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A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up

Jun 27, 2012
Originally published on October 30, 2017 10:24 am

As Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles reported today on Morning Edition, meat has more of an impact on the environment than any other food we eat. That's because livestock require so much more food, water, land, and energy than plants to raise and transport. (Listen to the audio above for their conversation with Morning Edition's Linda Wertheimer.)

Take a look here at what goes into just one quarter-pound of hamburger meat.

And that's not even including the animal's waste or the methane emissions from its digestion.

But there are fewer cows around than there were in the 1970s.

In the meantime, though, farmers and scientists have found ways to get more meat out of every cow. So even though cattle inventory has dropped, the U.S. is still producing more beef now than in the 1970s.

And if you look at the past century, meat consumption overall in the U.S. has risen dramatically. It's only in the past few years that it has begun to drop a bit.

Though meat consumption in the U.S. has dropped off slightly in recent years, at 270.7 pounds per person a year, we still eat more meat per person here than in almost any other country on the planet. Only the Luxumbourgers eat more meat than we do.

As U.S. beef consumption began to decline in the 1970s, poultry began to rise quickly. A couple of years ago, chicken surpassed beef as our No. 1 meat of choice. Our consumption of pork has also risen slightly over the years.

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All this week, we've been talking about meat: our long history as meat eaters, why Americans eat so much of it and whether it's good for us.


We've also heard from a lot of you on this topic. Some of you love meat. Some of you don't. On Twitter, people have been coming up with ideas for a MORNING EDITION meat week theme song.

WERTHEIMER: And as you'll hear their new takes on old favorites.


WERTHEIMER: That was Greg Johnson's suggestion: "Steak, Waddle and Roll."

MONTAGNE: Someone calling himself Guy Writer offered up "Loin on Me," and Twitter handle NPRMommy came up with "Another One Bites the Duck" and "Thunder Oats."

WERTHEIMER: There's also "I'm in a New York Steak of Mind" from Jennifer at City Seeds.


MONTAGNE: Jason Eschelman(ph) suggests "Liver Let Die." And thanks to Tiny Timblentot(ph) for really making us groan with "I Wanna Hold Your Ham."


WERTHEIMER: On a more serious note, many listeners have also raised the topic of the environmental costs of eating meat.

MONTAGNE: So here's a question: Is eating meat gobbling up too many resources?

WERTHEIMER: Here to talk about this are NPR's food correspondents Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles. Welcome.


DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So, Dan, could you we start with you? Why would meat have more of an impact on the environment than any other food?

CHARLES: Well, it's really pretty simple. Let's say you have a farm, and you can use the land on your farm to grow crops that people eat directly: vegetables, wheat that you might use to make bread, some beans, some nuts, some fruit. Or you can grow crops that you don't eat directly. You feed them to animals: corn, hay, soybeans.

So after you feed them to animals, you slaughter them and you eat their meat. But the problem is your cattle have to eat 20 or 30 pounds of feed to put a pound of steak on their bones. The rest of it - I know you don't really want to hear this first thing in the morning - but it goes straight through and into the animal waste. Chickens are a lot more efficient. They turn two or three pounds of feed into meat. Pigs are somewhere in between.

WERTHEIMER: But Dan, isn't that animal waste a problem, especially on industrial farms and its impact on the environment? It's costly to get rid of?

CHARLES: Right. It is a problem. I mean, the idea is if you concentrate the animals, you also concentrate their waste. And then it's a big problem. It can pollute the water. It can also pollute the air. But the basic problem is just how much land and how many crops it takes to produce all the meat. And when you add it up, the total impact on the planet is quite huge. A third of all the crops that people grow all across the world go to feeding animals.

And so what that means is farmers in Brazil have been clearing huge areas of grassland and forests to grow soybeans to satisfy demand in China and in Europe. It's one cause of deforestation, global warming, water pollution, a lot of environmental problems.

WERTHEIMER: So it takes more land. I suppose it takes more of everything: fertilizer, water for irrigation.

AUBREY: Yes, water. Exactly. When we think of water conservation and our own personal water use, we tend to think of what's used to flush our toilets, run our dishwashers, our showers. But about two-thirds of the water used on this planet is used in agriculture.

And when you consider how much water it takes to grow the grain, to feed the cows, to produce the beef, the figures are really a bit staggering. I mean, it's hard to imagine what a ton of water looks like, right? So I asked the folks at the Pacific Institute a few years back to help come up with a way to visualize this.

So, think about your own bathtub. You'd have to fill it 140,000 times. I mean, that's far more than you'd fill it in a lifetime, right? That's how much water it takes to produce one ton of beef. And if you break this down to an individual quarter-pound hamburger, it works out to be about 53 gallons of water for one burger. Now, producing chicken is much less water-intensive because smaller animals require less grain.

WERTHEIMER: So, what about grass-fed beef? Is that better? Is that worse?

CHARLES: Well, it depends. You can graze animals. You can graze cattle on land where you wouldn't easily grow crops - on hillsides, for instance. So that's great for the environment. You can get some food from that land in an environmentally friendly way, if you don't overdo it. It's not like there's a lot of unused land out there available to graze more animals. And if you converted cornfields back into pasture to graze those animals, you'd end up producing less meat, not more.

WERTHEIMER: So what happens then? Meat consumption goes up fast in places like China, and even India. What happens with the global environment, with more and more people eating more meat?

AUBREY: Well, you know, this is a really tough question. In some places, there are probably ways to grow more crops on the same amount of land, using better seeds or better farming techniques, and this could help. But there are lots of people who look at this and say, look. The planet just can't handle all this increasing demand for meat, not with nine billion people on the planet by mid-century.

WERTHEIMER: So there will have to be shifts in what we eat. I suppose part of that might be controlled by health and part of it by cost.

AUBREY: That's right, yeah. Shifts - I mean, particularly less reliance on grain-fed beef. Now, one thing you point out is health. What's pushing us in this direction a bit already is that, you know, here in the U.S., there is a push for a healthier diet. Health experts recommend limiting red meat consumption to no more than two to three small portions per week. And we hear this from all corners - from researchers, from doctors, from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society. You know, the list goes on and on.

And as you point out, the other big factor here is price. I mean, in some places around the world, if water becomes scarce, irrigation becomes more expensive. That drives up prices. Here at home over the last couple of years, we've already seen the price of animal feed go up, and consequently the price of meat has gone up quite a bit, too. And for the first time in 50 years, this means people are eating less meat. I mean, red meat consumption is down significantly, and even total meat consumption is down.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Allison Aubrey and NPR's Dan Charles. Thank you both very much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Linda.

CHARLES: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Meat week continues tomorrow with a look at the small farmers who raise cattle and the big companies that process them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have to record about as much information on those calves when they're born as what a human baby has to have collected. We have to give them the same identifying number as what their mother has, which is an ear tag. And we have to weigh them. We have to measure how tall they are.

WERTHEIMER: For more on how we became such a nation of meat eaters, go to npr.org and check out our food blog, the Salt.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to this program through your local public radio station. And you can continue following us through social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter, along with many of our reporters and hosts. You can find us, among other places, @MORNINGEDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.