News Treehugger Voices 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. By Daisy Freund Daisy Freund Daisy Freund is vice president of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Learn about our editorial process Published May 6, 2022 12:00PM EDT Fact checked by Katherine Martinko Fact checked by Katherine Martinko Twitter University of Toronto Katherine Martinko is an expert in sustainable living. She holds a degree in English Literature and History from the University of Toronto. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Burke / Triolo Productions / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive 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. Related Readings From Lettuce to Beef, What's the Water Footprint of Your Food? The Surprising World of Corporate 'Meat Reduction' Strategies Fight Food Waste and Rising Costs by Using What's Already in Your Fridge 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. Plant-Forward Diets Could Reduce Emissions by 61% and 'Double Climate Dividend' View Article Sources "Special Report: Climate Change and Land." International Panel on Climate Change. Waite, Richard and Daniel Vennard. "Without Changing Diets, Agriculture Alone Could Produce Enough Emissions to Surpass 1.5˚C of Global Warming." World Resources Institute, 17 Oct. 2018. "Greenhouse gas emissions per 100 grams of protein." Our World in Data. Hoekstra, Prof. Arjen Y. "The Water Footprint of Food." Twente Water Centre, University of Twente. "Land use per 100 grams of protein." Our World in Data. Waite, Richard. "2018 Will See High Meat Consumption in the U.S., but the American Diet Is Shifting." World Resources Institute, 24 Jan. 2018. "Per Capita Consumption of Poultry and Livestock, 1965 to Forecast 2022, in Pounds." National Chicken Council. Ritchie, Hannah. "Should we kill trillions of animals to save the planet?" Wired, 2021. Lawrence, Felicity. "If consumers knew how farmed chickens were raised, they might never eat their meat again." The Guardian. Ritz, Casey W. "Maximizing poultry manure use through nutrient management planning." University of Georgia, Extension. "USDA Poultry Production Data." U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 2015. Hubbard, L.E., et al. "Poultry litter as potential source of pathogens and other contaminants in groundwater and surface water proximal to large-scale confined poultry feeding operations." Science of the Total Environment, vol. 735, 15 Sept. 2020. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139459 Pelton, Tom et al. "Poultry Industry Pollution in the Chesapeake Region." Environmental Integrity Project, 22 Apr. 2020. "Harmful algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay are becoming more frequent." University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, 11 May 2015. Ranganathan, Janet and Richard Waite. "Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts." World Resources Institute. Gavrilova, O., Leip, A., Dong, H., et al. "Chapter 10: Emissions from Livestock and Manure Management." 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Harish. "How many animals does a vegetarian save?" Counting Animals. "The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021." Feeding America, Mar. 2021. Shike, Jennifer. "Increased Stability and Demand Expected for Livestock Sector, Meyer Says." Farm Journal's Pork, 18 Feb. 2021. "Livestock Subsidies in the United States totaled $12.5 billion from 1995 to 2020." EWG's Farm Subsidy Database. Starmer, Elanor et al. "Feeding the Factory Farm: Implicit Subsidies to the Broiler Chicken Industry." Global Development and Environment Institute, Working Paper, Jun. 2006.