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HUTTO: My beef with beef consumption - The Vanderbilt Hustler: Columns

HUTTO: My beef with beef consumption

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Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2013 10:05 am

Eating beef is an American pastime, and unlike baseball, its popularity is increasing rapidly. While meat used to be an expensive commodity, advances in farming technology have given more and more Americans access to beef on a daily basis for a low cost. Every day, the cattle industry in the United States uses about 90,000 cows for their meat. Some of this is exported, but the amount that stays on the domestic side works out to 208 pounds of beef per person per year. On the other hand, the average weight of a person in the United States is around 180 pounds … we are literally eating our own weight in beef every year. While there are probably some animal rights concerns at play when discussing the constantly growing animal production industry, I want to focus on problems with beef that should seem much more immediate to you, the reader.

Cows are a beloved part of the American landscape, but their growing impact on our world is overwhelmingly negative. Here’s another set of numbers to consider: Beef production contributes about 18 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions. Between methane and carbon dioxide, the meat industry contributes about one-fifth of the world’s man-made greenhouse gases. That number does not even include the transportation needed to take beef from the Midwest and plains states to the rest of the country. To give a little more perspective on those emissions, the beef industry created more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation added together. Cattle are particularly problematic here when compared to other foods. A pound of beef creates six times more greenhouse gas than does a pound of chicken and 13 times more greenhouse gas than plant-based proteins. 

Beyond the damage to our atmosphere, beef is not great for the land and water either, although the reasons for that may be a little more obvious. The fertilizer needed to make cattle fodder as well as the waste from the cows themselves ends up in our streams and rivers; this is much harder to contain than the byproducts of chicken and fish. Cows of course naturally eat their surroundings and are land-intensive. Furthermore, the U.S. produces far more food from corn than it does from cattle, but only about 70 million of acres of the U.S. are designated for corn production while well over 400 million acres are used for seasonal cow pastures. In the words of the Union for Concerned Scientists, “The inefficiency is particularly high for beef, which uses about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of its protein and less than 2 percent of its calories.” This seems like an incredibly wasteful allocation of resources for a growing population. Remember here that 2 percent of our calories are costing us 18 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.

I hope based on these facts that you are convinced that beef is the worst, but if you are not, you should consider that beef is actually quite bad for you. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health states that beef “substantially” raises one’s chances for heart disease and cancer earlier in life when it is eaten more than once per month. wconsumption would lower mortality rates of heart disease and cancer (combined) by about 20 percent. In response to the data, Canada, Japan and several European countries are all recommending limiting one’s diet of beef to two servings per year (Fourth of July?). 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to get on board. When our most prestigious academic institution produces such compelling data, we should certainly act. Changing our dietary standards would immediately affect the food served in schools, children’s programs and prisons. The government can have a quick and strong impact on public health while calling attention to a serious environmental problem. We should be eating less beef.

— Skyler Hutto is a senior in the College of Arts and Science and president of Vanderbilt SPEAR. He can be reached at skyler.b.hutto@vanderbilt.edu.

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