The Trouble with Beef

It's no great secret that we in western civilizations love to gorge ourselves on beef. Be it in the form of hamburgers, steak, chili, pepperoni, hot dogs, soup, jerky, kabobs, lasagna- anything really. It's not unusual to find an average westerner consuming beef products at least once per day. Granted, beef can be tasty, convenient, satisfying, and strangely addictive.

But what about the incredible environmental toll that beef takes on our environment?

There seems to be new studies popping up almost daily that support the near-catastrophic environmental consequences of consuming farmed beef. For many years now, it has been agreed that agriculture is a major driver of climate change, but new studies are beginning to specify just HOW huge this impact is, and calling out the greatest offender of all - beef. So why are so many people still eating beef, and what is the best way to start to reduce your beef intake?


My 'beef' with farmed beef:

Let's start with some quick-and-dirty facts about modern agricultural methods and the impact that they have on the environment. 

•A single cow releases, on average, between 70 and 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2), yet is far more damaging. In fact, the negative effect on the climate of Methane is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2.

•Livestock production provides income for more than 1.3 billion people and uses one-third of the world’s fresh water. There is quite literally no other human activity that has a greater impact on the planet than raising and consuming livestock.

•Runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing is one of the leading causes of pollution in our rivers and lakes. The EPA notes that bacteria and viruses can be carried by the runoff and that groundwater can be contaminated.

•More than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. Additionally, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used for animal feed. (The soybeans used in most veggie burger, tofu, and soy milk products sold in the United States are instead grown in the United States, not the Amazon)

•Beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. Let's compare this to other common staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice. Calorie per calorie, beef requires a stunning 160 times more land and produces 11 times more greenhouse gases.



Why the hell are we still eating beef?!

There's a little term we use in Psychology called Cognitive Dissonance. This refers to "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change." Basically, it's the idea that our thoughts and beliefs need to be in line with our behaviours in order to be content. Makes sense, right? WHY, then, are so many educated people continuing to eat beef and contributing so significantly to climate change, which I think we all can agree at this point is an imminent issue demanding our attention?

In short, we can think of it like this: if I am a person who loves to eat steak and hamburgers, and I stumble across a convincing scientific study warning of the significant environmental impact of beef, I suddenly find myself in an uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance. What is to be done, when my new beliefs are not in line with my beef-eating behaviours? Either my belief or my behaviour is destined to win-out, and too often, comfort and habit prevail.

I believe that it comes down to two main things, emotion, and belief that your behaviour change will actually make a difference. Check out the film Cowspiracy (on Netflix) for more details, but it's safe to say that most large environmental agencies do not place meat consumption at the forefront of climate change. They instead focus on other important however lesser-impactful contributors like palm oil and fracking. This is likely due to the emotional fact that, like I said, we love to gorge ourselves on meat. Who wants to be the one to step in tell you to put down the steak knife? Not large agencies, evidently. It's up to all of us to break up with beef and increase awareness around the great negative impact that it has on our earth, and ultimately ourselves.


What's the solution?

Sorry. 'Grass-fed' beef is not the answer, at least if you're looking from an environmental stand-point. While incredible amounts of resources (land and water use) are spent on growing grain that is used to grow farmed beef, the situation for grass-fed beef is no better. Grass-fed beef actually requires 35% more water and 30% more acreage to graze, resulting in even more lost resources, deforestation and soil degradation. This simply is not sustainable nor efficient, and could not possibly keep up with current beef demands for the entire planet. 

In my humble opinion, harm reduction is key!

While working towards a vegetarian or vegan diet may be the solution in an ideal world, I think it's safe to assume that this is not a realistic expectation for most people, myself included. That said, I believe we are ALL capable of doing our part to make environmentally conscious choices, which includes replacing the most harmful products in our diet (beef) with more sustainable options. It really is simple enough once we break away from beef as a routine.

The most climate-friendly meats certainly come from pigs and poultry. Combined, they account for only 10% of total livestock greenhouse-gas emissions while actually producing more than three times the meat as cattle globally! Pork and poultry are also more efficient in terms of feed- requiring up to five times less feed to produce a kg of protein than a cow, a sheep or a goat. 

Replacing your Friday night cheeseburger with a chicken burger, or better yet, a veggie burger, may not be the end-all solution for climate change, but it makes a great difference. Taking the first step in making environmentally friendly choices is the greatest challenge, with other behaviours following much easier. Educate yourself, become more aware, and spread the knowledge to friends and family that living a more conscious lifestyle is much more important, AND much simpler than one might think.


Check out some of these great websites and articles that support a movement towards a more sustainable diet AWAY from beef, I've collected here a mix of more scientific and news-related sources for every taste: