One Writer’s Beef with Our Eating Habits

We’ve all heard about how eating beef causes heart disease, cancer and many other illnesses. Organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the school of public health at Harvard all support these beliefs. If your health isn’t reason enough to stop eating hamburgers and steak, here’s another reason why you should stop: eating beef is terrible for the environment. But why is it so bad? Let’s get into it.

First, think about how high the demand is for cow meat and dairy products worldwide. Now think about how many cows there are just in the United States. The USDA  reported that in the beginning of the year, there were approximately 94.3 million cows in the United States alone. Beef is the backbone of many diets across the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that there are 1.468 billion head of cattle on Earth. You might be thinking, “So what? They’re just cows.” But they’re not just cows, they’re mass polluters of the environment. To explain, cows have four stomach—the biggest one being the rumen. In the rumen, there a millions of microbes that eat all of the grass and grain which releases methane in the process. Cows then burp and fart out all of that methane. Methane is also 30 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. According to Penn State University, about 20 percent of the methane gas produced a year comes from cows. Therefore, what you’ve heard is true—cow farts are killing the environment. The Paris Agreement states that we should keep “a global temperature rise this century well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”  With the rising world population and cattle population, we are on track to surpass that limit which will wipe out millions of species and ecosystems. The rise in temperature will also make the severity of storms increase along with worsening the effects of floods and droughts. Cutting out beef from your diet would mean cutting down on contributing to the methane emissions that are released into the atmosphere. 

Additionally, the production of beef involves a great amount of water. Beef’s water footprint is 1,800 gallons per pound. Only three percent of water on earth is freshwater. Is it really worth it to waste so much of this scarce resource on just a pound of beef? A pound of beef, for the record, makes about four hamburgers. Of course, all production of food requires water use but beef has by far the largest water footprint. In comparison, a pound of pork uses 576 gallons and a pound of poultry uses even less. Corn only uses 108 gallons and it’s considered a water intensive crop. In a time where wars are being fought over water and armies are being used to protect water resources, it is important that we try to limit our water usage. Just shortening time in the shower isn’t going to cut it. Sure, even eliminating beef from your diet isn’t going to fully fix your water footprint, but it’s a great start.

Methane release and water use are the two main reasons why eating beef is terrible for the environment. Additionally, there’s transportation emissions, land usage and all of the environmental implications that go into its packaging. The Amazon Rainforest is burning in order to make more room for cows to graze. We can feel the effects of global warming everywhere we go. It is time to stop eating beef. The earth is screaming for it.