Could Eating Less Beef Save the Planet?

Summer is often defined by BBQs, potlucks, and picnics with hamburgers being one of the main events. When you and your friends gather around do you think about what it took to make that beef that you are now grilling up? Beef, though tasty, has a bigger impact on the planet than you might think.

Over 24 billion pounds of beef was consumed in The United States in 2015 according to the USDA’s statistic database. That is over 28 million cows that were slaughtered for their meat. That is a lot of cows. Surprisingly, though, Americans ate less beef in 2015 than they did 10 years prior in 2005. I’m not here to talk about the ethics of eating beef nor am I telling you to never eat beef again. Let’s take a look at how these 28 million cows may be impacting our environment.

Cow Emissions

When you think of greenhouse gasses, what comes to mind first? Cars? Factories? What about cows? Cows are responsible for over half of the emissions produced by livestock in the agriculture field. Most of the emissions that come from a cow are made up of methane which warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is often ignored as it is often used as natural gas fuel and CO2 is painted as the bad guy. It may be shorter lived in the atmosphere than CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, but it warms the earth very quickly and then eventually breaks down into CO2.

Different Farming Practices

Thanks to the advancement in technology and farming practices, the environmental impact from cattle has decreased in the past 50 years. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t still making an impact. It actually depends on the type of farming practices and what cows are fed that determines how much of an impact they make. One study compared the environmental impact of conventional, natural, and grass-fed beef production. The conventional production was found to require fewer resources, fossil fuel, and produced the least amount of greenhouse gasses. Grass-fed beef may be tastier, but unfortunately, this practice was found to have the largest environmental impact.

Can Eating Less Make a Difference?

Yes! Eating less beef or meat, in general, can make a difference. We are already seeing a trend in the reduction of beef consumption in the U.S. but we aren’t the only ones who eat beef. In fact, North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico) only consumes 10% of the world’s beef.  However, we produce 25% of the beef consumed around the world. As the economy grows so does the demand for quality protein, like beef. It is estimated that the demand for meat will continue to increase over the next 30 years and with that comes an increase of emissions. Eventually, we won’t have the room or resources to support the demand for food in general. The less demand there is for a product, the less need of a large production there will be.

Together, we can make a difference. Every time you sit down and eat a hamburger or steak think about everything that was needed to get that beef to your plate. The feed that was needed, the energy used to harvest the feed, transportation, methane created from the cows, slaughter, processing, refrigeration, transportation again. There’s a lot that goes into putting beef on your table. Imagine what all we could reduce if we all reduced our consumption of beef?