One Pivotal Debate Chick-Fil-A Will Never Lose

Chicken is better for the environment than beef.

Feb 9, 2014 at 1:13PM

Chick Fil A

Photo credit: Flickr/Mark Turnauckas.

There are a lot of healthy reasons we should eat more chicken. According to the American Heart Association, chicken has less cholesterol and saturated fat than beef. It's also high in protein as well as providing broad nutrient support. However, health reasons aren't the only reason we should eat more chicken. It's also better for our environment. Here's why.

Greener pastures
The Environmental Working Group recently put together the Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change + Health. In it, the group found that organic and pasture-raised, or at least antibiotic-free, chicken was the best meat we can eat. Not only is it healthier for us and better for the chickens, but the environmental impact of raising chickens is also far better than the environmental impact of other meat products.

The group found that for every 4 ounces of chicken we consume, it had the carbon footprint equivalent of driving a car about 2.75 miles. Consuming beef, on the other hand was the equivalent of driving a car more than 6.5 miles. The worst choice is lamb, which has the highest carbon footprint of all meats, as its footprint is 50% higher than beef.

The problem with beef and lamb from an environmental perspective is that these animals produce substantial amounts of methane because of their unique digestive process, as well as from animal waste. When it comes to greenhouse gases, methane is up to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, which is why these animals score so poorly.


Wait, what?! Photo credit: Flickr/Zoetnet.

Feeding what feeds us
In addition to all the methane gas produced by cows, sheep, and even pigs, the other major environmental issue is the environmental cost of feeding what feeds us. At its Analyst Day last year, James Prokopanko, the CEO of crop nutrient producer Mosaic (NYSE:MOS) noted a growing problem with growing protein. He first noted that as wealth increases, so does demand for protein consumption. That problem is compounded by the fact that pound for pound, not all proteins are the same: "1 pound of chicken requires 3 pounds of corn, 1 pound of pork requires 4 pounds of corn, and 1 pound of beef requires 7 pounds of corn," as Prokopanko noted. Growing all that corn, as well as other grains required to feed these animals has an environmental cost, though one that would be lower if we ate more chicken.

One of the problems is that farmers need 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year to grow the food needed to feed livestock. That fertilizer is important to farmers, as its speeds growth, increases yield, keeps plants green, and helps with cell maturation. The problem, however, is that when the fertilizer is spread on the soil it generates nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The other environmental issue that some could have with nitrogen is that natural gas is one of its main feedstocks. Natural gas is, of course, abundant in America and a cleaner fuel when burned than either oil or coal. However, there are concerns when it comes to the hydraulic fracturing process in general, as well as methane emissions from natural gas wells. Still, the abundance of natural gas in the U.S. is enabling nitrogen producers such as CF Industries (NYSE:CF) to build $3.8 billion in new production facilities to use domestically sourced gas. As this new production capacity comes online, it will cut down on the amount of nitrogen fertilizer we import, which will help to reduce the environmental footprint. That said, by using less corn to grow less beef, we'd also cut down on a range of other dangerous emissions. 

Food for thought
By eating chicken on a more regular basis, we can not only improve our health, but we can improve the environment as well. So, the next time there's a tough choice between a chicken or beef dish, chicken should win every time, as it's the better meat dish.

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Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of CF Industries Holdings. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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