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Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. In the mad race to the dinner plate, the scarce resources needed to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy simply can’t keep pace with the demand for these foods. Some commentators propose “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, on pastures, or in fish farms. But it’s unclear whether these proposals are really viable or are just so much hot, greenhouse gas wafting into the sky.

This is the second installment in a three-part series which seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably? In the first segment, we learned that determining the carbon effects of local consumption can be about as complex as planning a seven-course meal. Simply put, locally raised animal foods can easily be less carbon-friendly than those from a distant continent, and local consumption thus does not make animal foods sustainable. In the third segment, we learn that fish farming may not be silver bullet of food production to feed the world sustainably.  In this piece, we look at another key issue: whether farmed animals’ carbon footprint can be improved by raising them organically.

Manic for Organic

Is organic food really as good for the environment as we’d like to think? Despite Prince Charles’s claim that organic farming provides “major benefits for wildlife and the wider environment,” a 2006 British government report found no evidence that the environmental impact of organic farming is better than that of conventional methods.[1] In fact, because of large differences in land needs and growth characteristics between organic and inorganic animals, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the environmental benefits of one production method over the other. As Table 1 below shows, considerably more land is required to produce organic animal foods than inorganic—in some cases more than double. This higher land use is associated with higher emissions of harmful substances like ammonia, phosphate equivalents, and carbon dioxide equivalents. Further, denied growth-promoting antibiotics, organic animals grow more slowly—which leads to higher energy use for organic poultry and eggs. Thus, as Table 2 shows, when the overall effects of organic and inorganic animal production are compared, the results are notably mixed.

Table 1
Land Use Needs of Organic and Inorganic Animal Food Production (in acres)[2]

Table 1

Table 2
Organic or Inorganic Production—Which Is Better for the Environment?[3]
table 2

Legend:
O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference

We can see that poultry and eggs are mostly more eco-friendly when raised inorganically, while it’s generally more eco-friendly to raise pigs organically. As for cattle, factors like methane emissions and water use make the comparison more complicated.

it_photo_93667Take methane. Besides figuring prominently in many a fart joke, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas (although in its natural state, it’s actually odorless). A single pound of it has the same heat-trapping properties as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.[4] Organic cattle must be grazed for part of their lives, which means that unlike feedlot cattle, they eat grass. However, cattle rely more on intestinal bacteria when digesting grass than grain, and this makes them more flatulent—and methane-productive—when eating grass. The result is that grass-fed, organic cattle generate four times the methane that grain-fed, inorganic cattle do.[5]

Then there are the water issues. On a planet where water is not only the origin of all life but is also the key to its survival, animal agriculture siphons off a hugely disproportionate share of this increasingly scarce resource. It can be hard to picture the quantities of water involved, so consider a few examples. The 4,000 gallons required to produce one hamburger is more than the average native of the Congo uses in a year.[6]

battleship_003And the 3 million gallons used to raise a single, half-ton beef steer would comfortably float a battleship.[7]

Pound for pound, it takes up to one hundred times more water to produce animal protein than grain protein.[8] Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter? Looked at another way, if Fred litters ten times a day while Mary litters only nine times, is Mary’s behavior really good for the environment? The value of such comparisons is dubious.

These factors lead to one conclusion: we must treat as highly suspect the claim that organic animal agriculture is sustainable. Organic methods are an environmentally-mixed bag—sometimes slightly better, sometimes a little worse, and often the same as inorganic. But since animal protein takes many times the energy, water, and land to produce as plant protein, any modest gains from raising animals organically are largely irrelevant.[9] Shocked that organic production isn’t the silver bullet of sustainability? Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll look at another favorite of those who advocate “green” animal agriculture: pasture farming. For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] C. Foster et al., “Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs,” Eldis (2006).

[2] Data expressed in hectares converted to acres. A. G. Williams, E. Audsley, and D. L. Sandars, “Determining the Environmental Burdens and Resource Use in the Production of Agricultural and Horticultural Commodities” (2006), Main Report, UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Research Project IS0205.

[3]Williams, Audsley, and Sandars, “Environmental Burdens in Production of Agricultural Commodities”; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, (Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press, 1996).

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Methane: Science” (2010).

[5] L. A. Harper et al., “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Grazing and Feedlot Cattle,” Journal of Animal Science 77, no. 6 (1999): 1392–1401.

[6] ChartsBin, “Total Water Use per Capita by Country,” accessed December 23, 2012, http://chartsbin.com.

[7] Assuming the animal weighs 1,200 pounds; metric units converted to imperial. T. Oki et al., “Virtual Water Trade to Japan and in the World” (presentation, International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Netherlands, 2003).

[8] Pimentel and Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society.

[9] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Clinical Journal of Nutrition 78, no. (3) (2003): 6605–-35.

picture-143At 200 pounds each per year, Americans eat more meat per capita than any other people in the world. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, they’re catching up with us – and when they do, we’ll need two-thirds more land than exists on the planet to meet the higher demand.  The world’s huge production of meat, eggs, fish and dairy is causing a head-on collision between demand for these items and the reality of scarce resources like land, water, and fossil fuels. This isn’t a future threat; it’s happening in real time, right now. It takes up to one hundred times more water, eleven times more fossil fuels, and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein.[1] Further, animal food production is now the planet’s single biggest cause of climate change.[2] The machinery of industrial farming is bursting at the seams, spilling animal emissions and production by-products across all environmental media—air, water, and land. In this three-part series, I explore several popular ideas proposed to address the challenge of producing animal foods sustainably: local consumption, organic production, and fish farming. An in-depth look at these proposals seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably?

Part One: Loco for Local

Sustainability, some insist, requires that we consume food raised locally. Food’s carbon footprint is measured using a technique called “life cycle assessment” (LCA), which examines the carbon impact of every step or component in a food item’s production and consumption. LCA measures water use, harvesting methods, packaging materials, storage and preparation techniques, and other factors. But spoiling the local food movement’s heavy emphasis on what it calls “food miles” is the fact that transportation averages only 11 percent of total carbon footprint and is thus a mere fraction of most edible items’ LCA.[3] By contrast, the act of cooking food typically accounts for 25 percent of its carbon footprint, while production accounts for another 17 percent of the carbon footprint.[4] In other words, a modest efficiency or inefficiency in either production or cooking can easily outweigh transportation’s entire effect.

Hann_lambThe LCA data lead to some startling conclusions about food miles and the merits of local consumption. For example, one study found that it’s more carbon friendly for the British to buy lamb from New Zealand than to buy locally.[5] Lamb production is much more energy efficient in New Zealand than in the UK, in part because British production relies on fossil fuels while New Zealand production uses 64 percent renewable fuels. Thus, British lamb production requires 45,859 megajoules (MJ) of energy per ton of meat, while New Zealand production takes only 8,588 MJ per ton. Even after adding in the 2,030 MJ of energy needed to ship the New Zealand meat to the UK, New Zealand is still the clear winner at only 10,618 MJ for both transport and production—less than one-quarter of the British production requirement. This difference in energy consumption means New Zealand also wins in CO2 output related to lamb production—just 688 kg/ton compared to the UK’s 2,849 kg/ton.[6]

2months-lactation-breeding-1-1In another example of Kiwi production efficiency, the same study found it’s more carbon friendly for Brits to buy their powdered milk from New Zealand instead of locally. New Zealand dairy cows are generally pastured and eat grass, while British cows are mostly confined and eat forage feed like hay and nutritional supplements known as concentrates. The fuel inputs needed to produce the British cows’ forage feed and concentrates lead to major efficiency differences in milk production between the two countries. Thus, it takes 48,368 MJ of energy to produce a ton of powdered milk in the UK, but only 22,912 MJ in New Zealand. Even adding the 2,030 MJ necessary to transport the Kiwi powdered milk to the UK, the total energy used for both production and transport of the New Zealand product is 24,942 MJ—about half that in the UK. Again, New Zealand’s lower energy use means less CO2 output: just 1,423 kg to produce and deliver a ton of powdered milk to the UK, versus the British emission of 2,921 kg of CO2 to produce the same ton of product.[7]

As these examples show, placing too much emphasis on food’s local origin can easily cause one to overlook LCA components that have a greater effect on the environment. Such results led the New Zealand study’s authors to criticize the practice of equating food miles with carbon footprint—a practice they say “ignores the full energy and carbon emissions from production.”[8] The moral here isn’t that we should completely ignore food miles in measuring food’s ecological impact; we just need to exercise more discretion in how much importance we give those miles. As Texas State University professor James McWilliams observes in his book Just Food:

Sure, it feels righteously green to buy a shiny apple at the local farmers’ market. But the savvy consumer must ask the inconvenient questions. If the environment is dry, how much water had to be used to grow that apple? If it’s winter and the climate is cold, was the apple grown in an energy-hogging hothouse? Is the local fish I’m ordering being hunted to extinction? . . . Distance, in other words, is just a minor factor to consider. In overemphasizing food miles, we have missed important opportunities to think more critically about the fuller complexities of food production.[9]

group-of-fruits-and-vegetablesLocal consumption, then, is not the cure-all to solve the sustainability problems of meat and dairy production. If you eat animal foods, to some extent you might help support small farmers by buying locally. But as we’ve seen, the carbon calculations are complicated, and local buying is often not the most eco-friendly way to consume. (The only truly eco-friendly foods, of course, are plants.) In the next installment, we’ll look at organic production as a potential means to address the problem. Stay tuned!  For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

[2] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009): 10–19.

[3] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science and Technology 42, no. 10 (2008): 3508–13.

[4] Rich Pirog et al., “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa Perspective on How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (2001).

[5] Caroline Saunders and Andrew Barber, “Carbon Footprints, Life Cycle Analysis, Food Miles: Global Trade Trends and Market Issues,” Political Science 60, no. 1 (2008): 73–88.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] James McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Responsibly (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 214.

With a nod to the Harper’s Index, here’s the Meatonomics version of 40 numbers that tell a story. Sources for all figures are cited below. To view or download as a pdf, click here.

Average market value of a cow in the North Central United States : $245

Average cost to raise a cow in that region : $498

Amount US taxpayers spend yearly to subsidize meat and dairy : $38 billion

To subsidize fruits and vegetables : $17 million

US retail price of a pound of chicken in 1935 (adjusted for inflation) : $5.07

In 2011 : $1.34

Pounds of chicken eaten annually per American in 1935 : 9

In 2011 : 56

Factor by which US per-capita consumption of chicken and other meat exceeds world average : 3

By which US incidence of cancer exceeds world average : 3

Portion of US cancer, diabetes and heart disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption : 1/3

Annual cost to treat US cases of these diseases related to meat and dairy consumption : $314 billion

Portion of annual Medicare spending this represents : 3/5

Dietary cholesterol needed by humans, per National Academies’ Institute of Medicine : 0

Daily maximum recommended dietary cholesterol, per USDA (in milligrams) : 300

Milligrams of cholesterol per gram of ground beef : 0.9

Per gram of salmon : 0.9

Revenue collected by US fishing industry per pound of fish caught : $0.59

Portion of this figure funded by taxpayers as subsidies : $0.28

Pounds of dead fish and other animals discarded daily as unintended “bycatch” : 200 million

Portion of the worldwide targeted catch this represents : 2/5

Portion of Earth’s wild fisheries that have collapsed and ceased producing : 1/3

Pounds of wild fish needed to raise one pound of farmed salmon or tuna : 5

Portion of US seafood that comes from fish farms : 1/2

Number of foot-long, farmed trout typically raised in a space the size of a bathtub : 27

Number of pain receptors on the face and head of a trout : 18

Average amount Americans would pay to end inhumane hyper-confinement of pigs : $345

Number of states whose animal cruelty laws do not protect farmed animals : 37

Number of federal anti-cruelty laws that protect farmed animals during their lifetimes : 0

Annual government-managed “checkoff” spending to promote meat and dairy : $557 million

To promote fruits and vegetables : $51 million

Grams of protein in three ounces of canned ham : 18

In three ounces of roasted pumpkin seeds : 27

Average percentage by which a vegan’s blood cholesterol level is lower than an omnivore’s : 25

By which her weight is lower : 18

By which her life expectancy is longer : 13

Human lives that a 50% excise tax on meat and dairy would save yearly : 172,000

Animal lives it would save : 26 billion

Pounds this tax would cut yearly from US carbon-equivalent emissions : 3.4 trillion

Pounds of carbon equivalents emitted yearly from all US motor vehicles and vessels : 3.3 trillion


 SOURCES

Note:  The sources below provide raw data.  For full explanations and detailed calculations, see David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

Value and cost of a cow:  Sara D. Short, “Characteristics and Production Costs of US Cow-Calf Operations,” USDA Statistical Bulletin 17, no. No. 947-3 (2001) (data for “North Central” region).

Subsidies to meat and dairy: Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, Limited, “Farming the Mailbox: US Federal and State Subsidies to Agriculture – Study Prepared for Dairy Farmers of Canada” (2010); U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), “Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict” (2011).

Subsidies to fruits and vegetables: Iowa Public Interest Research Group, “Junk Food Trumps Fruits and Vegetables in Federal Subsidies,” EcoWatch.

Chicken prices and consumption: US Census Bureau, Statistical Abtracts (1940); US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average Prices (2011)”; USDA Economic Research Service, “Red Meat and Poultry – Per Capita Availability.”

Per capita meat consumption and cancer incidence by country: ChartsBin, http://chartsbin.com; World Cancer Research Fund International, “Data Comparing More and Less Developed Countries”; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts and Figures 2011”; National Cancer Institute, “Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results.”

Disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption: Romaina Iqbal, Sonia Anand, and Stephanie Ounpuu, “Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction in 52 Countries: Results of the INTERHEART Study,” Circulation 118, no. (19) (2008): 1929–-37; A. R. P. Walker, “Diet in the Prevention of Cancer: What Are the Chances of Avoidance?” The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 116, no. 6 (1996): 360–66; Dariush Mozaffarian et al., “Lifestyle Risk Factors and New-Onset Diabetes Mellitus in Older Adults,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 8 (2009): 798–807.

Costs to treat diseases related to meat and dairy consumption: Paul A. Heidenreich et al., “Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States: A Policy Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 123 (2011) 933–-944; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts & Figures 2012”; American Diabetes Association, “Economic Costs of Diabetes in the US in 2007,” Diabetes Care 31, no. 3 (2008); US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Diabetes – Success and Opportunities for Population-Based Prevention and Control: At a Glance 2010.”

Medicare spending: US Department of Health and Human Services, “2014 Budget.”

Cholesterol needed and recommended: National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005); USDA, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.”

Cholesterol in ground beef and salmon: USDA, “Cholesterol (mg) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, Sorted by Nutrient Content,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21 (2008).

Fishing revenue and subsidies: U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “US Domestic Seafood Landings and Values Increase in 2010” (2011).

Bycatch: R. W. D. Davies et al., “Defining and Estimating Global Marine Fisheries Bycatch,” Marine Policy 33, no. 4 (2009): 661–72; Michael Parfit, “Diminishing Returns,” National Geographic (November 1995).

Collapse of fisheries: Boris Worm, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, no.: 5800 (2006): 787–-90.

Wild fish fed to farmed fish: Rosamond L. Naylor et al., “Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies,” Nature 405 (2000): 1017–24.

Farmed fish consumption: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Fishwatch: US Seafood Facts.”

Trout stocking density and pain receptors: Matthias Halwart, Doris Soto, and J. Richard Arthur, eds., Cage Aquaculture: Regional Reviews and Global Overview (technical paper no. 498, UN FAO Fisheries, Rome, 2007); Lynne U. Sneddon, Victoria A. Braithwaite, and Michael J. Gentle, “Do Fishes Have Nociceptors? Evidence for the Evolution of a Vertebrate Sensory System,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270, no. 1520 (2003): 1115–21.

Willingness to pay to end animal cruelty: F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 344–45.

Anti-cruelty laws: Cody Carlson, “How State Ag-gag Laws Could Stop Animal-Cruelty Whistleblowers,” The Atlantic (March 25, 2013).

Checkoff spending: Geoffrey S. Becker, “Federal Farm Promotion (‘Check-Off’) Programs,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2008) (figure for fruits and vegetables excludes soybeans and sorghum, most of which are fed to farmed animals).

Protein in ham and pumpkin seeds: USDA, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24.

Cholesterol, weight and longevity advantages of vegans: Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, “Disease Markers of Vegetarians” (2009), accessed August 19, 2012, http://www.veganhealth.org (referenced data are from table 1, “Cholesterol in USA Vegans”); S. Tonstad et al., “Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Care 32, no. 5 (2009): 791–96; Gary E. Fraser and David J. Shavlik, “Ten Years of Life – Is It a Matter of Choice?,” Archives of Internal Medicine 161 (2001); US Census Bureau, “Expectation of Life at Birth, and Projections” (2012).

Lives saved by meat tax: humans – “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Vital Statistics Reports 59, no. 4 (2011) (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption and corresponding reduction in deaths related to meat and dairy consumption; for details see Simon, Meatonomics); animals – Free from Harm, “59 Billion Land and Sea Animals Killed for Food in the US in 2009” (2011), accessed August 18, 2012, http://freefromharm.org (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption).

Carbon equivalent emissions saved by meat tax: According to the US EPA, total US carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions were 6,821.8 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010. (US EPA, “US Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report,” Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2010 (2012). Researchers estimate that 51% of emissions of CO2 equivalents is attributable to animal agriculture, which represents 3,479.1 MMT of the US total. (Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009.) The 44.1% of this figure that the tax proposal would eliminate is 1,534 MMT, or 3.4 trillion pounds of CO2 equivalents. That is more than the 1,497 MMT that the US EPA estimates was emitted in 2010 by all US motor vehicles and vessels. (US EPA, “Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 14, table 3.12; note that MMT and teragrams are equivalent units of measure.)

BM total intervals - wide - text 5

The average retail price of a Big Mac in the United States is $4.56, but that’s just a fraction of the actual cost. When we add in all the hidden, externalized expenses of meat production, the full burden on society is a hefty $12.00 per sandwich. The extra $7.44 above the retail price is borne by American taxpayers and consumers. In other words, rich or poor, omnivore or herbivore, you incur a share of the hidden costs of each and every Big Mac sold in this country.

Curious what you’re paying for? The externalized costs of each burger include:

  • $0.38 for cruelty.  A total of $20.7 billion in cruelty costs is imposed on Americans each year. (Extrapolated from a study in which auction participants bid to end cruel farming practices.)
  • $0.67 in environmental losses.  This is a small piece of the $37.2 billion in annual environmental costs related to U.S. animal food production each year. The figure includes the costs of soil erosion, climate change, damage from pesticides and fertilizers, devaluation of real property, and manure remediation.
  • $0.70 in subsidies.  Toss in a few coins from the $38.4 billion in government subsidies that American taxpayers pay to fund the meat and dairy industries each year.
  • $5.69 in health care costs. The biggest slice of the pie is a chunk of the $314 billion in health care costs incurred by Americans each year to treat those cases of cancer, diabetes heart disease, and food poisoning related to meat and dairy consumption.

With “billions and billions” sold, the social costs add up fast. The total externalized costs of U.S. meat and dairy production are over $414 billion each year. Under a financial burden of such staggering dimensions, the only ones “lovin’ it” are shareholders in the McDonald’s Corporation.

* * *

Source: David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013) (costs of fish production excluded).

Preacher

Is animal protein a life-enhancing elixir? From a young age, we’re taught it fosters health, growth, vitality, virility, and sometimes even weight loss. The alternative to getting plenty of it, we’re told, could be protein deficiency. Never mind that the typical American has never had—nor ever will have—protein deficiency and has little idea what its symptoms might be. We’ve heard of it, we’re scared of it, and whatever the heck it is, we don’t want it.

Spurred by the most basic force of meatonomics—the drive to sell more meat and dairy—animal food producers use our protein fears to their advantage. For example, a beef trade group’s website suggests when deciding how much meat to eat, we go beyond the bare minimum needed to “prevent protein deficiency.”[1] Elsewhere on the site, we’re warned:

HEALTH ALERT: Sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is a condition associated with a loss of muscle mass and strength in older individuals. . . .While there is no single cause, insufficient protein intake may be a key contributor to this condition.[2]

The key phrase here is may be. In fact, the research linking sarcopenia to protein deficiency is spotty and inconclusive. A 2001 study published in The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine found simply, “Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia.”[3]

We’re regularly bombarded with protein messages like these. How accurate are they? What are the health consequences of following them? Because protein is such an important nutrient, and emerging research presents an array of new findings on the subject, it’s worthwhile to assess the protein messages that influence our consumption habits.

Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Here’s something to chew on: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread contains more protein (14 grams) than a McDonald’s hamburger (13 grams). Many consumers think plant foods contain little protein—in any case, not enough to meet our daily needs. But a closer look suggests the animal food industry may be overhyping animal protein in ways that are clinically unsupported.

For humans, the best guidance on protein requirements is contained in a 284-page report produced jointly by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).[4] According to this report, an adult needs 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.[5] For a 170-pound adult, this is about 50.8 grams of protein per day. An omnivore could fill this quota with just one chicken breast and one drumstick per day, although among American consumers, such restraint is rare. Males between twenty and fifty-nine, for example, typically consume more than 100 grams of protein daily—twice the level recommended by WHO.[6]

With 50.8 grams of protein (adjusted by individual bodyweight) as a rough daily target, we can evaluate the meatonomics claim that it’s hard to obtain adequate protein without eating animal foods. Consider these surprising protein equivalents, courtesy of the USDA: a baked potato contains as much protein as a hot dog, 2 ounces of peanuts equals a chicken pot pie, and ounce-for-ounce, roasted pumpkin seeds have more protein than ham. As the table below shows, many plant foods contain protein at levels equal to the same or even larger amounts of animal foods.[7]

Protein Equivalents in Animal and Plant Foods[8]

Protein (g) Animal Food Plant Food
21 Double cheeseburger (w/ condiments) Trail mix (1 cup)
18 Ham (3 oz., extra lean, canned) Pumpkin seeds (2 oz., roasted)
16 Crab meat (3 oz., cooked) Peas (1 cup, split, boiled)
13 Chicken pot pie Peanuts (2 oz., roasted)
9 Turkey (1 patty, breaded, fried) Hummus (1/2 cup)
6 Egg (large, hard-boiled) Pistachios (1 oz., roasted)
5 Frankfurter (beef) Potato (baked)
4 Cheese (1 oz., feta) Grapefruit juice (6 fl. oz., from concentrate)
2 Ice cream (1/2 cup, vanilla) Blackberries (1 cup)
1 Cream cheese (1 tbsp.) Cocoa (1 tbsp., dry, unsweetened)

In fact, every fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, or grain we put in our bodies has protein—in most cases, at surprising levels. You like to kick back with a Budweiser? A can of beer contains 2 grams of protein. A basic salad doesn’t seem hardy enough to add a bit of muscle? A cup of romaine contains a gram of protein. In fact, calorie for calorie, green vegetables like kale, broccoli, and romaine lettuce contain twice as much protein as steak.[9] As one team of experts noted, “It is difficult to obtain a mixed vegetable diet which will produce an appreciable loss of body protein.”[10]

A recent poll found that nearly 16 million Americans are vegetarian (that is, they eat no meat) and of these, nearly 8 million are vegan (that is, they eat no animal products whatsoever).[11] Yet there is no clinical evidence that members of either group suffer from protein deficiency. In fact, a number of commentators note that protein deficiency is largely associated with caloric deficiency, and for anyone consuming sufficient calories, adequate protein is not a concern.[12] In a report that is the basis for the USDA’s protein recommendations, the National Academy of Sciences downplays the risk that people on a plant-based diet lack sufficient dietary protein. According to the National Academy, “available evidence does not support recommending a separate protein requirement for vegetarians.”[13]

Nevertheless, the animal food industry hypes the message that plant protein is lower in quality than animal protein. One industry website advises, “All proteins are not created equal. High-quality animal protein . . . helps fuel a healthy, active lifestyle.”[14] Such claims that animal protein is “high quality” and “healthy” are central to the industry’s protein dogma, and for that reason, they merit a closer look.

Consider the results of a large number of studies on the effect that animal protein has on cancer growth, discussed in the 2004 book The China Study. The main finding from these many studies, according to lead author T. Colin Campbell, is that “nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development.”[15] This remarkable set of studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and other organizations, lasted more than nineteen years and spawned more than one hundred scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

I asked Gregory Miller of the National Dairy Council about Campbell’s finding that animal protein, particularly the protein casein in milk, promotes cancer. According to Miller, who has a PhD in nutrition, Campbell’s research shows “if you feed [animals] a good healthy diet with a high-quality protein, the cancer thrives, and if you feed them a diet that’s not as good, it doesn’t thrive. It’s about good nutrition.” Yep, you read that right; Miller says animal protein promotes cancer because of its high quality, and plant protein does not promote cancer because of its poor quality. The meat and dairy industries churn out questionable messages like this with the help of a government-managed warchest of $557 million annually. Is it any wonder Americans consume animal protein in such huge quantities?

For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “High Quality Protein Promotes Optimal Health,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[2] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Discover the Power of Protein in Lean Beef,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[3] J. E. Morley et al., “Sarcopenia,” The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine 137, no. 4 (2001): 231–43, abstract.

[4] World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and United Nations University, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007), accessed November 20, 2011, http://www.who.int.

[5] The USDA also issues recommendations regarding protein consumption, although its guidance is substantially higher. The agency recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day, which works out to 61.7 grams for a 170-pound adult or about 20 percent more than UN/WHO. I use the UN/WHO recommendations because they’re more consistent with current research and less likely to be influenced by industry (see chapter 4).

[6] World Health Organization, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007); US Department of Agriculture, “What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007–2008,” accessed November 15, 2011, http://www.ars.usda.gov.

[7] US Department of Agriculture, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, accessed November 20, 2011, https://www.ars.usda.gov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Janice Stanger, The Perfect Formula Diet (San Diego: Perfect Planet Solutions, 2009), 34.

[10] U. D. Register and L. M. Sonnenberg, “The Vegetarian Diet. Scientific and Practical Considerations,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 62, no. 3 (1973): 253–61.

[11] A 2011 poll by Harris Interactive found that 5 percent of adult Americans are vegetarian and half of these, or 2.5 percent, are vegan. The US Census Bureau advises that US population is 313.4 million (as of April 25, 2012). The Vegetarian Resource Group, “How Many Adults Are Vegan in the U.S.?” (2011), accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.vrg.org; US Census Bureau, “U.S. and World Population Clocks” (2012), accessed April 25, 2012, http://www.census.gov.

[12] See, for example, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, The China Study (Dallas: Ben-Bella Books, 2004).

[13] National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005): 662.

[14] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Powering Up with Protein,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[15] Campbell and Campbell, China Study.

And now, a reblog of an interview that my partner, Tania Marie, just posted. It provides a great overview of the book Meatonomics and, for the curious, a few details about me. The book comes out in 10 days!

Tania Marie

meatonomics

“This important book joins the ranks of T. Colin Campbell’s Whole and The China Study in its power to expose the truth and begin to repair the health care crisis.”

~ Patti Breitman, co-author of How to Eat Like a Vegetarian, Even If You Never Want To Be One

“Consumers can only make wise purchases of meat if the price they pay reflects the full cost of producing it—when there are no ‘hidden’ costs like subsidies or environmental damage. Simon is the first author to attempt a complete accounting of all these hidden costs, something that should be applauded by the vegan and meat-lover alike.”

~ F. Bailey Norwood, Ph.D., author of Compassion By the Pound and Professor of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University

There are some incredible visionaries “being the change” and channeling pivotal and illuminating material and creations these days, especially via the medium of books. David Robinson Simon…

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Cruelty Costs Graphic“Not everything that counts,” said Einstein, “can be counted.”  But in the study of animal cruelty and its effects, surprisingly, now there is something important that we can count: the financial costs that cruelty imposes on society.  That is to say, besides the heavy physical and emotional toll that the day-to-day abuse of farmed animals causes the animals themselves, these practices impose significant, measurable economic costs on people as well.

We can calculate these costs using what economists call “willingness to pay.”  Add up what everyone in the United States is willing to pay to end cruelty to farmed animals, and that’s the total cost that cruelty imposes on American society.  An economist would call this an “externalized” cost of animal cruelty.  Externalized costs are expenses of production that producers impose on society rather than paying.  For example, if I dump my garbage in the local park at midnight instead of putting it in a trash can at the curb, I’ve externalized my garbage collection costs on society instead of internalizing them.

There are a variety of ways to estimate cruelty’s costs, but there’s one way of doing it that makes particular sense.  In their recent book Compassion by the Pound, economists Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood calculate the externalized costs imposed on compassionate consumers by cruel factory farming practices.[1]  Lusk and Norwood use an interesting technique for measuring cruelty’s costs: they conduct live auctions with real people who used real money to bid on alleviating particularly cruel factory farming practices for a particular group of animals.  In their study, people actually paid an average of $57 in hard dollars per person to move 1,000 laying hens from battery cages to free-range systems, and they paid $23 per person to move 1,000 sows and their offspring from gestation crates to shelter-pasture systems.  Extrapolating from these results, Lusk and Norwood estimate that people would actually pay an average of $342 and $345 per person, respectively, to implement these welfare changes on a national basis.

Using these figures as a base, we can extrapolate further to estimate how much Americans would pay to end three more factory practices that are particularly cruel: zero grazing for dairy cows, rapid growth and hyperconfinement for broiler chickens, and overstocking and inhumane slaughter of farmed fish.  Take $343.31, the midpoint of the range between the two figures Norwood and Lusk estimated people would pay to improve hen’s and pig’s lives, and apply it to all the hypothetical changes.  The total that this exercise suggests each American would pay, on average, to make all five of these changes is $1,717.27.  Adjusting this figure for inflation, multiplying by the number of US adults, then amortizing the total over twenty years (the standard IRS depreciation period for farm buildings) yields a total of roughly $20.7 billion yearly that farm animal cruelty imposes on Americans in externalized costs.

While this cruelty number might seem high, it is actually on the low side.  For starters, the estimate of $20.7 billion yearly covers only five inhumane practices. It doesn’t include numerous others, like raising veal calves in crates, force-feeding ducks to produce foie gras, castrating pigs and cattle without anesthetic, and killing male chicks by starvation, suffocation, or grinding.  Adding these and other practices to the calculation might double or triple the total.

This number also doesn’t cover the financial costs to the animals themselves.  Economists don’t recognize non-human costs, but perhaps they should.  After all, it’s not hard to measure animals’ willingness to pay for better living conditions, and doing so would give us an understanding of cruelty’s economic costs to the animals themselves.  In one study, for example, researchers measured pigs’ willingness to pay for food and companionship by having them press a nose-plate to either eat or hang out with friends (they chose food by a factor of two to one).[2]

Would Americans really pay almost $2,000 each to end factory farming’s cruelest practices?  Moreover, could we?  Of course, not everyone could or would.  But this figure is just an average, and while some would pay less (or nothing), some would pay much, much more.

Assuming that $20.7 billion is a reasonable estimate of the cost of cruelty, how does knowing this number help us?  In other words, what is it good for?  One way this number is useful is to counter arguments about the value of the meat and dairy industries to society – particularly when the cruelty figure is added to the other $394 billion in externalized costs of animal food production.  It turns out that for every $1 of animal food sold at retail, the industry imposes almost $2 in externalized costs on society.  Perhaps the animal food sector is not as good for the American economy as producers would have us believe.

Another way this figure is useful is to put cruelty’s true costs in perspective.  $20.7 billion is enough to run Iceland’s government for four years.  It’s eight times the combined annual profits of Tyson and Cargill, two of the world’s biggest animal food producers.  In short, it’s a massive number, and while it can’t adequately convey the suffering that billions of farmed animals endure each year, it does help us understand – and measure – how this suffering affects people.


[1] F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] L. R. Mathews and J. Ladewig, “Environmental Requirements of Pigs Measured by Behavioral Demand Functions,” Animal Behavior 47, no. 3 (1994): 713–19.

factory-farmingFor almost as long as they’ve been in use, factory farms have been synonymous with three kinds of problems: environmental, nutritional, and ethical.  But today, new data compels us to consider an overlooked fourth category: economic. Scheduled for release in September 2013, the book Meatonomics looks at the strange economic forces behind meat and dairy production – and how those forces affect consumers and taxpayers.  It’s a new look at a bizarre, upside-down industry, and its revelations are shocking.

One curious fact to emerge from the book is that animal food producers impose almost $2 in hidden costs on Americans for every $1 of product they sell at retail (for details, see the pie chart below).  Another is that by “externalizing” most of their costs in this fashion and taking other steps to keep prices artificially low and manipulate buying behavior, these producers deprive consumers of the ability to make informed, independent decisions about how much meat and dairy to eat. That’s the main reason Americans consume more meat per person than anyone else on the planet.

Here’s a sneak preview from the book: the never-before-calculated external costs that animal food producers impose on American consumers and taxpayers:

This is the first in a regular series of provocative posts on the forces of meatonomics and how those forces affect our individual health, the environment, how we treat animals, and ultimately, our national prosperity. I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog so you can receive regular updates. Also, please feel free to peruse the site for upcoming events, reviews of the book, sample chapters, pre-ordering information, and more.