The Impact of Eating Less Beef

Raw steak and herbs on a wooden surface

Forty percent. That’s the amount Americans should cut beef consumption, as recommended by a recent report.

The report, entitled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” is a collaboration among several international organizations, including the United Nations Environment. It considers this fact: in the next 30 years, we can expect a population increase of nearly 3 billion people.

So, how can we feed our growing population while also taking care of our planet? While several suggestions are made in the report, one stands out, especially for Americans: reducing the demand for beef.

What’s the Beef with Beef?

What’s more American than a barbecue with hamburgers and hot dogs? The U.S. is the 4th largest consumer of beef per capita. While the “king” of American meats is now poultry, our beef consumption remains significantly high.

beef cattle in field

The demand for “ruminant meats” which includes cattle, sheep, and goat meat, is growing around the world. As developing countries become wealthier, they typically begin to consume more meat products.

The 40% recommendation in beef reduction isn’t the highest seen in recent studies, but it follows the same pattern: reducing beef consumption is critical to future food security and limiting climate change.

But, why is beef singled out?

Bar graph showing the resource requirements of beef production

Land Use

Livestock such as cattle need a lot of space for grazing. Often, this means forests are cut down to create open fields. This replaces a greenhouse gas absorber (trees) with a green house gas producer (the cattle). Of significant concern is the deforestation of the rain forest to create grazing land for cattle in South and Latin American countries.

cattle grazing in open field
Cattle require large areas of open land for grazing.

And from a production standpoint, this type of land use is inefficient. According to the World Resources Institute, beef production uses 7 times more land and resources than poultry production, per gram of protein produced. If we’re focused solely on maximizing the amount of food we can produce for our growing population, a transition to plants or poultry from beef will be critical.

Water Use

It’s estimated that producing 1 pound of beef requires nearly 1,800 gallons of water. This includes irrigating crops for feed, drinking water for the cattle, and water for processing the meat.

In contrast, 1 pound of chicken uses around 468 gallons, and 1 pound of corn requires an average of 108 gallons. Essentially, the same amount of water could be used to produce significantly more food, especially important as many freshwater aquifers in agricultural areas are being severely depleted.

Pollution

Runoff from cattle feedlots has been shown to negatively affect surrounding water systems. The bacteria present in the runoff can cause algal blooms, which make the water unsafe and deplete oxygen from the water, decimating aquatic wildlife populations. This is also a major issue with pork production.

Emissions

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cattle farming, including both meat and dairy production, accounts for 65% of the emissions produced by all livestock. Research has shown that the emissions from beef production have been decreasing over the past few decades, and there are several ways to make cattle farming more efficient.

However, beef production still produces more greenhouse gases than poultry, fish, or grains. And cattle production is associated with deforestation, creating fewer areas that can absorb our carbon emissions.

Current estimations say that an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will have significant and dire consequences for much of our planet. Adjusting to a diet that is less emission-heavy and resource-intensive is an important piece of keeping that temperature from rising.

Health

A diet heavy in meats and low in foods like vegetables, grains, or nuts, is associated with higher risk of heart disease, certain cancers, high cholesterol, and excess weight. Choosing healthier cuts of meat and eating less in general is better for you and the environment.

Tips for Reducing Meat Consumption & Impact

Pan of assorted vegetables

Adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t for everyone. And, there are several nutrients, like B12, that we can only get from animal products or by taking supplements. Here are some ways to eat less meat without giving it up entirely:

  • Be a Flexitarian: Meat is often the major portion of a meal. Per the flexitarian diet, 75% of your plate should be filled with vegetables, fruits, grains, or beans, with meat making up the remainder.
  • Try Meatless Mondays or Meatless Mornings: If you’re used to eating meat during most meals, you can start by choosing one day a week or one meal a day, like breakfast, to be meat-free.
  • Consume Smaller Portions: Especially when dining out, we often overeat. Not only is this less healthy, it’s also a waste of food. Whether dining or cooking, choose an amount of food that you know you’ll be able to eat. And, be sure to finish up all your leftovers.
  • Choose Local Meats: If possible, look for locally or regionally produced meats. Foods produced close to home require less resources to transport and support your local economy.
  • Eat Plant Proteins: Eating less meat doesn’t have to mean eating less protein. Beans, peas, and lentils are all high in protein. Beans also naturally fertilize the soil as they’re growing, making them a nice choice for offsetting the nutrient deprivation of other crops.

A lot goes into food production that’s beyond our control. Reducing our beef consumption as a society will require action from governments, restaurants, farmers, and more.

As a consumer, you may wonder, how do my choices really make a difference? If we all make the decision to eat less meat, whether one day a week or removing it from our diet entirely, we’re making a collective statement–that we’re committed to eating for a greener future.

Leave a Comment: