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Land, Irrigation Water, Greenhouse Gas, and Reactive Nitrogen Burdens of Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Production in the United States

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Cafo's vs. Free Range page.

Livestock production impacts air and water quality, ocean health, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on regional to global scales and it is the largest use of land globally. Quantifying the environ- mental impacts of the various livestock categories, mostly arising from feed production, is thus a grand challenge of sustainability science. Here, we quantify land, irrigation water, and reactive nitrogen (Nr) impacts due to feed production, and recast published full life cycle GHG emission estimates, for each of the major animal- based categories in the US diet. Our calculations reveal that the environmental costs per consumed calorie of dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs are mutually comparable (to within a factor of 2), but strikingly lower than the impacts of beef. Beef production requires 28, 11, 5, and 6 times more land, irrigation water, GHG, and Nr, respectively, than the average of the other livestock categories. Preliminary analysis of three staple plant foods shows two- to sixfold lower land, GHG, and Nr requirements than those of the nonbeef animal-derived calories, whereas irrigation requirements are comparable. Our analysis is based on the best data currently available,butfollow-upstudiesarenecessarytoimproveparameter estimates and fill remaining knowledge gaps. Data imperfections notwithstanding, the key conclusion - that beef production demands about 1 order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories - is robust under existing uncertainties. The study thus elucidates the multiple environmental benefits of potential, easy-to-implement dietary changes, and highlights the uniquely high re- source demands of beef.

Appreciation of the environmental costs of food production has grown steadily in recent years (e.g., refs. 1 - 3), often emphasizing the disproportionate role of livestock (4 - 12). Al- though potentially societally important, to date the impacts of this research on environmental policies (7, 13, 14) and individual dietary choices have been modest. Although pioneering early environmental burden estimates have tended to address wide food classes (notably the animal-based portion of the diet; e.g., refs. 9 and 15), most policy objectives and individual dietary choices are item specific.

For example, a person may consider beef and chicken mutually interchangeable on dietary or culinary grounds. However, even if an individual estimate of the environmental cost of one item exists, it is often not accompanied by a directly comparable study of the considered alternative. Even in the unlikely event that both estimates are available, they are unlikely to consider the costs in terms of more than one metric, and often rely on disparate methodologies. Therefore, environmentally motivated dietary choices and farm policies stand to benefit from more finely resolved environutritional information. Although early work yielded a short list of item-specific environmental cost estimates (16), those estimates were often based on meager data, and addressed a single environmental metric (typically energy), thus requiring expansion, updating, and further analysis to en- hance statistical robustness (8).

Current work in the rapidly burgeoning field of diet and ag- ricultural sustainability falls mostly into two complementary approaches. The first is bottom - up, applying rigorous life cycle assessment (LCA) methods to food production chains (17 - 22). Whereas early LCAs focused primarily on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (23 - 26), or in some cases GHGs and energy use (5, 27), more recent LCAs often simultaneously address several additional key metrics (17, 19 - 21, 28, 29), notably land, water, and reactive nitrogen (Nr, nitrogen fertilizer) use. Some studies also include emissions of such undesirable gases (in ad- dition to GHGs) as smog precursors or malodors (30, 31), or adverse contributions to stream turbidity or erosional topsoil loss (e.g., refs. 32 - 34). This bottom - up approach is extremely important, and is poised to eventually merge with the top - down national efforts described in the next paragraph. This merger is not imminent, however, because the bottom - up approach considers one or at most a handful of farms at a time. Because of wide differences due to geography (35), year-to-year fluctuations (36), and agrotechnological practice (17, 37), numerous LCAs are required before robust national statistics emerge. Eventually, when a large and diverse LCA sample is at hand, the picture at the national level will emerge. Currently, however, the results from an LCA conducted in Iowa, for example, are unlikely to represent Vermont or Colorado. Given the current volume and scope of LCA research, and the complexity and variability of the problem, LCAs are still too few and too local to adequately sample the multifaceted, diverse US food system, and thus to collectively become nationally scalable.

The second agricultural sustainability research thrust, into which this study broadly falls, is a top - down analysis of national (10, 16, 38) or global (8, 39 - 41) production statistics. The top - down approach we follow here is conceptually straightforward, as described schematically in Fig. 1. The environmental needs (land, irrigation water, etc.) of feed production are collected and distributed among the feed-consuming animal categories. This is termed the partitioning step, and is based on information about the number of animals raised or slaughtered mass in each category, as well as the characteristic feed ration in each category. The burdens attributed to each category are divided by the caloric or protein mass output of that animal category, yielding the final result, the environmental burden per consumed unit (e.g., agricultural land needed per ingested kilocalorie of poultry). This method is mainly appealing because it ( i ) circumvents the variability issues raised above by using national or global aggregations; and ( ii ) it is based on relatively solid data. For the United States in particular, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data tend to be temporally consistent, nearly all-inclusive (e.g., records of the main crops are based on close to 100% of the production), and are reported after some (albeit modest) quality control. The key challenge with this approach is obtaining defensible numerical values and uncertainty ranges for the tens if not hundreds of parameters needed in the calculations, many of which are poorly constrained by available data. Such parameters include, for example, the average feed required per animal per day or per kilogram of weight gain, or the relative fraction of pasture in beef and dairy diets. The values vary as a function of, at least, season, geographical location, and agrotechnology used. One research effort, focused on a single location, is unlikely to yield definiti ve results. Significant progress in both approaches is primarily realized through the tenacious and painstaking amassing of many independent analyses over time; analyses from which robust, meaningful statistics can be derived. Because of the challenges associated with each of the research thrusts discussed above, quantitatively robust, multimetric estimates that are comparable across different categories and represent the average national environmental burdens have yet to be devised. Although estimates of total national energy use and GHG emissions by agriculture do exist (e.g., refs. 4, 5, 42, and 43), they require further statistical evaluation. The costs in terms of land, irrigation water, and Nr are even less certain.

Applying a top - down, uniform methodology throughout, here we present estimates of land, irrigation water, GHG, and Nr requirements of each of the five main animal-based categories in the US diet - dairy, beef, poultry, pork, and eggs - jointly providing 96% of the US animal-based calories. We do not analyze fish for two reasons. First, during the period 2000 - 2013, fish contributed ≈ 14 kcal per person per day, ≈ 0.5% of the total and 2% of the animal-based energy (750 kcal per person per day) in the mean American diet (44). In addition, data addressing feed use by fisheries and aquaculture are very limited and incomplete (relative to the five categories considered). We do not claim to cover all important environmental impacts of livestock pro- duction. Rather, we focus on key metrics that can be reliably defined and quantified at the national level with currently available data.    

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