-17 million pounds of antibiotics are used each year for cattle specifically (Barrett and Armelagos, 2013). Antibiotics are given to cattle as a preventive measure (against contracting disease in, especially, overcrowded feedlots) as well as to enhance growth; it has also become common practice to use antibiotics in this way due to the negative effects that a corn-based diet (rather than a grass-based diet) has on the health of cattle. Growing cattle in confined feeding operations and feeding them a corn-based diet puts them at a higher risk of contracting illnesses, and some cattle ranchers believe that giving them antibiotics preemptively lowers this risk (CDC, 2014; Russell and Rychlik, 2001). Furthermore, cattle raisers discovered that if cattle are administered small doses of antibiotics daily, they gain three percent more weight (Obenchain and Spark, 2016).
Giving small doses of antibiotics to cattle is risky because it enables some of the bacteria living in cattle to survive and multiply because of their resistance to antibiotics. Thus, when these cattle are slaughtered, some of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria are transmitted into the meat destined for consumers, which leads to increased antibiotic-resistance in the human population (NRDC, 2016). Scientists estimate that in the U.S., approximately two million people contract antibiotic-resistant infections (such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, colloquially referred to as MRSA) per year; out of those two million people, approximately 23,000 will die as a result of these infections (NRDC, 2016). Even more concerning is that the CDC predicts that antibiotic-resistance will prevail for many years to come and there may come a time when our last-resort, life-saving antibiotics will no longer work to treat infections. Consequently, many lives will be lost to relatively simple infections that doctors will no longer be able to treat (NRDC, 2016).
Environmental Economic Costs of Beef
Research conducted for this report did not reveal an existing comprehensive economic analysis of the environmental economic costs of beef in the U.S. The analysis we propose is based on neoclassical economic concepts, which are economic concepts that the U.S. government and many countries in the world follow. Developed countries specifically are also characterized by high beef consumption as demonstrated in Figure 7. This further illustrates the need to assess the full environmental economic costs of beef. Our analysis is intended to serve as a starting point for consumers and policymakers to consider the true cost of beef, a cost that is not reflected in the market prices of beef today.
As discussed in Chapter IV of this report about existing policies, environmental impacts of the beef market are almost entirely neglected by the U.S. government, producers and consumers. Results of this neglect are significant negative externalities in the form of soil depletion, water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, dead zones and more. In other words, manufacturing processes of beef cause damages to people and the environment, for which the parties to the transactions - beef producers and consumers, are not paying (Kolstad, 2011).
BEEF AND ENVIRONMENTAL ECONOMICS
The application of neoclassical economic concepts to environmental problems is a growing field of economic research and economic policy. The initial purpose of valuing ecosystem services in economic terms was to communicate to the public the fact that all economic activity is based on finite environmental resources (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2010).
Ecosystem services are ecosystem functions that benefit humans. In the past, it made sense not to pay for ecosystem services because our use of them was in balance with natural processes. Now this is no longer true. Human induced changes to the environment are far exceeding the pace of natural processes that sustain the health of the environment.
Since its inception, the notion of the monetary value of nature has developed beyond educational purposes and is implemented by policymakers to quantify ecosystem services in decision-making processes. Just recently, the Obama administration issued a memorandum for executive departments and agencies with the title “Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making.” Realizing the vital contribution of nature, or ecosystem services, to the economic and social well-being of our society, the Obama administration now requires of all federal agencies to develop policies that integrate ecosystem services valuation into decisions of the Federal government (U.S. EOP, 2015). This has yet to be implemented into the beef industry.
For the purpose of this report, we look at the economic value of nature to provide insight into the environmental damages of the minimally regulated beef industry and its supply chain. Putting a number to, or assessing the harm in monetary terms establishes the common thread of this report: costs of beef production grossly outweigh benefits and therefore beef consumption has to be reduced. The following section will consist of an overview of the American beef market and present some key economic characteristics of the industry. It will then move on to identify and describe specific environmental costs associated with beef production drawing from the ecosystem services concept.
 The idea of applying economic concepts to nature was first introduced in the early 1960s, but received wide attention only in the late 1990s, with Costanza et al.’s seminal article “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” published in Nature in 1997 (Costanza et al., 1997; Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2010).
ECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS OF THE AMERICAN BEEF MARKET
Size.The U.S. has the largest beef industry in the world (USDA ERS, 2012). It is a $60.8 billion market, which is 0.3% of the total U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (USDA NASS, 2014a; World Bank, 2014). This relatively low portion of GDP originating from beef production suggests that reduction in consumption will have limited effects on U.S. economic vitality.
Demand. Approximately 90% of beef produced in the U.S. is consumed domestically (USDA ERS, 2012). The demand for beef in the U.S. is not expected to grow, and data collected by the USDA shows a decline in demand over the last decade congruent with trends in other affluent countries (see Figure 8; Smil, 2013). Growing awareness to the adverse health effects associated with overconsumption of beef explains the drop in demand (Haspel, October 2015). The high percentage of consumption of local beef together with the downward sloping trend in demand illuminate the potential and momentum of reducing consumption locally.
Contractual Relationships. The agricultural sector functions through the use of contractual agreements between farmers and buyers of agricultural outputs (Heller and Keoleian, 2000; Hayenga et al., 2001; Saitone and Sexton, 2012; Sumner, 2014). Contractual relationships significantly reduce farmers’ risks, protecting them from price swings, securing income, and sharing the costs. The downsides of the contractual gains are the losses, or externalities, not accounted for in these agreements. Externalities are costs incurred on society at large, which are not paid for by the parties to the transaction. With beef, externalities include the negative environmental impacts and negative health impacts discussed in this report. As we will see, factoring in the externalities to the price of beef will reveal its true price, a price that is significantly higher than its price today.
Other than omitting negative externalities, contracts usually impose specific management controls, taking away the decision power of the individual farmers and worsening the negative impacts (Heller and Keoleian, 2000; Reganold et al., 2011). For example, beef production farmers who entered into an agreement with a meatpacker may be required under the terms of the contract to administer unnecessary medication and provide certain types of cheap feed, which is harmful to the animal. In a neoclassical economic system where producers are expected to maximize profits at the expense of people and the environment, contracts demonstrate the race to the bottom this system induces. If management decisions remained in the hands of farmers that are in direct contact with the animals, the land and the community, it is likely that many of them would choose better practices for animal health, human health, and the environment (Hayes, 2015). Why these decisions were taken away from farmers is explained in the next paragraph.
Market Concentration. The total number of farms in the U.S. has declined by 70% between the years 1935-2002, while the area of farmland remained relatively unchanged (Angelo, 2010). The agricultural sector is now much more concentrated, with a smaller number of businesses controlling the bulk of the industry. Four beef packers dominate the beef market, processing 85% of all slaughtered beef in the U.S. (USDA ERS, 2016a). The four main meatpackers are JBS Beef, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat and National Beef Packing (Ogburn, 2011). This indicates a problem of competitiveness and of a power imbalance between meatpackers and farmers who supply the cattle (Adjemian et al, 2016). The U.S. Department of Agriculture in their 2012 Agricultural Census revealed that 5.7% of farms are responsible for 75% of total agricultural sales (USDA NASS, 2014a). Industrialization of agriculture also led to a dramatic decrease in the number of farm workers. Heller and Keoleian note a 70% decrease in farm workers between the years 1950-1998 (Heller and Keoleian, 2000). They also point out the lower portion of labor expenses in beef and cash grainfarms in comparison with specialty farms (fruits and tree nuts farms and vegetable farms): On beef and cash grains farms labor expenses make about 5% of the total, whereas for other farms labor is between 37%-45% of total expenses. These numbers suggest that the evolution of the agricultural sector towards consolidation reduced the number of jobs in the sector. In addition, reports of watchdog organizations document extremely low wages and child labor in agriculture business operations (Solomon and Motts, 1998; Human Rights Watch, 2000).
Subsidies. The Farm Bill is the main policy governing U.S. agriculture, including farmer subsidy programs. Government subsidies play a key role in this distortion of the market by keeping prices of corn, the number one feed crop in the U.S., artificially low (Reganold, 2011). Usually subsidies in the agricultural sector are implemented to support a market, which is not always profitable because of steep price fluctuations. They further aim to mitigate the market’s exposure to high risks in the form of climate variability and to serve national interest rooted in the belief that food security can be achieved by having a stable agricultural industry. Today’s farm subsidies do not fulfill these objectives (Stiglitz, 2013). As explained above, the structure of the agricultural sector has evolved over time from a composition of small farms towards a concentrated market that resembles a big industry dominated by few actors. Farm subsidies date back to when U.S. agriculture was comprised of mostly small farms. Subsidies then provided real income stability to farmers. Today, despite the change in the market, historical subsidies remain in place awarding big subsidies to large producers, thus, exacerbating negative externalities or costs incurred by society at large.
Numerous journal articles and op-eds have been written about the shortcomings of U.S. government subsidies in the agricultural sector. Instead of being used strictly to stabilize the market, farm subsidies today encourage overproduction by tying payments to production levels (Angelo, 2010; Goodwin and Smith, 2013). The more a farmer produces a subsidized crop, the more money the farmer receives from the government. This incentivizes farmers to: 1) switch to commodity crops, such as corn, which are heavily subsidized and to stop growing other varieties, and 2) maximize production at the expense of the environment, animals, and people. Producing yields requires large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation water. It neglects the diversity and quality of crops (Stiglitz, 2013).
strong ties between the two interest groups, which work in close collaboration to promote their businesses (National Corn Growers Association, 2008).
The government currently allocates most of the farm subsidies to five crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice (Lusk, 2016; Environmental Working Group, n.d.). Figure 10 shows the distribution of one form of subsidy - the crop insurance subsidy program, with corn receiving the highest subsidy in 2013. These subsidies directly affect the beef industry. That is because the top crop, corn, accounts for over 95% of total feed grain production and use, and because nearly half of the corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals, as shown in Figure 11 (USDA ERS, 2015b). A portion of the corn grown to produce ethanol has a byproduct that is also turned to feed grain for cattle. Feed growers and the livestock industry themselves attest to the
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 Census, cattle and corn are the top two agricultural commodities. The results demonstrate the interdependence of these two commodities and their domination of the entire U.S. agricultural sector. The census also revealed that 29% of U.S. farms specialize in beef cattle making it the largest category of operation in the U.S. agricultural sector.
The Environmental Working Group calculated a total of $94.3 billion in subsidies for corn grown between the years 1995-2014. It is the crop receiving the largest subsidies (Angelo, 2010). These numbers explain the increase in corn grown in the US as shown in Figure 12. Subsidies create a market for corn that otherwise would not exist at this magnitude (Angelo, 2010). Also, subsidies have exacerbated the environmental costs of beef by encouraging the artificial growth of this industry, thus leading to damage to people and the environment.
One economic theory that explains unjustifiable governmental benefits and exemptions from regulations is regulatory capture. Coined by the Nobel laureate George Stigler, regulatory capture is a situation where political power depends on money and not on votes (Dal Bó, 2006). The beef industry was able to exert political pressure and influence the government because the general public had limited incentives to act upon the negative outcomes of a subsidized and unregulated beef industry. A lack of awareness to negative externalities prevents collective action and allows selfish politicians to gain power in a corrupt manner.
 Cash grains are grains grown in large amounts for commercial purposes, such as corn, soy, wheat and cotton.
Damages to Ecosystem Services in Beef Production. The global food system is a driver of many environmental and social problems. Within the global food system, livestock is a major contributor to environmental degradation, and within the livestock sector, beef is the major contributor to negative environmental impacts (Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2010; Eshel et al., 2014). The environmental impacts are upsetting the equilibrium required to sustain critical ecosystem services for human well-being.
Ecosystem services are goods and services provided by nature, which are fundamental to humanity’s well-being and, at times, survival. Examples include air quality, soil formation, clean water and crop pollination. For ecosystems to continue to function for our acknowledged benefit, their use has to be sustainable, that is, they have to be used in a way that ensures their continued existence (Arrow et al., 1995; De Groot et al., 2002). Beef is contributing to the depletion and degradation of many ecosystem services. Excluding a very small percentage of boutique beef farms, it is an industry standard to externalize the environmental costs described in Chapter I. Neglect of ecosystem services in beef production is therefore a market failure, which has to be corrected through government regulation supported by an educated public.
The calculation of the monetary value of ecosystem services lost to beef production is complex and beyond the scope of this report. Some ecosystem services are impossible to valuate because the value of the service is infinite or because little is known about the full impacts (Costanza et al., 1997). As a starting point, we evaluate the magnitude of the ecosystem services seriously disturbed by beef. Below is a non-exhaustive discussion of depleting ecosystem services resulting from beef production. The classification, description and valuation of ecosystem services is based on a standardized framework proposed by de Groot et al. article published in Ecological Economics (de Groot et al., 2002).
Climate Regulation. Beef is the livestock category with the largest greenhouse gas footprint (Eshel et al., 2014). Manmade greenhouse gas emissions alter the ecosystem service of climate regulation by changing the composition of atmospheric gases. This leads to climate change, which makes the climate conditions of the planet less favorable for humans (de Groot et al., 2002). Beef is responsible for 4% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, or 275 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (Eshel, 2016). The U.S. Government published a conservative estimation of the social cost of a metric ton of carbon emitted in the year 2015 - $105 (Interagency Working Group, 2013). This cost implies a staggering total cost of $28.8 billion of the beef market to climate regulation in the year 2015 alone.
Water Supply. Beef is the most water intensive livestock product because of the large amounts of grain that is required to feed the booming U.S. beef industry (Eshel et al., 2014). As stated in chapter I on the environmental impacts, growing grains to feed cattle contributes to the water crises facing key groundwater basins in the U.S. Over-pumping of groundwater diminishes the vital ecosystem service of water supply by physically destroying water storage, causing land subsidence, diminishing surface water flows and degrading water quality (Moran et al., 2014).
A study focused on the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer in western Kansas estimates that current trends of irrigation will lead to near complete depletion of the aquifer in Kansas in 50 years (Steward et al., 2013). Interestingly, the western Kansas congressional district ranks highest in the nation in total agricultural revenue, the majority of revenue coming from corn-fed cattle (Steward et al., 2013). The large majority of the corn is irrigated using Ogallala groundwater (Steward et al., 2013). According to Kansas department of Agriculture “agriculture is the largest economic driver in Kansas, valued at more than $62 billion, accounting for 43% of the state’s total economy” (Kansas Department of Agriculture, n.d.). Therefore, the cost of unsustainable treatment of water supply cannot be overstated for the state of Kansas, and lessons can be drawn to other regions experiencing severe groundwater depletion like the Central Valley in California, which supplies ¼ of U.S.’s food (USGS, n.d.).
Soil Retention. Most agricultural land in the U.S. is losing soil at an unsustainable rate due to mismanaged cropland and overgrazing (Pimentel 2003; Hayes, 2015; USDA NASS, 2007). One inch of lost soil in the US can take hundreds of years to replace (Hayes 2015). Healthy soil provides essential ecosystem services: gas regulation by capturing carbon; water regulation through the retention of water to allow for better crop yields; nutrient cycling which is critical for growing food (eroded soil has low nitrogen levels); waste treatment by filtering and breaking down contaminants (Costanza et al., 1997; Pimentel et al., 1995). Soil depletion may also affect plant composition and cause loss of biodiversity. Erosion in one place can damage infrastructure in other places and contaminate waterways with excessive nutrients and pesticides (Pimentel et al., 1995).
To overcome erosion and nutrient depletion as a result of the erosion, U.S. farmers increase their use of fertilizers. Fertilizer production is fossil-fuel based and responsible for 74% of total U.S. nitrous oxide emissions in the year 2013 (U.S. EPA, n.d.c). The soil’s reduced water retention is overcome by pumping groundwater, which also adds energy costs and increases emissions of agricultural production (Pimentel et al, 1995). Since soil is such a vital infrastructure to the ecosystem, its monetary value according to Costanza et al. is infinite (Costanza et al., 1997). Pimentel et al. valued soil erosion costs in the U.S. at $44 billion per year (Pimentel et al., 1995).
Waste Treatment. Hundreds of chemicals are used in the supply chain of the beef industry. Pesticides and fertilizers are applied to feed grains, antibiotics and hormones are administered to healthy cattle and tenderizing chemicals are used in beef processing. All these chemicals end up polluting rivers and streams, groundwater and soil, not to mention our bodies. The ecosystem service of waste treatment, responsible for the filtration and break down of contaminants, is dwindling. The EPA has invested minimally in testing those chemicals and lacks the capacity to test new chemicals introduced to the market (Hayes, 2015). As a result, the harmful effects of toxic chemicals are not fully understood, hence are difficult to quantify.
The decline in the ecosystem service of waste treatment caused by beef can be demonstrated using two examples: dead zones from nitrogen pollution and use of antibiotics. Since humans discovered a way to produce reactive nitrogen and use it as fertilizer, the natural nitrogen cycle has been significantly altered (Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2010). The amount of reactive nitrogen poured into the environment so far is more than double the natural level, and it continues to rise (Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2010).
Nature’s waste treatment service is no longer capable of breaking down the excess reactive nitrogen. Annual dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico illustrate some of the threats of nitrogen pollution. Nitrogen flowing from corn fields in the Heartland region through the Mississippi River reaches the Gulf of Mexico and creates deadly conditions for marine life in the Gulf affecting fisheries, wildlife and recreation (Rabotyagov et al., 2014).
Another example of a chemical that is administered in large quantities to beef cattle is antibiotics. 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to healthy animals (Hayes, 2015). As with many man-made chemicals, the consequences of the widespread use of antibiotics are not fully understood. One well-established consequence of the unregulated use of antibiotics is the introduction of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gross, 2013). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified such bacteria as urgent, serious and concerning (CDC, 2013). In a 2013 report, the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention estimate that the economic costs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the U.S. economy are about $55 billion a year (CDC, 2013).
Summary table. Table 1 summarizes some of the unaccounted for costs of degraded ecosystem services. The total amount of money lost every year due to the U.S. beef market’s externalization of environmental costs is $127.8 billion. This number falls short of incorporating all ecosystem services because of the difficulties in quantifying them. It also excludes the costs associated with health problems linked to overconsumption of red meat.
Table 1. Summary Tale of Unaccounted Costs of Degraded Ecosystem Services
Review of Existing Policy
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), for the purposes of cattle, are defined as enterprises that hold 1000 heads of beef cattle or 700 dairy cows for more than 45 days per year as an efficient and cost-effective means of raising cattle to market weight (USDA NRCS, n.d.). Due to their size and concentrated nature, CAFOs face challenges disposing of vast amounts of manure on a limited amount of land. Manure application can be an environmentally benign way of fertilizing soil and restoring nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. However, manure management can be environmentally problematic for CAFOs, primarily because of the amount and composition of CAFO manure, which can contain nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, hormones, antibiotics, and other potentially harmful chemicals (Hribar, 2010). A given land area has limited soil absorptive capacity, and improper manure storage in man-made lagoons or leaching from field applications can contaminate ground and surface water, impacting local communities (Hribar, 2010).
The U.S. has federal regulations intended to protect and maintain the integrity and health of air and water and control the release of pollutants into the environment, including the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Clean Air Act, the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Below we discuss how these regulations, and exemptions herein, apply to the beef industry.
The Clean Water Act. Farming activities, such as planting, harvesting, and moving livestock - have traditionally been exempt from regulation under the Clean Water Act, which aims to preserve water quality and typically requires permits to discharge pollutants into protected U.S. surface waters (U.S. EPA, 2015b). The Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule, effective August 2015, clarifies bodies of water under federal protection to include upstream waterways that “significantly affect” already protected downstream waters, rivers and lakes (Clean Water Rule, 2015). However, the Clean Water Rule preserves agricultural exemptions by omitting ditches not constructed in streams and by defining protected tributaries as those showing “physical features of flowing water” (U.S. EPA, 2015b). These caveats prevent regulation of agricultural field runoff containing pollutants and excess nutrients and of man-made ditches not constructed out of streams and not acting like streams, including water treatment ponds and lagoons, irrigation ditches, and agricultural stormwater runoff (U.S. EPA, 2015b). Ironically, the EPA refers to these agricultural water non-point source polluting methods as “common sense exclusions from jurisdiction,” although the NAtional Water Quality Assessment lists it as the largest contributor to water quality impairments in surveyed rivers and stream, and also fails to address pollution issues concerning groundwater or tile drains (U.S. EPA, 2015b; U.S. EPA, 2015c).
Created through the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is a permitting program that does allow for federal regulation of “point source” agricultural pollution. CAFOs that discharge to surface waters fall into the category of point source polluters and must apply for an NPDES permit with a developed and implemented manure management plan (U.S. EPA, 2015a). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can authorize states, tribal and territorial governments to issue NPDES permits, and 46 states in the U.S. currently have permitting authority though the EPA retains oversight responsibility (U.S. EPA, 2016a). As of 2003, the EPA takes an “environmental priorities” approach towards enforcing NPDES in an initiative called Permitting for Environmental Results (Hanlon, n.d.). This strategy prioritizes issuing permits that are deemed “environmentally significant” within or among watersheds, so that higher-priority (and more environmentally damaging) discharge permits will be issued before lower-priority cases.
Clean Air Regulation. CAFOs release pollutants into the air, as well as into ground and surface water. Problematic air emissions include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter, which can negatively impact human health (Hribar, 2010). Land application of manure can cause volatilization of ammonia, creation of ground-level ozone release of particulate matter, and the creation of nitrous oxide, while anaerobic decomposition can release hydrogen sulfide and methane (Hribar, 2010). Particulate matter, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide impact human health (Hribar, 2010). The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly known as Superfund), the Clean Air Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know (EPCRA) all govern the types of air pollutants that CAFOs can emit. The EPA, however, rendered CERCLA moot in controlling agricultural emissions by passed a rule effective in 2009 that exempts all farms from reporting their release of hazardous substances relating to animal waste (U.S. EPA, 2009). This exemption held even if they exceed reportable quantities under CERCLA. EPCRA has an exemption where only classified “large” CAFOs (over 700 mature dairy cattle or over 1000 cattle or cow/calf pairs) are required to report over 100 lbs in emissions of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide within a 24-hour period (Hribar, 2010).
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA regulates six “criteria” pollutants through the National Ambient Air Quality Standards: sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, lead, and particulate pollution PM2.5 and PM10 (U.S. EPA, 2016b). The Clean Air Act does not exempt the farm industry from compliance; however, lack of comprehensive data collection, monitoring, and inconsistent enforcement renders the CAA largely toothless when it comes to regulating harmful air emissions from CAFOs (Hoover, 2013). Furthermore, federal regulations regarding air quality focus on urban areas, and thus air-monitoring programs in rural areas - where CAFOs typically exist - are rare (Hayes, 2015).
Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. Methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide are also emitted through livestock operations and contribute significantly to climate change. The Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP) requires individual facilities to report emissions equal to or larger than 25,000 metric tons CO2 equivalent across sectors to provide bottom-up data to complement the comprehensive top-down U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (U.S. EPA, n.d.c).
GHGRP only covers emissions from manure management systems, however, and all other agricultural sources of emissions, such as enteric fermentation, are exempted due to the uncertainty and difficulty of such calculations under “currently available practical methods” (U.S. EPA, 2009). According to the U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks Report, manure management accounted for 25.7% of methane CO2e emissions from agriculture in 2014 and a mere 5.2% of nitrous oxide CO2e emissions; taken together, manure management only contributes 13.7% of total agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions, identified by the Report as the two primary agricultural GHG emissions (U.S. EPA, 2016c). In other words, 86% of the GHG emissions from agriculture in 2014 were not assessed at the farm-level. Greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. agriculture sector are increasing, in part due a 54% growth in methane and nitrous oxide emissions from liquid manure management systems (U.S. EPA, n.d.a). There are a number of opportunities for reduction of agricultural sector emissions:
● adjusting land management and fertilization application
● adjusting livestock feeding practices to reduce methane emissions
● managing manure as a solid rather than liquid-based system
● capturing/storing methane emissions as a fossil fuel substitute
(U.S. EPA, n.d.a).
Table 2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Agricultural Sector in 2014.
However, although voluntary GHG-reduction programs exist, none of the current regulatory controls limit or carry a penalty for emitting GHG emissions that occur naturally with raising livestock (Massey, 2014).
Grazing Rights. The Bureau of Land Management currently administers nearly 18,000 permits and over 21,000 allotments for livestock grazing on over 60% of public lands -- 155 million out of 245 million acres (U.S. DOI BLM, n.d.). The U.S. Forest Service administers an additional 95 million acres as part of the federal grazing program; altogether, the program provides ranches with 15 million “animal unit months” (AUMs) from public forage resources, meaning the lands can feed 15 million cow-calf pairs each month (Regan, 2016). Intended as a program to promote the healthy and environmental productivity of these lands, grazing rights represent a significant subsidy that lowers the cost of beef production, as ranchers pay as little as one-tenth for grazing rights compared to the cost of grazing cattle on private land (Hayes, 2015). An analysis conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity found that taxpayers missed out on $125 million from grazing subsidies in 2014 alone, due to the lowered rate charged for grazing on public lands compared to private lands (Glaser, 2015). In 2016, the grazing fee per AUM was increased to $2.11, from the fee of $1.35/AUM charged in 2014, but this still represents only 10% of the average fee charged for irrigated private grazing lands in the western U.S. (U.S. DOI BLM, n.d.; Glaser, 2015).
The indirect costs of public lands grazing incurred by the taxpayer are also not accounted for in the grazing fees. Between 2000 and 2016, the USDA Wildlife Services has killed over 2 million mammals, particularly predators like wolves and coyotes, in order to protect ranchers who graze livestock on public lands (Bale, 2016). Indirect costs also include the budget allotments of agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services that go toward assessing the impact of grazing on endangered species and developing recovery plans for their protection (Glaser, 2015).
The Farm Bill. Updated periodically, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (colloquially known as the “Farm Bill”) has supported the overproduction of staple “commodity” crops, such as corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans, since the Great Depression (Farm Policy Facts, n.d.). Begun as a program to ensure adequate food supply, much of these covered commodity crops are not eaten directly by humans but rather go toward livestock feed or biofuel production -- roughly 36% of U.S.-produced corn is fed to livestock and 40% is used for ethanol (Foley, 2013). Crop insurance also promotes and protects commodity crop production, with the 2014 Farm Bill allocating $90B for crop insurance over a ten-year period through direct payments to farms and a diversity of “risk management options” (Plumer, 2014). Notably for the health of Americans, “specialty crops,” such as fruit and vegetables, are historically not eligible for Farm Bill subsidies or crop insurance, though the 2014 Farm Bill introduces “whole farm” protection that would extend to speciality crops grown on a farm that sells 2 to 5 commodity crops (PCRM, n.d.). The Food Stamp program, addressed in the following Chapter, has become the dominant area of spending since it was included in the Farm Bill in the 1970’s (Heiligenstein, 2014). In the 2014 iteration of the Farm Bill, food stamps and nutritional assistance represent $756 billion in spending -- nearly 80% of the overall costs for the bill -- while crop insurance and commodity programs represent 14% of the Farm Bill’s costs (Plumer, 2014).
Conservation programs are to receive $56B over the next decade, representing 6% of the 2014 Farm Bill (Plumer, 2014). These programs aim to encourage farmers and forestland owners with incentives to promote biodiversity, habitat protection, and other ecological benefits such as reduced erosion (Culliney, n.d.). Previously, this encouragement focused on “practice-based” incentives, rewarding farmers for following a set of prescriptive practices believed to improve ecological conditions. While 6% is a smaller budgetary portion than in previous Farm Bills, the 2014 iteration represents an important and potentially positive shift from “practice-based” to “outcome-based” incentives that are intended to improve accountability (Culliney, n.d.). Thus, farmers must demonstrate indicators of environmental improvement in order to receive compensation, such as ecological integrity assessments or evidence of habitats representing biodiversity (Culliney, n.d.).
Authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, the Livestock Indemnity Program insures livestock producers for animal deaths due to adverse weather at 75% of the livestock’s market value (USDA FSA, 2014). The program also entitles ranchers to full compensation for the value of the dead animal if, despite the USDA Wildlife Services’ best efforts, livestock are killed by a predator. Funded as part of a federal program, these payments to ranchers reduce the risk and cost of livestock production at taxpayer expense.
HEALTH AND SOCIAL POLICY
Taken together, the price, availability, convenience, and desirability of food can be seen as the “food environment” within which consumers make decisions on what to eat and what not to eat (Herforth, 2015). The U.S. food supply closely mirrors food consumption-- “broadly, what is available is what is consumed,” and so the Farm Bill has strong implications for the nutritional composition of the U.S. diet (Herforth, 2015). However, the federal government also issues dietary guidelines to advise healthy consumptive habits and, historically, macronutrient recommendations under the USDA Food Guide have not aligned with U.S. food production and supply, as can be seen in Table 3.
Table 3. USDA Macronutrient Recommendations Compared to Per Capita Production.
Dietary Guidelines. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) are published every 5 years jointly by the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS). The DGAs are mandated by the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, which requires the two departments to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines” (USDA Blog, 2015). The dietary guidelines are supposed to be guided backed by sound nutritional and medicinal science, and the Act requires the creation of an advisory committee to provide scientific recommendations (HHS and USDA, 2015b). In addition to providing overall dietary recommendations for healthy American diets, the DGAs are instrumental in informing supplemental nutritional policy for women, infants and children (WIC), a program upon which over 8M Americans rely, and determine what is served to over 31M children in the National School Lunch Program (Merrigan et al., 2015).
In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommended including environmental sustainability when developing the guidelines. The DGAC Report notes the large environmental impact of the average U.S. diet compared to Mediterranean or vegetarian diet patterns, attributed to the high intake of “animal-based foods” (HHS and USDA, 2015b). The environmental sustainability of diets affects long-term human health and food security, and the 1990 DGA statute says nothing to prevent inclusion of sustainability in the scientific evaluation informing dietary guidance. Merrigan, et al. (2015) present the argument that incorporation of sustainability into DGAs would “sanction and elevate discussion of sustainable diets” and “signal to consumers that such foods are preferred.” Such arguments, Merrigan, et al. argue, may resonate with motivations of consumers already promoting sustainably harvested seafood and sales of local and organic products (Merrigan et al., 2015).
In considering the environmental sustainability of U.S. diets, the DGAC Report identified beef as “the single food with the greatest projected impact on the environment” with cheese and milk also estimated to have a high impact (HHS and USDA, 2015b). Predictably, the DGAC’s Report and the proposition to consider the environmental and sustainability impact of the U.S. diet roused fierce opposition from the meat industry (Sharma, 2015). A representative of North American Meat Institute told NPR that sustainability was “clearly out of scope” for the dietary guidelines, justifying the “larger carbon footprint” by the fact that a pound of meat delivers more nutrition than a pound of apples (Aubrey, 2015). In response to “concern” from Congress to the DGA’s inclusion of environmental and agricultural factors, the finalized DGA’s nixed any mention of environmental sustainability, indicating that it is not part of the “scope of the mandate” and that the DGA’s are not “appropriate vehicle” for a conversation on sustainability (Aubrey, 2015; Charles, 2014).
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines moved away from recommending daily amounts of macronutrient intake and instead recommend a Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, consisting of the following for an 1800-calorie diet:
● vegetables: 2.5 cup-equivalent;
● fruits: 1.5 cup-equivalent;
● grains: 6 oz.-equivalent;
● dairy: 3 cup-equivalent;
● protein foods: 5 oz.-equivalent; and
● oils: 24g
(HHS and USDA, 2015a).
Within protein foods, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommends 23 ounces per week of meats, poultry and eggs, and advises that meats and poultry should be “lean or low-fat” (Id.). According to the USDA, the average U.S. diet falls short of 2015-2020 guidelines for vegetables, dairy and fruit, and exceeds recommended levels of grains and meat, eggs, and nuts (USDA ERS, 2016b).
A look at the various policies encouraging and subsidizing both grain and meat production leads one to question the obvious disparity between federal diet guidelines and federal food production policy - and to wonder whether these policies are intended to benefit the general public or large meat-producing corporations.
Regulation of Antibiotics. As discussed in Chapter 2, to capitalize on economies of scale, it is profitable to crowd cattle into facilities, which causes physical distress and disease among livestock. The vast majority of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock to promote growth and increase the overall survival rate and yield of animal production. However, we have demonstrated that this widespread antibiotic in livestock production contributes significantly to the spread of antibiotic resistance and presents unacceptable risk to public health in the U.S. Here, we will outline the regulatory practices governing the use of antibiotics.
The use of antibiotics to accelerate livestock growth was first discovered in the U.S. in the 1950’s, and the practice met with activist lobbying - and concern from the scientific community - on the grounds of bacterial resistance as early as the 1970’s (Ogle, 2013). Industry push-back has similarly impressive roots, dating back to 1977 when a Representative from Missouri threatened to slash the FDA’s budget if a ban on penicillin use in livestock was implemented (Nordrum and Whitman, 2015). Since then, the use of antibiotics in U.S. in livestock production has experienced increasing sales and heightened public scrutiny. The practice has come under fire from consumer advocacy groups, faced lawsuits from environmental law groups such as the NRDC, and received international attention from health organization. In 2013, the FDA introduced a new policy to reduce the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock production to promote growth (Tavernise, 2013). However, this policy came in the form of voluntary guidelines for drug manufacturers to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, and sales of antibiotics increased through 2014 (Polansek, 2015). In a step in the right direction, the FDA updated its policies in 2015 to officially ban the use of any drugs specifically for growth-promotion and require farmers to obtain feed with antibiotics from veterinarians rather than purchasing it over-the-counter (Palmer, 2015). Time - and future sales data - will tell whether the new policy significantly impacts antibiotic use in livestock.
Conclusions and Areas of Opportunity
Conclusion. America must reduce beef consumption. Beef production has a uniquely devastating impact on the environment, including intensive greenhouse gas contributions, air and water pollution, land degradation, species loss, and extensive fossil fuel use. Beef as a component of the American diet has negative impacts on public health and is linked to multiple chronic diseases. Despite all of these negative externalities associated with beef, the industry enjoys governmental subsidization for production, exemptions to environmental statutes, and a lack of pressure to inform the public of the health and safety of the product itself.
The environmental externalities and costs associated with production of beef are giant in size as compared to other food products, including other non-ruminant livestock. These externalities are not properly accounted for in the socioeconomic system, contributing to long-lasting effects for future generations who will live with the consequences of this population’s excessive beef consumption. Government should stop heavily and biasedly subsidizing beef in the American food system so that the true price of beef is reflected in the marketplace. Environmental statutes should not allow for beef or agricultural exemptions when protecting U.S. waters or air quality. Climate policies should discern the specific and intensive GHG impact of beef and respond with appropriate public policy. Lastly, nutritional guidance in the U.S. should incorporate sustainability when making dietary recommendations.
Supply-side mitigation of beef consumption represents a crucial component to addressing health, environmental and economic imbalances in the U.S. The change can begin with something as simple as replacing a hamburger with a turkey or veggie burger.
Areas of Opportunity. Beyond recommending that the general public be motivated and empowered to reduce their beef consumption through simple substitutions in their dietary choices, the authors have a sample of general recommendations and areas of focus for policy makers to consider.
For raising public awareness, a first step is to have environmental sustainability incorporated into the Dietary Guidelines. Environmentally conscious and health-based recommendations would decrease intake of beef and encourage consumption of diets lower in animal-based foods. In addition, public health impacts of beef production and consumption need be better publicized and addressed, especially the overuse of antibiotics in the industry.
One of the important areas for policy revision include actions that result in a long-term incremental increase in the cost of beef to internalize externalities. This can be done in various ways, from evaluating the true cost of grazing rights on public land, lowering subsidies for commodity grain crops, to removing environmental federal law exemptions.
To address beef’s impact on climate, it is imperative that policies be put in place to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Some possible policy initiatives that could be considered include industry-wide GHG accounting, CO2e caps for CAFO manure management, an agricultural carbon tax, or a market-based system (such as cap and trade) for carbon emissions from industry sources. We also recommend that the USDA consider developing a publicly available information system or labeling system that ranks GHG emissions for various livestock products.
The list of possibilities to address environmental and public health improvements is one that would require substantially more analysis than what is suggested above. These authors hope to see public policy students, science and policy experts, and eminent figures add to this list, generate solutions and work to implement them.
Author Bios and Contact Information
All authors are 2016 MPA Graduates of the Environmental Science and Policy Program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in the City of New York.
As an undergraduate student, I was involved in many research projects in which I analyzed the impacts of climate change on salt marshes and forested wetlands. While engaging in this research, I came across several studies that showed a connection between animal agriculture and our warming Planet, and I immediately wanted to learn more. To that end, I began to research this connection and eventually wrote a term paper titled, An Earth System Science Analysis of Animal Agriculture: Why It’s Not Sustainable. Naturally, when Jamie approached me to ask if I’d like to be apart of “Hold the Beef”, I eagerly agreed.
My ultimate goal in Life is to create positive social change. Specifically, I want to inspire others to care about the Earth and the environment, and I want to educate others about the world around them. Being a part of this project gives me a chance to do this.
Daniel Kyle Giddings
Having grown up on a farm in rural southwest Missouri and served as an agroforestry extension agent and agribusiness advisor in Cameroon with the Peace Corps, I am interested in the interplay between agriculture and environmental policy. My passion is working to reduce environmental and ecological impact of agricultural production domestically and abroad while improving yields and economic well-being of farmers. As someone with deep roots in livestock production whose sister owns and operates a beef farm, I understand the human element on the other side of this issue and certainly do not intend to demonize or alienate farmers – our country’s greatest human resource. On the other hand, we face climate and water crises of unparalleled proportion that require every sector of society to tighten their belts and minimize their impact. That is what this project is about to me. Searching for common ground and feasible solutions to ensure that we can provide for the 9.5 billion humans that will soon inhabit Earth, without destroying the planet in the process.
I am an avid environmentalist with a a background in law and community organizing. I decided to take my career a step further and learn about environmental policymaking. At Columbia I became very passionate about communicating environmental science to the general public, and the potential of activism to inform public opinion and induce social change. After being introduced to Dr. Raymo’s and Dr. Eshel’s research, I wanted to find a way to work with them while at Columbia. “Hold the Beef” became one of the highlights of my Columbia experience, and I plan to continue advocating for reducing beef consumption at some capacity after graduation.
Jamie Rae Hanson
I have a background in ecology and environmental science education. I was a community college instructor for four years prior to coming to Columbia University, teaching environmental science. Before my time as an instructor, I received an M.S. in Ecology and Natural Resources from St. Cloud State University-- investigating how to achieve succession-mediated restoration of landscapes altered by invasive plant species on a military base in Minnesota. I first became involved with ‘Hold the Beef’ after attending a multi-speaker lecture on climate change at SIPA. This speaking engagement featured Maureen Raymo, a climate researcher, and Bill McKibben, a climate activist. Dr. Raymo, at the end of her lecture, presented students with an easy way to address their climate impact—hold the beef! As someone who believes in the power that individual action and cultural transitions have in making progress towards a better world, this message was one that I felt I had to help share! After Stav Gilutz and I started discussing the issue with Dr. Raymo, she brought in Dr. Gidon Eshel—a preeminent researcher looking at diet-based impacts on the environment. From there--our fellow authors and our SIPA adviser, Professor Sara Tjossem, were able to begin the process of building this report. We also have prepared next steps for a new generation of students who will further develop the communications of the science behind our report.
Increasing access to healthy food and nutrition has been a passion of mine since I began reviewing consumer protection lawsuits relating to food as a litigation paralegal. I have since pursued this interest as a volunteer nutrition leader and class assistant with Cooking Matters Massachusetts, where I learned how rewarding it is to connect families with the knowledge and skills to provide their families with healthy food. Within my graduate program at Columbia, I have taken an academic approach to food studies in the context of environmental policy and sustainability. In my coursework, I’ve researched topics such as the Food Quality Protection Act, climate change implications for food security in Guatemala, the efficacy and ethics of soda taxes, and the impact of U.S. agricultural policy on diets and the environment. I see food systems -- particularly animal-based agriculture -- as the nexus of climate, water, energy, and nutrition, and I hope to find more pathways to systematically addressing these issues through research and analysis, informational campaigns, and policy change.
Gidon Eshel, PhD: Research Professor
Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Bard College
Gidon Eshel is a Research Professor of Environmental Physics at Bard College. He is best known for his work on quantifying geophysical consequences of agriculture and diet. Recent examples compare various livestock in terms of land and water use, fertilizer based water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions per unit product, and compare the global warming consequences of different beef production strategies (including grass- vs. trough-fed beef). His widely varied scientific interests also include (1) development of algebraic tools for simultaneous optimization of health and environmental outcomes through dietary choices; (2) climate physics; and (3) measures of timescale-specific ecosystem stability.
Eshel studied physics and earth sciences at the Technion & Haifa University, Israel, before getting an M.A., M.Phil, and a Ph.D. at Columbia University in mathematical geophysics. Eshel was then a post-doctoral NOAA Climate & Global Change (C&GC) Fellow at the Harvard Center for Earth & Planetary Physics, a staff scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and faculty at the Dept. of Geophysics, the Univ. of Chicago, before moving to Bard.
Maureen E. Raymo, PhD:
Bruce C. Heezen Lamont Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University
Maureen E. Raymo is the Bruce C. Heezen Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University where she is also Director of the Lamont-Doherty Core Repository. She has degrees from Brown and Columbia Universities and studies the history and causes of climate change in Earth’s past. She has spent months in the field and at sea studying how the Earth works including two months as chief scientist on the drill ship Joides Resolution. In 2002, she was the first woman awarded the Robert L. and Bettie P. Cody Award in Ocean Sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and was also included in Discover Magazine’s list of the 50 most important women in science. In 2014 the European Geosciences
Union awarded her the Milutin Milankovic Medal for outstanding research in long-term climatic changes and modeling. In 2014 she was also the first woman to be awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London, their most prestigious award given out annually since 1831. She is a fellow of both the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 2016 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Professor Sara A. Tjossem, PhD
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
Sara Tjossem is a Senior Lecturer in SIPA’s Master of Public Administration program in Environmental Science and Policy, and the program’s Associate Director of Curriculum. Her teaching and research interests are on the intersection of science and society, the history of science (particularly biology and ecology in the 20th century), agriculture, marine science, and the development of environmental movements and policy.
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Proposed Amendment to Legislation
Under Construction --- Coming Soon!
Related Media Coverage
Below are links to recent media coverage on the topics of meat, climate change, and sustainable diets.
1. For Earth Day, Report Has News To Ease A Meat-Lover’s Conscience (NPR, Apr. 22nd, 2016)
2. Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts (World Resource Institute, Apr. 20th, 2016)
3. Can eating less meat help reduce climate change? (BBC, Nov. 24th, 2015)
4. Eating Beef Is Harmful For The Environment, Tells United Nations Environment Program (International Business Times, Oct. 12th, 2015)
5. Meat-eaters may speed worldwide species extinction, study warns (Science Magazine, Aug. 11th, 2015)
6. Eating less meat essential to curb climate change, says report (The Guardian, Dec. 2nd, 2014)
7. Climate scientists have a beef with beef (Los Angeles Times, Jul. 22nd, 2014)
8. Beef environment cost 10 times that of other livestock (BBC, Jul. 21st, 2014)