Is Chicken Really More Sustainable Than Beef?

What we’ve come to consider to be a staple food comes with serious consequences for global warming.

In the summer of 2019, three dogs played happily in a North Carolina pond. Despite the action of their owners and veterinarians, they all died the next day. Poison control confirmed that the culprit was cyanobacteria—also known as blue-green algae or toxic algae.

Cyanobacteria is a growing concern in all 50 states, but especially in areas with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). North Carolina is home to over 6,500 CAFOs. At least 4,700 of those are poultry farms that create an estimated five million tons of waste every year. CAFOs exist throughout the rural United States, and the total amount of waste they produce is unknown.

Chicken waste, which the industry calls “litter” includes whatever is scraped out of the sheds the chickens are confined to. A blend of chicken poop, feed, feathers, bedding material, and carcasses gets heaped into piles and is set aside for use as crop fertilizer. While it might sound like a great way to make use of the waste, it’s not.

There’s so much waste that it oversaturates the soil with nitrogen and phosphorus. When it rains, runoff into streams and rivers leads to the same toxic algal blooms that are a danger to humans, our pets and marine life. Residents in the area suffer from poor air quality and the danger lurking in their nearby water sources.

We Asked, Farmers Delivered

So, how did we end up with so much chicken litter on our hands? Ironically, the 31% global increase in chicken consumption per capita—compared to a mere 13% increase in demand for beef—is likely in part due to the well-intentioned advice to swap out the beef in our diet for chicken.

Beef is the most carbon-intensive meat of all and requires 10 times more resources to produce than chicken. Environmentalists and experts have been pointing to facts like these for years. The upside of choosing chicken ends there.

Chicken Isn’t the Answer

On top of the waste issue, the poultry industry gobbles up a majority of global feed crops. Growing that feed takes up one-third of the planet’s cropland. Even though chicken requires 3.5 times less water than beef, chicken is still water-intensive when compared to pulses, cereals, and vegetables.

While choosing beef has primed the planet for a slow roll-out of the climate crisis, the sudden uptick in demand for chicken is expediting the process. Cattle farming and unsustainable agriculture practices have contributed to the effects of global warming, including natural disasters, red tide, and cyanobacteria. Opting for chicken is killing our companion pets, tainting drinking water supplies and creating unsafe living conditions in communities. It seems this swap has floored the gas pedal on the climate crisis.

Let’s stop acting like agriculture pollution is a far-off and distant problem. Consider the alternatives before you choose factory-farmed meat. Support farms with regenerative agriculture practices, eat more plants and warm up to alternative protein sources like insects and lab-grown meat. Collectively we can shift the global demand and guide farmers to sustainable practices.

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