© Lucas Bustamante

ARLINGTON, VA, April 11, 2017 – A seven-year study concluded that the carbon footprint of a steak and shrimp dinner — were it to come from shrimp farms and pasture formerly occupied by mangroves — is the same as driving a small car across the continental United States. ​The groundbreaking research is the first time the impact of mangrove deforestation has been put in measurable consumer terms.

The study, led by Oregon State University and the Center for International Forestry Research, was based on the work of Conservation International’s Blue Carbon Initiative, which works to protect and restore coastal ecosystems for their role in reducing impacts of global climate change. The init​​iative’s work has served as a resource for governments looking to better their marine policy and preservation programs. The study’s findings fills a significant data gap for policymakers. The findings are published online today in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Mangroves help to fight climate ch​​ange, yet remain one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems. Mangrove forests can store up to 10 times as much carbon as a similarly sized area of rainforest. When converted for other uses such as shrimp farms or cattle pastures, that carbon is slowly released back into the atmosphere. What was not fully understood — until this study — was the full carbon footprint of food production in mangrove areas.

“On a personal scale, this means a typical steak and shrimp cocktail dinner produced through mangrove conversion would burden the atmosphere with 1795 pounds of carbon dioxide,” said J. Boone Kauffman, an ecologist at Oregon State University who led the study. “This is approxim​​ately the same amount of greenhouse gases produced by driving a fuel-efficient automobile from Los Angeles to New York City.”

Th​​​e study was conducted on 30 relatively undisturbed mangrove forests and 21 adjacent shrimp ponds or cattle pastures across five countries. The findings led to a startling comparison.

If two people were to order a “surf and tur​f” special of 100 grams (4 ounces) of shrimp and a 450-gram (16-ounce) steak and the shrimp and beef were grown in an area of converted mangrove forest, the carbon footprint of the two meals combined would be the same as burning 695 liters (182 gallons) of gasoline.

“This study is critical for starting a conversation about the real impact of some of the ways we’re losing these vital ecosystems,” said Emily Pidgeon, Conservation International’s Senior Director of Strategic Marine Initiatives. “For countries to account for this properly in their na​tional greenhouse gas accounting, you need those numbers. They have huge policy significance.”

“Conservation International played an integral role in this publication through leadership in the Blue Carbon Initiative,” said Kauffman. “The inspiration and ideas derived from discussions with the world’s foremost scientists in coastal ecosystems that comprise the Initiative led to the r​esearch and publication of these relevant results.”

Conservation International (CI) uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about CI and its groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign, and follow CI’s work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

The OSU College of Agricultural Sciences contributes in many ways to the economic and environmental sustainability of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. The college’s faculty are leaders in agriculture and food systems, natural resources management, rural economic development research, environmental toxicology and human health research.