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The Climate Change Friendly Diet: Less Beef


It’s not new news: eating beef is not the most environmentally responsible dietary choice. In fact, reducing or eliminating beef from your diet altogether can be the most powerful individual choice you make to combat climate change.

Ballpark figures place the carbon footprint of the entire food industry at around 30% of the world’s total emissions. But the resource demand of beef farming, compared to other meat like chicken and pork, is ridiculous. The red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, and the process requires 100 times more water. The products of the agricultural process would be beef products, milk, cheese, and also five times more greenhouse gas emissions than other meat sources. When compared to dietary staples like potatoes, rice, and wheat, beef’s land requirement is a staggering 60 times more and in the end produces 11 times more emissions. Calorie-to-cost, beef is simply inefficient as a food source.

Resource needs to produce 1kg of protein from beef compared to from mealworms

So here’s the basic scoop: raising cattle demands more resources than other kinds of food and in the end, produces significantly more emissions. It’s not a sustainable industry – some experts are concerned that if the agriculture sector continues on with its production of beef, there will simply not be enough grain and water in the world to feed the expected world population by 2050 (which would be an additional 2 billion people). Even grass-fed beef has a greater environmental footprint than other animal produce.

As a consumer, you realize your personal choices and consumption habits are affecting the planet, and that there is something you can do about it. What these figures show is that the biggest change a person can make is an easy one, one that won’t even really change their day to day lives – giving up beef.

Switching to an electric car can be a big investment. Going waste-free is a commitment. Cutting down or eliminating one type of meat? You’d think it was doable.

“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat,” said Professor Tim Benton of the University of Leeds. “Another recent study implies the single biggest intervention to free up calories that could be used to feed people would be not to use grains for beef production in the US.”

A study of British people’s diets conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed the diets of 30,000 meat eaters, 16,000 vegetarians, 8,000 pescatarians, and 2,000 vegans to find that meat-rich diets, defined as more than 100g/day of meat consumption, have a carbon footprint of 7.2 kilograms. Vegetarian and fish-eating diets resulted in 3.8kg of carbon emissions per day. Vegans? 2.9kg.

But if none of this is groundbreaking (the Oxford study came out in 2014, as did Benton’s statements), why is is still so hard for people to switch away from beef? A UN report from 2010 already began encouraging people world over to adopt a vegan diet, as a ‘vital’ step to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty, and the world scenario’s of climate change.

“This opens a real can of worms.” said Benton on the controversy surrounding the push for less beef.

Climate-friendly food choices allow consumers to exercise their purchasing power. While the health and eco-food industry is seeing growth in affluent communities who can afford to choose more expensive, sustainably produced goods, the shift towards meat and dairy heavy-diets still continues, despite warnings from scientists.

Ernst von Weizsaecker, an environmental scientist, described the demand for beef products as a function of rising affluence and economic growth.

“Rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products – livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides,” said von Weizsaecker. His comments came in 2010, alongside the UN report urging for veganism. The same report said that the energy and agriculture industries need to be “decoupled” from economic growth, as their economic impacts rise by roughly 80% with a doubling of income.

Diets are personal and trying to govern them is controversial. It’s a provocative topic, even without discussing the moral or ethical choices that lead some people to abandon meat altogether. Being told what to eat feels like an infringement of rights and personal space. When people can afford more, the luxury they will willingly spend on is likely better food. This is in most cases meat, beef. And while other lifestyle changes mean switching to eco-friendly substitutes like reusables instead of disposables, biking instead of driving, giving up beef means just losing something many people enjoy.

It has been a point of discussion in environmental science circles for nearly a decade, but it seems that many people are still either unaware or unwilling to give up their steak habits despite the grave environmental cost. However, unlike other environmental problems which require industry restructuring, economic shifts, and massive technology overhauls, this one has an easy solution: eat less beef. The consumer has all the power, and an informed consumer is the most powerful of all. So take this piece as another bit on information out there to help the discussion reach more people. It’s old news but it may be new to whoever is reading this.

Eat less beef. It’s the easiest, best thing you can do for the planet. Next time, let’s talk about lamb.

[Sources: The Guardian, The Washington Post]

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