Meats: A Health Hierarchy

The biggest reason to eat chicken instead of beef has nothing to do with saturated fat.
Lucy Nicholson/AP

In case you've not yet purchased your weekend meat, here is a pretty harrowing/empowering case for choosing chicken instead of beef when you can.

About a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. First, here’s the hierarchy of meats (well, proteins) in terms of impact on the environment:


Greenhouse Gas Emission, by Protein


Bringing lamb into human mouths involves a superfluity of greenhouse gas. Lamb isn’t a major player in U.S. meat markets, but the runner-up, beef, is huge.

Farming cattle produces about four times as much greenhouse gas as does poultry or fish. If livestock are basically just converters of grain to meat, cattle and their four stomachs might be the work of Rube Goldberg—cool, but not every light switch needs to involve dominoes. Here’s how beef compares to chicken:


Greenhouse Gas Emission, Beef vs. Chicken


July is the pinnacle of the U.S. meat obsession, because of the cookouts, with all the burgers, steaks, meat fights, meat helmets, etc. Americans lead the world in meat consumption at 260 pounds per year (Europeans eat 190 pounds, and world-wide the average is more like 93 pounds). It feels normal to just have meat around all the time everywhere, but for most of history, meat has been incredibly hard to get; precious and prohibitively expensive. But when was the last time you even thought to call your meat precious?

Diane Rehm hosted a patriotically apropos discussion on her radio show this week, in which experts called for the U.S. to be global leaders in assuaging climate change—with our meat choices. Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (which conducted the studies that created these charts), said, "If every American stopped eating beef tomorrow—which I don't expect—and started eating chicken instead, that would be the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road.”

Even if their projection is off by a few million, that’s a lot of cars. It's also probably more manageable for people to substitute chicken for beef than it is to, say, change how they power their homes or how they get to work. Those just feel like bigger concessions. At the current rate, Faber said, meat and milk production are forecast to double by 2050. 

More than half the water and grain consumed in the U.S. are consumed by the beef industry. “If we took half the land that we're now using to produce corn and beans to feed animals, and instead dedicated that to produce food for people right now,” Faber said, “we could feed an additional 2 billion people."

“If China chooses to eat meat at the rates we do,” said Michael Pollan, professor of science and environmental journalism at Berkeley, during the same discussion, “we're going to have an enormous problem because the resources that it takes are just too great.”

Pollan and Faber say American meat-heavy diets are spreading around the world. By 2050 there will be 9.6 billion humans. At current rates, there will be 3 billion more meat eaters—double what we have now. Massive expanses of forests will need to be cleared to create pastures to raise the animals, and to grow the grain to feed them. Managing their waste will become an even bigger problem, with methane emanating from "waste lagoons" and nitrous oxide from fertilizer.

So, in celebrating Independence Day, nothing could be less American than eating beef. Or, well, that's overstatement. If you think Americans are generally wasteful and inconsiderate, maybe eating beef is the most American thing you can do. I just want there to be a superlative in there.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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