We live in a rapidly-warming world that is saturated in meat. Even in the wake of a pandemic that shuttered processing plants, raised prices, and boosted sales of alternative meat, the $1.7 trillion global animal meat industry didn’t go anywhere. Beef is still a staple at supermarkets, restaurants and family tables across the U.S. (Pork remains the most popular meat in most of Europe and Asia).
That’s a shame because cutting down on meat consumption in general — and beef in particular — is one of the best things we can do as individuals for the environment. Livestock is the cause of one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to a landmark 2014 U.S. land use study. And not all livestock was created equal. Each cow needs 28 times more land and 11 times more water than the average agricultural animal; each cow leads to 5 times the emissions.
Problem is, that sort of statistic can be hard to remember when you’re dealing with a hungry family at mealtime. Stare at a plate of delicious burgers at a barbecue and you think: We’ve eaten meat products for thousands of years. It’s natural. Where’s the harm? Sit in line in the fast food drive-thru and it seems like your biggest contribution to global warming is the car you’re in; you’d never guess a pound of beef is worse for the planet than a gallon of gasoline.
What follows is a handy Q&A is for those kinds of moments. It’s for convincing burger-loving friends that meat alternatives are worth exploring. It’s for the next time you’re in the supermarket, wondering whether to spend an extra buck on frozen bricks of Beyond or Impossible beef, or for when you’re trying to get your parents to reduce their climate footprint by doing the same. Save your breath and send them this article instead.
Let me guess: This has something to do with cow farts, right?
That’s a common misconception. For the most part, cows don’t fart. They release 90 to 95 percent of methane created in their stomachs via the quickest output possible: their mouths. It’s a process called “enteric fermentation”; you might know it better as burping.
OK: Cow burps, not cow farts. Their burping is worse than CO2? Really?
Correct. Over the course of a century, one molecule of methane is 25 times more effective than a carbon dioxide molecule at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Despite what climate change deniers claim, we are a long way past the point where natural processes take more methane out of the atmosphere than our livestock put in it.
There is now 150 percent as much methane in the atmosphere as there was before the Industrial Revolution. And until recently, we were drastically undercounting how much of the stuff there is.
But…cow burps are killing the planet? That seems to go against all common sense.
I get it. You think of a field full of cows; though it might stink a little, there’s no visual evidence of the harm it’s doing. This is where simple math comes in handy. There are currently around 1.5 billion cows on the planet. Each one releases between 30 and 50 gallons of methane every day. (Yes, gallons of gas — enteric fermentation is no joke!)
That gives us somewhere around 27 trillion gallons of methane being pumped into the atmosphere per year. Not counting the trillions of gallons of methane released by cow patties, which are also used in fertilizer, which itself is a major source of methane. Now does that sound like the kind of scale that could really help heat up a planet?
In short: Yes, cow burps and poops are helping to make Earth harder for humans (and other species) to live on. We can keep joking about this unlikely fact until it kills us, or we can become part of the solution. That solution doesn’t involve anything radical like killing all beef cattle (who only get to live for a handful of their natural 20 years in any case). It just means using their products less.
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I guess so. Still, burgers seems minor in the grand scheme of things. Aren’t other sources of emissions more important?
In 2016, the most recent World Resources Institute tally of greenhouse gas emissions, livestock and manure alone account for just under 6 percent of the total. But that disguises a deeper problem, because methane is just the beginning of the impact caused by a billion and a half head of cattle (a number that is rising fast).
First of all, you have to find space for them. Cattle already use 83 percent of the world’s farmland, or a stunning 45 percent of the total land surface of Earth. It’s still not enough to feed our need. And that, too often, means burning forest to create more space for grazing. Add another 3.5 percent of all global emissions just for those fires, which are also growing.
Remember the outbreak of fires in the Amazon rainforest in 2019, which burned with the approval of climate change-denying President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil? It’s happening again in 2020, a year that could set a new record. According to a Yale study, the reason behind 80 percent of the Amazon rainforest’s deforestation is to make pasture for livestock.
Your burger in the U.S. — and, increasingly, burgers in Asia — may literally have been brought to you by a fire in the Amazon. Some 20 percent of the rainforest is now gone. And that’s nudging it towards a point of no return where the rainforest won’t ever be able to rebuild itself. Already, the deforested areas are emitting more CO2 than they absorb. One recent study suggests the whole rainforest may go that way by the mid-2030s.
And it isn’t just methane. It isn’t just deforestation. Cattle requires excessive water use (the grass grown to feed cows is the biggest H2O hog in California’s parched central valley), which means less water for the rest of us at the worst possible time. Worldwide, a quarter of all fresh water is used for livestock.
There’s also a health risk, and we don’t just mean the elevated heart disease and cancer risk found in studies of red meat eaters. All 50 brands of ground beef checked by Consumer Reports in 2015 tested positive for trace amounts of fecal matter. Cow poop isn’t just dangerous for the planet, it’s there on the very burger you’re eating.
You’re focused on beef here. Does that mean other meats are in the clear?
Cows are the greatest environmental offenders by far, and they aren’t just about beef. Let’s not forget the problem of dairy, which is in the process of being solved by ever-improving fake cheese and alternatives milks. (I tested the latter by making dozens of alt-milk lattes in this experiment.)
But all ruminants raised in large numbers, including sheep, contribute to the methane problem. Pigs also contribute to the manure problem. When combined with the increasing number of storms caused by climate change, this brings us the terrifying disease-ridden specter of floating pig poop lagoons, such as this one in North Carolina in 2018. Climate change may also affect pigs by making them smaller. Which in turn makes pig products more expensive.
Pork, the most popular meat in the world outside of the Americas, may one day be a luxury item. No wonder Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are working on bringing us Impossible Pork and Beyond Bacon as soon as they can perfect it. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor, is getting into the game itself with a line of meatless meat called Pure Farmland. It makes sense for the big meat companies to get into the meat substitute game; if you could produce the same product without all that mess and slaughter, why wouldn’t you?
OK, but veggie burgers suck. Right?
Agreed! I can’t stand them. But nor would I classify Beyond or Impossible as traditional “veggie” burgers. The whole point of them is to mimic a juicier, more meat-like texture. An Impossible burger does this more effectively, with the delicious blood-like taste of heme. Beyond burgers are more about creating a new kind of taste, in part because it uses rice protein to make a nice crunchy texture when it’s cooked.
Deliciousness is in the mouth of the beholder, of course, and your taste buds may vary. My advice: Go to your nearest Burger King, buy a Whopper and an Impossible Whopper, and get your loved ones to administer a blind taste test. If you can’t tell the difference — or if there isn’t much of a difference — then maybe, just maybe, you could stomach fake meat for the sake of future generations.
Aren’t the plant-based ingredients of Impossible and Beyond burgers bad for our health too?
Fake meat they may be, but there’s very little in these products that humans haven’t been eating for centuries. Beyond beef is mostly peas, mung beans, and rice protein. If you cook it at home, you’ll notice little white specks; they’re made of coconut oil and cocoa butter. Impossible traded its original wheat-based recipe for soy and potato protein, plus coconut and sunflower oil.
Impossible burger’s heme, derived from soy protein and yeast, is the only remotely controversial ingredient, and that received the official thumbs up from the FDA in 2018. Michael Pollan, a writer noted for promoting real food, is a fan of the Impossible burger.
Which is not to say that alternative meat ingredients have zero impact on the climate. Soy is problematic if you’re sourcing it from Brazil, where it accounts for 1 percent of the Amazon’s deforestation. Luckily there’s a moratorium in place against buying soybeans from deforested land. Impossible sources its soy from the U.S., where it is rotated with other crops. Here’s Impossible’s calculation of each burger’s impact:
Image: impossible foods
My main bone of contention with both Impossible and Beyond burgers is the sodium content — it’s about three times that of the beef it’s replacing. Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown claims you can eat Impossible burgers on a low-salt diet regardless, and the company has produced this deep dive on the question of sodium content. Still, to be on the safe side, I would not eat more than one per day.
Oops, I ate a burger. Should I feel bad?
Unless you’re a hardcore vegetarian or vegan, it can be hard to live in a world of meat-based temptation. But don’t worry. There is such a thing as the flexitarian diet, which simply encourages us to eat more vegetables and less meat. Being a reducetarian amounts to the same thing.
As a lifelong meat eater, you don’t have to cut burgers out completely. You don’t have to become a vegetarian or a vegan. I haven’t. Despite mostly cooking Beyond and Impossible burgers at home, I still enjoy the occasional ground beef product. (I’ll enjoy them a lot more if lab-grown meat ever reaches the scale it needs to make an impact on the industry, but that’s another story).
The point is, you can’t go wrong with reduction. Every burger or steak you take out of your diet is a net positive for the planet. Committing to a Meatless Monday is one popular option, but you are the best judge of what is going to work for you. Ease yourself into your new low-meat lifestyle slowly and you’ll be less likely to rebound.
Bottom line: It is much easier than you think to have your meat and eat it too.