A Beef About Beef

Appeared in:

  • San Fernando Valley Sierra Club newsletter in two parts in July and September 2008.
  • Southern Sierran in August 2007.
  • Orange Coast Voice newspaper as It’s No Bull, Beef production creates global warming in June 2007, page 2.

A Beef About Beef
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

The connection between our meal choices and global warming might be another "inconvenient truth" that is particularly hard to swallow. Illustration by Willis Simms.

The connection between our meal choices and global warming might be another "inconvenient truth" that is particularly hard to swallow. Illustration by Willis Simms.

Global warming is on the tip of many tongues these days, but so are hamburgers, pork chops, and fried chicken. As hybrid car sales are up and SUV sales on the decline, it seems Americans might be waking up to the reality that each of us bears some responsibility for climate change through our everyday consumer choices. John Robbins, the once heir-apparent of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream company, has authored bestsellers, such as The Food Revolution, detailing the detrimental environmental impacts of a meat-based diet. He and other experts make a strong case that food choices rank right up there with what car you drive in determining your personal contribution to global warming. A quick look inside the hamburger bun easily makes the point.

Massive Fossil Fuels Consumed to Produce Beef
Most U.S. beef comes from cows raised on factory farms where hordes of animals are crowded onto concrete lots and fed grains, mostly corn. The grains are also grown using industrial farming methods that rely heavily on application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides manufactured from natural gas or oil. Enormous amounts of energy were consumed to extract those fossil fuels and transport them, often across the globe, to chemical factories where energy again is used to transform them into the desired chemicals. Those fertilizers/pesticides are then transported to grain farms that, from planting through harvest, run on diesel-fueled machinery. Fossil fuels were also expended to manufacture the farm equipment. Electricity, derived from the burning of coal, pumps up water from underground aquifers to irrigate the fields. The feed grain products are moved by truck or rail to feed lots. Once the cattle are fattened up, they’re trucked to slaughter houses where electrically-driven machines prepare and package burger patties. Refrigerated trucks carry the patties to markets and restaurants nationwide. The burgers are most likely cooked on a natural gas-fired grill.

Livestock Produce Volumes of Global Warming Gases
Heat-trapping CO2 is produced at each of these steps, all of which rely on fossil fuels (oil, coal or natural gas). About 16 fossil fuel calories are burned to produce a single calorie from beef. Producing one calorie from soybeans, in contrast, eats up only ¼ of a calorie from fossil fuels, making soybean production about 64 times more efficient.1 According to a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization,2 9% of all CO2 stemming from human activity is attributable to the livestock sector. And it doesn’t stop there. The report highlighted that livestock are major contributors to two other highly potent greenhouse gases: 37% of human-related methane (23 times the global warming potential of CO2) comes from the belching and flatulence of cattle and other ruminants; 65% of human-related nitrous oxide (296 times the global warming potential of CO2) comes largely from manure. Furthermore, tropical rainforests are being burned down at an alarming rate to create pastureland for cattle, releasing suddenly into the atmosphere as CO2 the vast amounts of carbon that were stored over centuries within the plant material.

Food Choices Affect Global Warming as Much as Driving Choices
Most of us probably blame vehicle emissions when we think of global climate change. However, the United Nations report concluded that the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (measured in CO2 equivalents) – more than that of the transport sector!  Indeed, geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin at the Univ. Chicago compared the total greenhouse gas emissions of animal- and plant-based diets and found that a person eating a vegetarian diet contributes about 1.5 tons of CO2 equivalents less per year than someone consuming the same number of calories from a typical American diet (about 28% of which come from animal sources). Going veg reduces your greenhouse gas emissions more than switching from an average sedan (Toyota Camry) to an ultra fuel-efficient hybrid (Toyota Prius).1

For those of us raised on meat protein dished up three times a day, the connection between our meal choices and global warming might be another “inconvenient truth” that is particularly hard to swallow. Maybe it will help to learn that study after study finds that vegetable protein is not only perfectly adequate but also associated with better health and longer lifespan!

My hope is that a cultural shift is coming where the veggie patty replaces the beef patty in the All-American burger. I hope it happens soon since the latest research from the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that the Arctic could be nearly devoid of summer sea ice by as early as 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions are not seriously curtailed. To the dwindling number of skeptics, global warming might still feel reminiscent of Chicken Little crying out “the sky is falling,” – but given what human negligence has done to our atmosphere, this time it’s for real.

1Eshel G, Martin P (2006) Diet, Energy and Global Warming. EarthInteractions:10 (calorie input-output data extrapolated from Table2).

2Steinfeld H et al. (2006) Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. UN Food and Agricultural Office.

One Response to A Beef About Beef

  1. Ralph Meyer says:

    Thank you for your column in the Santa Monica Daily Press ‘The Elephant in the Room’. I agree, and have had letters in the local papers about this ROOT problem whose SYMPTOMS include wars, poverty, and environmental disasters. Also, we would not have to depend on imported oil if more of us went on a vegan diet.
    Ralph Meyer, 2930 Colorado Ave C1, Santa Monica CA 90404

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