Have beef? This is what your Hamburger Is Doing to The Climate

For all you omnivores: Would it be possible to stop eating steak if necessary?

For centuries, debates have raged about the ethics of killing animals to make meat. The looming threat of climate change has presented meat-eaters with a new dilemma: Dairy and cattle farming is not sustainable, according to climate scientists. It generates high levels of greenhouse gasses at all stages of the production process. Many vegetarians and vegans have found the climate factor to be a powerful argument in favor of avoiding meat.

Carbon Brief, the U.K.’s climate change website, published last month an interactive Q&A to illustrate the climate effects of beef. It showed how meat causes more damage than other foods. The data shows that the meat and dairy industry create 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gases each year. Beef is the worst offender. It emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases per kilogram of meat. This is more than twice as much as lamb, which is the next most polluting food.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that cows and sheep emit large amounts of as a byproduct from their digestive processes. They rely on special bacteria to break down grass. As a greenhouse gas, methane is up to 34 times stronger than CO2.

Another way meat contributes towards climate change is through the destruction of forests and other habitats in order to make way for pasture and the growth of fodder for cattle. Cattle farming has been extremely profitable due to the rise in beef consumption in countries with increasing wealth, like China. Ranchers have degraded hundreds of thousands of forests all over the globe in pursuit of profit. These biodiversity ecosystems are vital, rich, and capture millions of tons CO2 when left unaffected. New research in Nature Communications has shown that 40% of South America’s Amazon rainforest could be destroyed by deforestation.

Carbon Brief was told by Walter Willett (a Harvard University nutritionist): “Eating beef from grain grown in the Amazon.”
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It’s like coal-fuelled power stations–the worst thing that you could do.”

Global meat consumption is not falling. In fact, it’s on the rise. Since 1961, meat production in the world has quadrupled. As countries become wealther, meat consumption has increased even more.

In The Lancet Planetary Health last years, a panel made a call to the international community to “declare an timeframe for peak cattle”–the date at which animal meat production will begin to decrease. However, the demand for beef is expected to rise in countries like China.

What can we do in this situation? If we want to reduce climate change, must we all say goodbye to the burger? How many people would have to give up beef to make an impact on emissions?

Alexandre Koberle is a research fellow at The Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. “Next to flying less it is probably right” says Koberle.

What can millions of people who still doubt their ability to live without a quarter-pounder? It turns out that where the beef is from plays a major role.

Koberle states that knowing the origin of the meat you purchase is the first step in ensuring it is produced sustainably. Carbon Brief shows that meat production is highly variable, and this variation has an impact on how much greenhouse gases [GHGs] it emits.

Koberle states that the problem is that it can be difficult for meat-eaters to make the right decision. Koberle says that consumers don’t have enough information to make a decision. Therefore, they should demand that supermarkets provide more information on meat products.

Campaigners and institutions have developed strategies to find and hold accountable those who profit from degrading farming practices and to make them accountable. The Trase platform was created by Global Canopy and the Stockholm Environment Institute. It aims to lead a movement that aims to improve transparency in food supply chains. Trase is a symbol of Transparency for Sustainable Economies. It uses publicly available data to map the links between food importing nations and the places where food is produced. This includes everything from soy, palm oil, beef, and pork. The site allows users to select any country to trace imports back to their source, including information about deforestation in the area. The challenge is still huge in scale and complexity. Even when supply chain data can be visualized and laid out, consumers may find the complex web of links confusing. There is no legislation to tell food retailers they must clean their supply chains.

Cross-boundary bodies such as the Igarape Institute with the assistance of Interpol, NGOs and NGOs, track the Amazon basin’s environmental crimes with a view towards bringing the culprits to justice. Campaigners and legal organizations can rely on very little regional cooperation in prosecuting environmental crimes .

Koberle believes that reducing beef demand is the best solution.

He says, “If the demand is lower, the industry’s scale will also fall.” But I believe that meat is too expensive. It would be easier to reduce demand if the cost of production was included in the price. People take meat as a given, but that is slowly changing.

Koberle says that consumers are far too disconnected from the meat production process and its harmful effects. It is important to be more aware of the environmental consequences of meat.

He says that meat consumption needs to be treated with more respect and valued accordingly. There is still room for livestock in a low carbon world, but it wouldn’t be produced or eaten as it is now.

These messages are getting noticed? There are signs that there is a growing demand for meat-free alternatives, even though global meat consumption has not slowed. Major retailers are recognizing this trend: Tesco , the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chain, committed to increasing “meat alternatives” sales by 30%. Sporadic surveys indicate that both Britons as well as Americans are cutting back on their meat consumption for various reasons.

Koberle views this as a positive step. It is already a significant step in the right direction to reduce meat consumption. It’s not a matter of veganism or not: If a person is already consuming a lot of meat, further reductions might not have as much impact.

He says that requiring people to convert to veganism may be counterproductive. He says, “I worry that pushing that agenda [veganism] to far is likely to alienate large portions of society.” It may be better to eat a small amount of meat, if it gives you the willpower and motivation to fly less, turn off the lights, or commute in an SUV.

The moderation message will not change the habits of carnivores who continue to eat their daily T-bones and chateaubriands. For most meat-eaters, cutting back on red meat and making an effort to learn more about the origins of the meat should be a good way to reduce their carbon footprint. This guidance is also in line with health research which suggests that reducing red meat intake to three meals per week can lower the risk of developing cancer.

Koberle states, “The most important thing is to remember that there are no single actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Every sector must contribute. It would be futile if all humanity went vegan, but we continued to burn fossil fuels as we do today.

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