How replacing pork with half the beef you eat can reduce your impact on the climate

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If you’ve heard one thing about reducing your food’s impact on the climate, it’s this: Eat less meat.

And that’s true. Foods of animal origin are by far the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Depending on who you ask and how you count, animal-based foods account for well over half of the climate impact of our global diet.

But there is meat, and then there is beef.

Despite the meat wars on social media, there’s no denying that beef is the biggest dietary contributor to climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, if cattle were a country, it would be the third largest emitter, behind only China and the United States (although I suspect they would have a functioning government). And global beef demand is expected to nearly double by 2050, according to the nonprofit research group.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that cattle also have many advantages: they can process grass into high-quality human food; they are often the best way to obtain food on land unsuitable for cultivation; when their grazing is well managed, they can improve soil health and even sequester carbon. But they can’t sequester enough carbon to offset what their digestive system emits and the greenhouse gas cost of deforestation that’s driven primarily by this growing demand for beef.

I’m not anti-beef; I think there’s a place for it in our food system, and there are places in the developing world where it can help with protein deficiencies. But when it comes to climate-friendly (or more climate-friendly) meat, I’m going to argue that pigs have it all over cows.

How are the pigs getting better? I will count the paths.

1. They are not ruminants. (They are monogastric, meaning they have only one stomach.) They don’t cough up methane gas when digesting their food.

2. They are extremely good at turning food into meat, a characteristic measured by the food conversion factor. It takes 55 pounds of feed (that’s just the dry matter, minus the water) to make 2.2 pounds of beef. For 2.2 pounds of pork, that’s only 14 pounds of food. (For chickens, it’s only 7.3 pounds; more on that later.)

3. They are very fertile. A cow can have one calf per year, which means that an entire year of the mother’s life must be factored into the environmental impact of a steer or heifer. A sow can have more than 20 piglets per year.

All of this adds up to a much smaller environmental footprint. According to Our World in Data, 1 calorie of pork has about one-seventh the climate impact of 1 calorie of beef.

Let’s be clear: pork is not lentils. Pulses are one-tenth the impact of pork, and if you’re concerned about the climate impact of your diet, increasing beans is the way to do it. But I know from many years of lentil advocacy and also data that beans are a tough sell.

So here’s what I think. People aren’t going to switch from beef to beans, but maybe, just maybe, they’re going to switch some of their beef – say half – to pork. Pork is meat. Pork is much more climate-friendly than beef. And pork is also bacon.

There is however a catch. These are the pigs and the life they lead in our industrialized meat production system.

I eat meat and care about the lives of my livestock. I raised a lot of chickens, ducks, turkeys and, yes, pigs myself. And when I’m not eating my animals, I try to source my meat from people who give the animals a decent life.

One of those people is David Newman.

Our acquaintance did not start on a promising note. I was in Des Moines visiting farms a few years ago and took an early morning flight. I stumbled into a taxi, cloudy-eyed, coffee in hand, around 4:30 a.m. There was another guest heading to the airport, so we shared the taxi.

My taxi companion wasn’t as confused as me. He was wide awake and friendly, and we started talking about what had brought us to Des Moines. My heart sank when he told me he was there for a National Pork Board meeting.

Did I really want to start a conversation about the animal welfare issues that concern me about raising pigs in crowded, indoor, and unenriched environments? No I didn’t.

But he did. Turns out he raises Berkshire pigs, outdoors, and has some of the same issues as me. The philosophy of his farm, he told me recently, is “to be as good as possible with the animals”.

I have since been to his farm (and he has been to mine) and seen the philosophy in action. The sows each have their own little hut, and the huts are scattered around a pasture. Each hut has a small courtyard surrounded by a wall, just high enough to keep the piglets when they are very young. When they get big enough to climb the wall, they do just that, and the pasture in Myrtle, Missouri, is full of piglets going wild.

The pigs are finished in a hoop barn with exterior access and deep bedding. Deep straw – without concrete – allows pigs to express their natural rooting behaviour. Newman also wants the animals to have plenty of room: “We give them crazy space.”

Raising pigs this way has a few consequences that we need to consider. First, it will increase the impact on the climate because it is less efficient; Newman’s pigs take seven months, instead of the usual six, to reach slaughter weight. I don’t have an ideal way to compare them, climate-wise, but a European study of unconventional pig systems found that the increase in CO2 was between 4 and 54%. Even the high end is still much better than the beef.

Second, this pork costs more. I asked Newman how much more he needed for his pig to earn a living. “About 30%,” he told me. It’s hard to say how that translates to grocery store prices, but I recently bought a pound of ground pork from sustainable producer Niman Ranch for $5.99 at my local Stop & Shop, more than conventional pork, but less than most ground beef.

If you replace half your beef with pork, you can reduce the carbon impact of your diet by around 23%. If it is a well-raised pig, this number decreases, but remains substantial. If you substitute chicken you do even better, but I prefer pork because you have to kill fewer animals. Also, bacon.

In case this column triggers a rush for well-bred pork producers, I should note that there won’t be enough for everyone. For that, we need to change the way we produce pork – but a tsunami of demand could be the way to get there.

I don’t think replacing half your beef with pork is a big ask. I mean, you gotta like barbecue, or sausages, or ribs. Also, bacon. Come on, is it really that hard?

Hey, at least I’m not asking you to eat bugs.

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