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How subbing pork for half your beef can cut your climate impact

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

And it’s true. Animal foods are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, by a long shot. Depending on whom you ask, and how you count, animal foods make up well over half of our global diet’s climate impact.

But there’s meat, and then there’s beef.

Despite the social media meat wars, there’s no getting around the fact that beef is the single biggest dietary contributor to climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, if cattle were a country, they 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 projected to almost double by 2050, according to the nonprofit research group.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that cattle have many good points, as well: They can turn grass into high-quality human food; they are often the best way to get food out of land unsuitable for crops; when their grazing is well-managed, they can improve soil health and even sequester some carbon. But they can’t sequester enough carbon to make up for what their digestive systems emit and the greenhouse gas cost of the deforestation that is driven primarily by that increasing 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 fight protein deficiency. But when it comes to climate-friendly (or -friendlier) meat, I’m going to make the case that pigs have it all over cows.

How are pigs better? I will count the ways.

1. They’re not ruminants. (They’re monogastrics, which means they have only one stomach.) They don’t burp up methane when they digest their feed.

2. They are extremely good at turning feed into meat, a trait that’s measured by the feed 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, it’s only 14 pounds of feed. (For chickens, it’s only 7.3 pounds; more on that later.)

3. They are very fertile. A cow can have one calf a year, which means an entire year of the mother’s life has to be factored into the environmental impact of a steer or heifer. A sow can have well over 20 piglets in a year.

All this adds up to a much lower 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 ain’t lentils. Legumes are one-tenth the impact of pork, and if you’re concerned about the climate impact of your diet, amping up the 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’m thinking. People aren’t going to switch from beef to beans, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll switch some of their beef — let’s say half — to pork. Pork is meat. Pork is way more climate-friendly than beef. And pork is also bacon.

There is, however, a catch. It’s the pigs, and the lives they lead in our industrialized meat-production system.

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

One of those people is David Newman.

Our acquaintanceship didn’t start on a promising note. I was in Des Moines visiting farms a few years back, and I had an early flight out. I stumbled into a cab, bleary-eyed, coffee in hand, at something like 4:30 a.m. There was another guest going to the airport, so we shared the cab.

My cabmate wasn’t nearly as bleary as I was. He was wide awake and friendly, and we started talking about what brought us to Des Moines. My heart sank when he told me he was there for a meeting of the National Pork Board.

Did I really want to start a conversation about the animal welfare issues that concern me about keeping pigs in crowded, indoor, unenriched environments? No, I did not.

But he did. Turns out, he raises Berkshire hogs, outdoors, and has some of the same issues I do. His farm’s ethos, he told me recently, is “to be as good to the animals as we possibly can be.”

I have since been to his farm (and he’s been to mine), and seen the ethos in action. Sows each have their own little hut, and the huts are scattered around a pasture. Each hut has a small courtyard with a wall around it, just high enough to keep piglets in when they’re very small. When they grow big enough to climb over the wall, that’s exactly what they do, and the pasture in Myrtle, Mo., is populated with piglets running amok.

The pigs get finished in a hoop barn with outdoor access and deep bedding. The deep straw — no concrete — lets the pigs express their natural rooting behavior. Newman also wants the animals to have plenty of room: “We give them a crazy amount of space.”

Raising pigs this way has a couple of consequences we have to take into account. First, it’s going to increase the climate impact because it’s less efficient; Newman’s pigs take seven months, rather than the usual six, to get to slaughter weight. I don’t have a perfect way to compare them, climatically, but one European study of nonconventional pig systems found that the increase in CO2 was somewhere between 4 percent and 54 percent. Even the high end is still way better than beef.

Second, this pork costs more. I asked Newman how much more he needs to get for his pork to make a living. “About 30 percent,” he told me. How this translates to grocery store prices is hard to say, but I recently bought a pound of ground pork from sustainable grower Niman Ranch for $5.99 at my local Stop & Shop, more than the conventional pork, but less than most of the ground beef.

If you sub in pork for half your beef, you can cut the carbon impact of your diet by about 23 percent. If it’s well-raised pork, that number drops, but is still substantial. If you sub in chicken, you do even better, but I prefer pork because you have to kill fewer animals. Also, bacon.

In case this column triggers a stampede to the well-raised pork producers, I should note that there won’t be enough for everyone. For that, we have to change our pork-producing ways — but a tsunami of demand might be just the way to get that done.

I don’t think subbing in pork for half your beef is a big ask. I mean, you must love barbecue, or sausages, or spare ribs. Also, bacon. C’mon, is it really so hard?

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

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