Op-Ed: Why Switching From Beef to Chicken Is a Recipe for Disaster

The way we produce food—specifically meat—spells disaster for our planet.

A supermarket meat and poultry aisle with an assortment of pre-packaged meats

Burke / Triolo Productions / Getty Images

A well-intentioned but disastrous solution is often offered to climate-conscious consumers: to swap beef on our plates with chicken. While on paper this brings down an individual’s dietary carbon footprint, in practice, this would mean billions more animals will be slaughtered each year while even more factory farms continue to harm the climate and all of us in the process. To spare animals from suffering, stave off climate change, and safeguard our food system we need to take factory farming off the table.

Much can be debated about the best way to address climate change but one of its sources is undeniable: the way we produce food—specifically meat—spells disaster for our planet.

The latest ominous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscores that ruminants—meaning animals like cattle, goats, and sheep—have the highest greenhouse gas contribution among our food sources. And the World Resources Institute said in its report that without restricting the global rise in meat consumption, particularly beef, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—which is critical to avoiding disastrous weather patterns—will be impossible.

As a result, a rash of articles have called for a switch from beef to less carbon-intensive or “efficient” meats, namely chicken. It's true that per gram of protein, conventional beef has almost 10 times the carbon footprint of chicken. Beef uses 23 times as much farmland and three times as much water. The public has heard these numbers and heeded the calls to change. Per capita, U.S. beef consumption declined by nearly a third from the 1970s to 2017 and has since stayed steady according to USDA data. Meanwhile, consumption of chicken more than doubled during that time period and has grown by 5 pounds per person just in the last five years.

This consumption shift from beef to chicken is contributing to a crisis of another kind. Approximately 134 chickens must be killed to produce one cows’ worth of meat. More than 9 billion chickens are now killed for meat in this country each year and all but a tiny fraction of them spend their lives on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, which are extremely inhumane and environmentally disastrous. The poultry industry’s standard practice, set by the handful of companies that control the majority of the market, is to intensively confine tens of thousands of birds in giant sheds with less than a square foot of space per animal.

Additionally, artificially breeding birds for extremely fast growth has caused rampant lameness and skeletal problems that make movement painful. So, these birds spend their lives sitting on top of their own ammoniated waste, causing open burns on the soles of their feet and chests. Biologically, they feel the same intense pain that human burn victims do. A broader shift from beef to chicken will consign billions more birds to miserable, agonizing lives. 

Swapping beef for chicken would also be a nightmare for the environment and rural Americans. Chickens’ manure accumulates at a rate of 150 tons per chicken house per year. With some 230,000 poultry farms in the U.S., that adds up to over 10 million tons of waste from poultry factory farms each year—far more than fields can accommodate as fertilizer, which is how it is generally used.

Poultry waste runoff from factory farm storage and field application has been shown to contaminate surrounding waterways with excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, causing dead zones and introducing pathogens like Salmonella and Staph infections, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Chesapeake Bay, which receives runoff from the high number of poultry farms on the Delmarva Peninsula, is extremely polluted and regularly has toxic algae blooms and dead zones caused by excess nitrogen. If more and more beef consumers switch to chicken, that choice will have devastating ripple effects on the communities living near these facilities whose health, water supply, and quality of life are affected by this pollution.

The most impactful dietary change we can make to reduce our individual impact on animals and the environment is actually to shift from conventionally produced, factory-farmed animal products to smaller amounts of pasture-based meat, eggs, or dairy and more plant-based protein sources. It’s not all-or-nothing. The average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly half just by eating less meat, eggs, and dairy while sparing animals from the cruelties of factory farming.

For meals that do include animal products, swapping in pasture-raised products for even a couple of meals each week can go a long way. Animals raised on pasture naturally spread their manure across the land, resulting in greatly reduced greenhouse gases and air emissions compared to the giant manure lagoons used on factory farms. Factory farms' manure produces 100 times higher methane emissions than manure distributed on pasture. If everyone in the U.S. ate only plant-based food one day each week and only pasture-raised animal products another day each week, that small change alone would spare 2.8 billion animals from factory farming annually—a 25% reduction in the number of animals factory farmed—with far-reaching environmental benefits.

Incremental, individual changes can add up to a big difference for both animals and the environment, but with global demand for animal products rising and food insecurity increasing, the onus cannot be on individuals alone. Federal livestock subsidies have made conventional animal agriculture unnaturally cheap. Taxpayer subsidies for corn- and soy-based chicken feed have artificially driven their prices down as much as 26% below production cost, further driving down chicken production cost by at least 13% less than actual market prices.  

We urgently need our government to stop propping up this disastrous system and redirect support to more humane, sustainable food and production methods. One policy solution proposed by Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Ro Khanna is the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA)—federal legislation that would phase out factory farming by stopping the expansion or construction of new large CAFOs and hold the industry accountable for harms done to local communities and farmers. The FSRA would also provide federal support to farmers who transition to higher welfare, pasture-based production, and growing fruits, vegetables, and other crops. 

It's time to stop leaping from the frying pan to the fire and rethink our food system. Through personal and political action, we can move toward a food system that values animals, people, and the planet. Every time we pick up a fork, we can vote for the protection of our planet and the creatures who share it, or we can vote for cruelty and climate disaster. I encourage you to use your voice by contacting your members of Congress to urge them to co-sponsor and pass the Farm System Reform Act to help create a healthier future for the planet.

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