The Global Beef Boom – Good Or Bad?

by Timothy Lutts

And now, some interesting facts about cattle … which include cows, bison and buffalo.

cattle-Hereford-bullToday there are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world; they exist mainly to feed people. If the current global beef boom continues, global meat consumption will double by 2050, both because of growing populations and growing wealth, which enables western-style consumption.

Yet according to a 400-page report issued by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cattle are “responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.”

(Cattle are also blamed for acid rain, the introduction of alien species, producing deserts, poisoning rivers and drinking water and destroying coral reefs, but we won’t get into that here.)

A related study at the University of Chicago suggests that if you eliminate meat and dairy from your diet you can save 1.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. If you drive a Prius, contrarily, you only reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases by 1 ton.

So where – in this climate where activists readily demonize the creators of global warming – are the protesters against farmers, against meat processors, and against beef-eaters? Where are the students advocating punitive legislation for the beef industry and special taxes on red meat products?

They’re non-existent.

The biggest producer of beef in the U.S. is Tyson foods. Second is Cargill, and third is Swift, which was just bought by South American JBS-Friboi. Swift, remember, had its plants raided in December 2006 by U.S. immigration agents, who found more than 1280 “undocumented workers.”

These are big companies, and they could easily be targeted as major contributor to global warming. But they’re not, and I’m guessing that part of the reason is that food is rather sacred to Americans. No country on earth is better at growing it and eating it, and to agitate against that tradition would be, well, un-American.

But looking at the big picture, and keeping in mind the principles of ultimate utility and greatest good, a decent case can be made that curtailing our beef consumption is a smarter move than curtailing our driving habits.

The facts about greenhouse gases certainly favor cutting global beef consumption. So, too, do the facts about health. Cholesterol is a major killer in our society, and cutting back on the hamburgers and steaks would make us all healthier in the long run. And what would be the cost? Financially, most Americans would see a cost savings, as alternative foods are cheaper. Cattle farmers would suffer, of course, but it appears that the only real cost to society at large would be the loss of the pleasures of eating red meat steak. It’s immeasurable, but it’s real.

Reducing the amount of fuel burned by driving can certainly reduce emissions, whether you do it by buying a Prius, downsizing from an Escalade to an Escort, or from a Suburban to a Subaru, or using public transportation. Ideally, you do this voluntarily, and you save money while maintaining your utility.

But driving a smaller lighter vehicle increases your risk of injury in an accident. And if the government steps in and imposes a heavy-handed solution (like raising corporate average fuel economy [CAFE] rates) that typically imposes costs on the group with the least lobbying power. Furthermore – and this tends to be the least appreciated part of the calculus – it can negatively impact productivity, and I don’t believe the U.S. can afford any more impacts to productivity.

Admittedly, this cursory analysis ignores the geo-political forces that affect our energy policy. It ignores the fact that ever-improving alternative technologies promise reduced dependence on oil in the years and decades ahead.

Nevertheless, it appears that reducing our beef consumption could do more for both our personal health and our planetary health than reducing our fuel consumption.

It’s worth thinking about.

In the meantime, however, it’s fairly clear that the global beef industry will continue to grow. All you need do is look at the trends of consumption in both China and India. At the same time, the corn industry is booming, spurred by growing demand for ethanol. And the fertilizer business is just giddy, as demand from all corners of the globe has increased.

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