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Why is Beef Such A Big Problem For the Climate?

Jun 16th, 2022

Seriously, what’s the deal with beef?

Meat and dairy have long been a topic of debate in many circles, from veganism to animal rights to land usage to nutrition and, of course, climate change. 

The beef industry is the largest producer of greenhouse gasses in the food industry by at least twice as much as its runner-up, and in recent years the industry has undergone scrutiny for its role in harmful emissions.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dive right in!

The environmental issue with beef

The land and water problem

Like any crop or livestock, land is required to house, feed or support the growth and maintenance of that source, and it’s no different with beef.

There’s a lot of land that goes into one pound of steak one could find at a grocery store, so let’s break it down a little bit by going backwards.

That piece of steak needed to be processed in order to arrive in the grocery store, which means it passed through a packaging plant, processing warehouse and slaughterhouse, all of which take up space and resources in some form or another. Before that, the live cattle were on a dairy farm or ranch which, understandably, takes up a great deal of land and water. Those animals needed to eat, of course, and most dairy cows are slaughtered after a full 4-5 years, so that’s 5 years’ worth of grain that needed to be grown for just one animal. That grain was probably grown on a massive grain farm somewhere in the world, and growing 5 years’ worth of grain for just one animal requires a lot of land and water. 

So, by the time a steak reaches a grocery store shelf, the sheer amount of space, water and resources required to raise that one cow likely overshadows the quality of the beef by far. 

In fact, it takes about 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, which is astronomical when compared to the amount it takes to produce an equal amount of vegetables (39 gallons per pound). That means it takes about 812,680 gallons of water to produce just one cow, and that’s not even going into the land space used in the production.

Beef has long been seen as a luxury item around the world, as have most red meats. Wealthier people were historically more likely to afford red meat, especially in the time before refrigerators, and the novelty has not completely disappeared in many parts of the world. 

As many countries begin to see greater prosperity, cattle farming and dairy production have gone up, too. Overall meat consumption has seen a rise since 1961 with over four times as much meat consumed today, with countries including the United States, Australia, Spain and Argentina taking the lead in meat consumption. 

Overall, over 30% of the entire planet’s ice-free land is used for the raising of livestock. That includes many parts of the Amazon Rainforest which, if left unprotected, could lose up to 40% of its forest to grain fields, which eventually will turn into a savannah. 

The emissions problem

As with any process, whether it be fossil fuel production, solar power, plastic bag production or even clothing, there are sure to be greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released as a byproduct. 

Much of the time, those emissions are spread out among the areas of transportation, processing, using heavy machinery, cooling, packaging or cooking, and imported goods obviously have a much larger carbon footprint per piece than locally-sourced products do. 

There no way around it most of the time, and the trick is to find and normalize the process that hopefully produces the least amount of CO2. 

It’s the same with beef, but this particular food source stands out far from its fellow agricultural products in that it produces, by far, the most amount of CO2 emissions. Around 14.5% of all GHG emissions (which includes everything else on the planet!) is produced by the meat and dairy industry alone, and beef produces nearly three times the amount of emissions than lamb, the next-highest culprit.

That means that for every two pounds of steak produced, over 130 pounds of GHGs were produced, too. 

Yeah, that’s a lot!

So why are beef and dairy (and mutton, at that) so much more impactful on the environment? Well, there are a few reasons. 

The first reason is that cattle are large creatures that live long lives (relative to, say, chickens) and use a much larger supply of resources. That includes land, water and grain over at least 4-5 years. 

Second, beef and cattle produce many different products (cheese, burgers, yogurt, milk, etc.), all of which require their own systems of transportation, processing, packaging and storage. That in itself creates a fair amount of emissions in its own right.

Third, cows (and sheep) do emit a large amount of methane as a byproduct of their digestion. Cattle’s stomachs (and they each have four) contain a certain type of bacteria that helps them break down grass into energy, and that bacteria, along with the natural process of digestion, creates methane.

Unfortunately, methane is nearly 28-34 times more potent than CO2 over a long period, so while each cow may produce a relatively small amount of the gas in its lifetime, an entire planet’s supply of cows belching out methane over a few decades can certainly do a fair bit of harm. 

So, what do we do?

The ideal solution, to many climate scientists, is to phase meat and dairy out of our diets so that the demand is far lower. At some point there will be global consequences to the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere, therefore regulating the culprits is a must if those consequences are to be avoided. 

Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that the trend in beef consumption will reverse and begin to decline, so the next best option is to practice beef production in a more sustainable manner. Grass-fed beef, for example, doesn’t rely on imported grain to feed the livestock, and pasture-raised cattle allow methane deposits to be trapped into the soil rather than released into the air of a stuffy warehouse. Some farmers have switched to an insect-based diet for their cattle, as it takes up less space to produce and requires fewer resources. 

Of course, all these solutions require a fairly drastic change for cattle and dairy farmers, so the likelihood of there being a large switch immediately is also relatively low. 

It then falls on us consumers, then, to be the example for change. By making sustainable choices based on the carbon footprint of different foods, we can slowly show that there is potential in a market based on lower-emission practices. As individuals we are by no means personally responsible for 7.1 gigatons of meat-related GHGs each year, but by showing companies that there is potential (profit) in sustainable goods, change may very well come indeed.

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/pen_ash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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