We Need to Talk About Your Hamburger

It’s something you’ve heard before, and something you probably don’t like to hear: eating meat (especially red meat) is bad for the environment. It’s been in the news increasingly, but we don’t read the stories we don’t want to hear. Meat is really good, and since I recently started going vegetarian, I must say that I miss it. Being a native of Philadelphia, I am saddened a great deal whenever I see a cheesesteak. Don’t even get me started on chicken fingers. 

But the truth is, we don’t all have to be vegetarians, not even close. I’m not here to preach about the ethical issue of killing and eating an animal—although the conditions in factory farms are abhorrent—but rather one of a sustainable future. 

It is no secret that Americans live gluttonous lifestyles, emitting 16 tons of CO2 per capita per year into the atmosphere compared to China’s 7 tons per capita and India’s 2 tons (Source: OWID based on the Global Carbon Project; CDIAC; Gapminder and UN, 2017). 

The United States is one of the wealthiest and most influential countries in the world, so we need to be the ones to make the shift. A recent New York Times article claimed that 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, including methane and other gasses came from animal agriculture worldwide, so let’s simplify this for a second and apply it to ourselves. Hypothetically, if we all ate a third of the meat we currently did, by this estimate, we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by ten percent, or 1.6 tons per capita per year (this figure ignores methane and other gasses for simplicity). Is 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere worth eating a few less burgers? I think so. 

But there’s a huge issue in that 15 percent figure. Most studies done on the carbon intensity of animal agriculture fail to consider all of the externalities that go into the production of meat. For example, there are the obvious “cow farts” (and burps) which release methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 68 times stronger than CO2. However, most studies also fail to consider all of the land dedicated to feed these cows that we eat. The United States has 400 million acres of farmland, and 200 million of those acres go towards growing livestock feed. To put that in perspective, all of the food we eat is grown on 77 million acres. 

We have to feed our animals all of this corn and soybean, just so we can fatten them up, kill them and eat them ourselves. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 2017). This land could be used much more efficiently to feed humans, or it could be used as wild land to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This is also extremely water intensive, and the monocropping agriculture utilizes fertilizers that are bad for the environment as well. 

Long story short, animal agriculture has environmental effects which are difficult to quantify. You should take every article you read with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it is certain that a significant portion (more than fifteen percent) of our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from our meat loving habits. Some studies even suggest as much as half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture. 

Am I coming to take away your hamburger? No. But the United States is a world leader, and we need to act like it, reducing emissions in every way we can. So maybe next time you’re deciding what to eat for dinner, take a veggie burger instead.