The beef with beef: eating beef has negative effects on the environment

by Derek Yen and Gloria Zhang

Something as mundane as choosing to eat a hamburger for lunch has drastic effects on the climate. Raising cattle negatively affects the environment in a number of ways.

Often publicized are such salient woes as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and car exhaust emissions. But a culprit often excluded from the lineup is one we deal with every day: consuming beef.

[Raising a pound of red meat] takes ~2,500 gallons of water, which is a lot of water that could be used towards agriculture,” Green Team Vice President Satchi Thockchom (11) said. “There’s that, as well as the carbon emissions from just keeping the animals in such concentrated areas for so long. And then also the land that the animals graze on or [are] just trapped in is turned into unusable, and not arable, land.”

Raising cattle requires demarcating areas for the cows to live on, called feedlots. Perhaps unintuitively, the cattle industry spurs deforestation as producers clear land for feedlots as well as fields to raise crops to feed cattle on.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that beef manufacturing occupies around 60 percent of agricultural land. Even more land is used to raise crops for cattle; they consume 10 kilograms of grains to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to 2 kilograms of grain for chickens.

Cattle contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. This is a result of the aforementioned deforestation, along with cows releasing of methane and nitrous oxide from their digestion.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, enteric fermentation, or animals’ process of producing methane through digestion, accounts for 22% of all methane emissions. An additional 8% is produced from animal manure management. Taken together, the agricultural sector accounts for more methane emissions than any other industry.

While methane only accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide’s 81%, methane has a 25 times greater impact on the environment than carbon dioxide for the same mass.

Another effect on the environment is the usage of water. This water consumption begins with the growth of crops to feed cattle and also includes the water that cows drink. According to the United States Geological Survey, the production of a quarter pound of beef requires 460 gallons of water.

While these issues may seem far distanced from your dinner table, your actions as a consumer affect farmers’ choices. The little choices we make can either accelerate or hamper climate change.

Just as you might opt to take shorter showers or turn off unused lights, there are different ways you can help diminish the impact of raising livestock.

If you don’t want to drop meat entirely, you should at least drop red meat because that’s where most of the water and most of the resources and everything go into,” Satchi said. “Otherwise, just try to have a meatless day out of the week or a meatless meal every day.”

Even for those unwilling to drop meat entirely, other meats, such as poultry and fish, are equally valid sources of protein with smaller carbon footprints. Furthermore, not all beef is created equal: some companies pride themselves on minimizing their environmental impact and allowing their cattle to graze on grass rather than be raised on feedlots.
So next time you’re deciding what to have for dinner, take a moment to acknowledge the environmental impacts of your meat – for that is something to chew on as well.