Production of beef is nearly ten times more damaging to the environment than any other form of meat production, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
American scientists measured the environment inputs required for beef production and concluded that beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.
The researchers developed a uniform methodology that they were able to apply to all five livestock categories and to four measures of environmental performance.
"We have a sharp view of the comparative impact that beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs have in terms of land and water use, reactive nitrogen discharge, and greenhouse gas emissions," professor Gidon Eshel, from New York's Bard College, told the BBC.
The scientists calculated that the amount of resources required for all the feed consumed by edible livestock and worked out the amount of hay, silage and concentrates such as soybeans required by the different species to put on a kilo of weight. They also included greenhouse gas emissions, not just from the production of feed for animals, but from their digestion and manure.
Apart from the effects on land and water, beef cattle release five times more greenhouse gas and consume six times more nitrogen than eggs or poultry.
As a result, beef is the food animal with the biggest environmental impact.
Tax on meat?
Swedish agricultural authorities in 2013 recommended an EU-wide tax to reduce meat consumption. Sweden’s Board of Agriculture said the levy would reduce the environmental impact of meat production. Instead, Europe's populations should eat more vegetables for both environmental and health benefits.
Marit Paulsen, a Swedish MEP and member of the Agriculture and Rural Development, told EurActiv she would support an extra tax on meat, even though she represents the liberal group in Parliament. Paulsen said that meat has to become more expensive for consumers for the environment's sake.
“I believe meat will become more expensive. I don’t know how, but if we have to add an emission tax, then let it be, but let us for God’s sake now start a proper discussion with the knowledge we have which includes the fact that we can’t afford to use so much money producing meat,” Paulsen stated.