Chicken Surprise

Can Eating Chicken Save the Planet?

It’s an awesome responsibility, saving the planet. But apparently, it’s also simple. And many people have an answer. Opt for eating chicken instead of beef. We can go vegan, vegetarian, or to a warmer, fuzzier “plant-based” diet. Beyond Meat is doing quite well by serving up pea protein in Beyond Burgers.

Without a doubt, we have no shortage of easy answers to the melting polar ice caps and calamitous weather.

Can Chicken Cut Carbon in Half?

One of the more sensational press releases from Nutrition 2019 made this claim. Eat chicken instead of beef and you’ll cut your carbon footprint in half. It’s great clickbait backed by some reasonable modeling and research. Diego Rose and colleagues used NHANES data to model the carbon emissions that result from different dietary patterns. They found the highest impact from beef. In their model, simply substituting poultry yielded a 54 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

Kumar Venkat of CleanMetrics does this kind of work for a living, but had nothing to do with the research. Nonetheless, he agrees with its findings:

No question chicken is a fraction of beef’s carbon emissions and it likely has the lowest carbon footprint of any animal protein.

That’s because our feathered friends are actually very efficient little protein factories. So they require less land, fertilizer, and energy to make a gram of protein.

Many Options, Many Interests at Stake

Needless to say, the beef industry is aware of this problem. Apart from denial, its solution is to look for more sustainable ways to operate. For example, the Australian beef industry is supporting a sustainability framework that aims to reduce the carbon emissions from beef by 56 percent. They’ve recently issued their first annual report. You might say the cows are guarding the henhouse.

Biotech also wants to help with pea protein and lab-grown meat. Walter Willett is pushing the conclusions of the EAT-Lancet Commision: simply eat more plants and less meat. You’ll get a healthier planet and a healthier you.

With a healthy dose of motivated reasoning, it’s all very simple. We have plenty of good ideas in play and that is definitely a good thing. Mix in some critical thinking along with scientific curiosity, and we might actually find strategies that work. Fingers crossed.

Click here for the press release from Nutrition 2019, here for the study abstract, and here  for reporting from National Geographic. For some thinking about how agriculture can help solve some of our climate problems, click here.

Chicken Surprise, photograph © Apionid / flickr

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June 15, 2019

2 Responses to “Can Eating Chicken Save the Planet?”

  1. June 16, 2019 at 7:26 am, David Brown said:

    There are at least two problems associated with the swap-chicken-for-beef scenario. First, ungulates[1] are needed to manage vegetation and reverse desertification. Land not suitable for growing soybeans, corn, wheat, and barley (used to manufacture chicken feed) needs to be grazed.[2] Second, chickens are monogastrics, as apposed to ungulates. As such, chicken meat and eggs is affected by the fatty acid profile of feed. Currently, feed for all animals is heavily weighted toward omega-6 linoleic acid.[3] Why is this a problem? Excerpt: “Chicken meat with reduced concentration of arachidonic acid (AA) and reduced ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids has potential health benefits because a reduction in AA intake dampens prostanoid signaling, and the proportion between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is too high in our diet.”[4]

    As Michael Pollen notes, “We are what what we eat eats.”[5] With the exception of dairy, the fact is, most of the animal products we eat these days are heavily laced with linoleic acid and/or arachidonic acid. Question is, does that make the food supply defective? It would seem so.[6]


  2. June 16, 2019 at 9:04 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Not good news for chickens, but a very prudent post