Did you hear that Americans reduced their beef consumption by 19 percent over the past decade? That’s equivalent to reducing the amount of carbon emissions produced by 39 million cars, which is no small feat. This is certainly a welcome change for both our health and the environment. However, beef consumption ticked up slightly from 2014 to 2015, with 2016 on track for a three percent increase over 2015, according to the Department of Agriculture. Given the urgency to improve both public health and reduce carbon emissions (we must cut global greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2050 to hedge against potentially catastrophic climate risks), simply saying “let’s keep eating less beef” is not good enough. People need a concrete goal to aim for.
Recommendations to drink eight glasses of water each day and eat no more than 2,000 calories daily are pretty much common knowledge. Unfortunately, there is no such equivalent for helping the climate. Climate solutions need more rules of thumb that can arm people with information to take concrete action. Eating less beef is one of the cheapest and highest-impact actions every U.S. citizen can take immediately to help the climate. Limiting beef consumption to less than a quarter pound per week, about the size of one hamburger, would have a tangible, significant, and positive impacts on both our health and the environment.
While passing additional climate policies through Congress is ultimately necessary to tackle the climate crisis, ordinary citizens must do everything possible in the near-term, given the slim likelihood of climate action from either Congress or the White House. While turning down our thermostats, driving less, insulating our homes, and demanding action from our political leaders are all worthy steps to take, setting goals around them is complicated. The quarter-pound per week target for beef is simple.
Why beef? The United Nations in 2013 calculated that the global livestock industry produces nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (similar to the emission from all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world). However, cows, pigs, and chickens are not created equal—in fact, cows (and sheep) are over five times worse for the climate per pound than pigs and chickens, in no small part due their methane-rich farts. Accordingly, ten percent of global emissions are from cows, three percent from sheep, while other animals like chicken and pigs emit the remaining two percent. That’s why beef.
Why one quarter-pound per week? A 2016 study modeled the health and environmental impacts of reducing global meat consumption. Based on healthy eating guidelines from the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, the study recommends that citizens in Western nations reduce red meat consumption by about three-quarters. Given that Americans currently eat about one pound of beef per week, the study recommends that Americans eat no more than one-quarter pound of beef weekly.
If adopted by all Americans, this standard would result in both health and environmental benefits. For one, the World Health Organization finds that “an optimally healthy diet would be low in red meat.” Secondly, given that the U.S. produces about one-fifth of the world’s beef, reducing American beef consumption would make a sizable contribution on mitigating environmental impacts from the global beef supply chain.
What would this rule of thumb look like in action? Wesleyan University, my alma mater, supplies just over one-quarter pound of beef to its students per week, based on purchasing data from Wesleyan’s food management company. Wesleyan could publicize this metric on its sustainability website, and students could pressure the administration and food management company to purchase less beef. Applying this benchmark at the institutional level would create competition to reduce beef consumption as much as possible on campuses across the country.
Does this rule of thumb implying imply that some beef consumption is better than none? No. In fact, the above study shows that global adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets would save nearly one million additional lives annually and reduce carbon emissions by an additional amount greater than the current annual emissions of India. So why not advocate that Americans adopt vegetarian or vegan diets? To start, going vegan is hard for some people, not least because it entails unlearning food habits hardwired into our brains to give us pleasure. Secondly, it is no place of mine to lecture others on what they should eliminate from their lives—whether that be consuming animal products, flying, or any other carbon-emitting activity. Moderation, rather than a cold turkey approach, is both more likely to work on a biological level and more respectful of a diverse range of human needs.
How can the average American use this benchmark to eat more sustainably? Every time you eat out or go to the grocery store, just ask this simple question: did I eat more than a quarter pound of beef in the last week? If the answer is yes, consider going with the chicken, pork, or veggie option. If the answer is no, then it’s fine to eat that burger, though it’s still better for the environment and human health to seek alternatives (Try it yourself! Keep track using the “Less” app, which allows you to easily log each meal you eat containing beef). Demand that your company, college, or other institution keep track of its beef consumption and stay as far below the quarter-pound per person benchmark as possible.
Failure to lower our beef consumption means leaving low-hanging fruit (burger?) on the table. Let’s stay below one burger per week. Our bodies and the environment will thank us for it.