Beef: What’s Not for Dinner in a Sustainable World

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Late last month, Andreas Troge, the head of Germany’s federal environmental agency, made a bold statement: He told people to stop eating so much meat—not on behalf of their cholesterol count, but on behalf of the planet.

Troge suggested in an interview with Germany’s Berliner Zeitung that Germans should stick with the "European tradition of the ‘Sunday roast’" and reorient their consumption patterns to imitate those of Mediterranean countries—"more fish and vegetables"—to reduce their contribution to global warming.

The suggestion was stunning coming from a high government official, particularly in a country with a meat-heavy diet.

Eating less beef has long been fashionable among food cognoscenti, but now it’s going to be in vogue for another reason – beef production is a massive driver of global warming through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the two weeks since Troge spoke up, officials in Australia and Cincinnati, Ohio, have been emboldened to publicly discuss the need for planet-conscious diets with less meat.

Livestock production generates 18 percent of global GHG emissions – even more than the transportation sector, according a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. It includes 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2. It also includes 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times the warming of CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants—goats, cows, and sheep.

In personal terms, producing about 2 pounds of beef requires the same amount of energy as driving a car around for three hours, while leaving behind a fully lit house, according to a Japanese study. That’s actually an underestimate since the study doesn’t account the additional energy that goes into managing farm infrastructure and transporting the beef, or emissions produced when forests are clear-cut for grazing land.

It’s clear that paring down beef consumption would have several ancillary benefits when the many resources required for production are considered:

  • Livestock husbandry uses massive amounts of water—about 2,500 gallons to produce one pound of meat in the United States.
  • Cattle grazing can degrade the land through erosion and overgrazing, which can lead to desertification.
  • The animals’ own grain diets also contribute to food crises because fields used to grow crops for cattle aren’t growing food for people. About 70 percent of American grain production goes to livestock.

As scientists writing in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition put it, plant-based diets "could play an important role in preserving environmental resources and in reducing hunger and malnutrition in poorer nations."

There are steps that meat producers can take steps to reduce GHG emissions. The FAO suggests changing animals’ diets so they produce less gas, and recycling manure so it doesn’t release as much gas as it decomposes.

But how people eat must change too—no matter how organic production methods are, clear-cutting tropical forests to make room for cattle-lots is neither sustainable nor acceptable.

In Australia, one of the world’s leading beef producing nations, officials are recognizing that fact. The head of the Public Health Association of Australia suggested in a Feb. 2 newspaper article that a small reduction in red meat and dairy consumption would be beneficial for the environment – and for health, too. Even the city of Cincinnati, once known as “Porkopolis,” has launched a food task force as part of its Green Cincinnati Plan. One of its goals: get residents to eat more organic food and consume meat one less day per week.

Ideally, people should cut their meat consumption to 90 grams a day to diminish GHG emissions, and only 50 grams of that should come from grazing ruminants, a recent study in the Lancet, England’s leading medical journal, suggests. That’s the equivalent of a small hamburger. Currently, people in Western industrialized countries average closer to 200 grams of meat of a day.

In Germany, where livestock contribute about 7 percent of GHG emissions, Troge’s agency has been quietly advocating a low-beef diet for years. On average, he said, Germans get 40 percent of their caloric intake from animal products, whereas Italians get 25 percent.

Since Troge went public, commentary, letters and phone-calls have been overwhelmingly positive, says Martin Ittershagen, an agency spokesman. The domestic beef industry has been fairly quiet thus far, perhaps because Troge’s words were merely a recommendation meant to raise awareness, with no regulatory bite.

VeBu, Germany’s vegetarian association, still welcomed the announcement:

It’s good to see politicians are finally waking up to the fact that the amount of meat we eat is unsustainable.

Unfortunately, calling for voluntary reductions in beef consumption does not appear to be on Washington’s agenda. Repeated calls to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) office went unanswered. That’s too bad, because reducing how much beef people eat promotes public health, protects the environment, reduces emissions, and prevents starvation. What’s not to like?