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AMI Statement in Response to EWG’s ‘Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health’

Monday, July 18, 2011
 

More than 95 percent of Americans eat meat and poultry and according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines technical report, the protein group is the only group consumed in the proper amount.  Americans make meat and poultry products part of their diet because they are among the most nutrient dense products available and because they are enjoyable.  This report from the Environmental Working Group appears to be an effort to throw a long list of concerns at the American public in hopes that some will stick.  The report selectively cites literature while ignoring many studies that affirm the role of meat in the diet and the documented progress in reducing the environmental impact of livestock, meat and poultry production.    

Claims about meat’s environmental impact

All food production impacts the environment, whether the food is a carrot, a peach or a pork chop.  Data show that the U.S. meat industry has made enormous progress during the past two decades in reducing its environmental impact – strides that the report fails to acknowledge.

Since 1990, animal agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has remained nearly constant.  On a national basis in the U.S., for example, all of animal agriculture accounts for about 3.4 percent of the total greenhouse gasses.  This small number is impressive considering that during that time the U.S. has increased its meat production by almost 50 percent, milk production by 16 percent and egg production by almost 33 percent. 

The fact that GHG emissions from U.S. animal agriculture have remained relatively constant while protein production has increased dramatically reflects improved feed efficiencies, adoption of technology, advances in nutrition, better manure and water management strategies and more efficient use of cropland.  Livestock and poultry producers have taken these responsible steps to provide an abundant and affordable meat supply while still protecting the environment.

In the case of beef production, for example, compared to 1977, per pound of beef:

Claims about “grass-fed” beef

Grass fed beef is preferred by some consumers because of its unique taste.  The report does a disservice, however, by fueling the misperception that “grass-fed” beef is somehow more environmentally friendly than traditional, corn or grain-finished beef. 

First, all cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass in pastures.  Most cattle then spend four to six months in feedlots where they are fed a combination of grasses, hay and grains formulated by a professional nutritionist. 

Because grass doesn’t grow year-round in most of the U.S., feeding grains such as corn to cattle help farmers and ranchers raise a consistent, year-round supply of great-tasting beef.

Researchers from Washington State University, University of California-Davis, University of New South Wales (Australia) and the Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues found that pound-for-pound, beef produced using grain emit significantly less GHG than grass-fed beef.  A grain diet, researchers point out, is more easily digestible than the cellulose fibers of grass, producing less methane.

Furthermore, research also has shown that because of the lower productivity, a grass-fed system takes a greater amount of time from the cattle’s birth to harvest.  The animals grow more slowly, which equates to the use of more land, more water, more energy, more fuel and a greater carbon footprint than animals finished on corn.  In addition, grass-fed cattle require more than five acres to produce a pound of beef, while less than 1.7 acres are needed in a grain-fed feedlot system, conserving a significant amount of land.

Health and nutrition of meat products

In terms of diet and health, the total body of evidence clearly demonstrates that meat is a healthy part of a balanced diet.  Meat contains protein, amino acids and essential nutrients such as iron and zinc, some of which are not found in other foods and are the keys to good health.  That evidence is reflected in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which affirm the health benefits of meat. 

The obesity and cancer claims in the report attempt to oversimplify a very complex issue by selectively citing some studies while ignoring others.  Many studies affirm the value of meat in weight control because it is nutrient dense and satisfying.  Many more studies have found no relationship between meat and various forms of cancer. 

A balanced diet and a healthy body weight are what common sense suggests -- and what the total evidence has shown -- are the keys to good health. 

Resources: 

Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production, Washington State and Cornell Universities:

http://wsu.academia.edu/documents/0046/7264/2009_Cornell_Nutrition_Conference_Capper_et_al.pdf

Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change, by Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D.

http://bit.ly/aGXnic

USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook: http://bit.ly/aQmaEM

EPA Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1190-2008: http://bit.ly/aqNEfc

Peer-reviewed studies showing no link between meat consumption and the development of cancer:  http://www.meatsafety.org/ht/d/sp/i/41421/pid/41421

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