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No More Than A Quarter Pound of Beef Per Week: A Target to Improve Health and the Environment

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.

Matthew Lichtash

Matthew Lichtash

Matt Lichtash is an environmental consultant, blogger, and communicator. Through his work, Matt seeks to promote common ground on issues that can reduce environmental pollution. Matt also created thecarboncapital.org, a website that condenses the findings of important environmental research into brief and easy-to-understand posts.
Matthew Lichtash
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Matt Lichtash is an environmental consultant, blogger, and communicator. Through his work, Matt seeks to promote common ground on issues that can reduce environmental pollution. Matt also created thecarboncapital.org, a website that condenses the findings of important environmental research into brief and easy-to-understand posts.

11 Comments

  1. …In fact, the above study shows that global adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets would save nearly one million additional lives annually …

    Tell that to an inuit on traditional food …

    • Kat says

      such an obtuse response. An Inuit on traditional food also does not generate the same carbon emission footprint from agriculture, or excess use of energy. Fish and seals do not fart methane like cows do.

      • “carbon emission fotprint” – Are you relating to something that’s one of the most important things for most life to exist on Earth? The frase itself is plain bs …

    • Santoculto says

      ”Traditional” always sound insipid bloody.

      They are a minority of people.

  2. It’s interesting that a reduction or elimination of the eating of meat has rarely been a target that climate activists bring to the table, so to speak. I wonder why? It’s so much easier to tell other people to do something that will not cost you much, rather than a personal change that will have an impact on what you have enjoyed for a long time. In my years in the green movement in Britain, I found it fascinating to witness activists railing against the harms caused by large businesses such as McDonald’s, then breaking off for a smoke of something produced by British American Tobacco. They never talked about that company.

    Similarly with the problem of cows for food.

  3. If beef is the problem then great, I eat a lot of pork anyway, I’ll just eat more. Also, please tell schools to offer more pork in their cafeterias, since a lot of them stopped doing that to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of a minority of the student population.

    However I’m a bit skeptical about the claims that we must stop eating beef (or meat in general) to ward off climate change, or reduce environmental damage.

    Why did humans start eating livestock and their products (diary)? Well, we don’t know for sure. However we can surmise that in great part it had something to do with the fact that cows, pigs, goats, sheep etc. eat food that we cannot (e.g. grass) and convert it to food we can eat (themselves, i.e. the meat). Try living off grain in farming in the Alps. Not such a great choice. Living off cheese and meat though, that works well.

    So if we get rid of cows, who process food inedible for humans into food edible for humans, does that not mean we have to clear more fields (where the cows grazed) and plant corn, soya, wheat etc. there instead? Isn’t soya farming notoriously damaging to the environment, for example?

    Now you will say – yes that was maybe the case in the pre-industrial age, now we feed cows soya and corn, so we grow it anyway, we might as well just eat the soya and corn. I agree – but I also say we SHOULDN’T be feeding cows things we can eat. We should be feeding them grass and hay.

    Then you will say – yes, but whatever we feed them, factory farming is a large source of CO2 emissions. Indeed, but then I say – we shouldn’t be doing factory farming.

    So the question is, is a soya veggie burger really better for the environment than a burger made of locally-sourced, grain-fed free-roam cows? Should I have two of the soya burgers per week (with the soya sourced, say, from large scale farms in Asia where tons of rainforest has been cleared to make way for them) and one of the grass-fed beef burgers or the reverse? Or just the beef burgers?

    Calls like this – to limit beef consumption, etc. – are in the end, ineffectual. They will reach a small % of the population. Their effect will be small. What we really need is a top-down approach here. In developed countries, 2-5% of the people work in agriculture. It’s much easier to regulate and change their work habits, than to change the dietary habits of 100% of the people.

    We should ban factory livestock farming (or at least restrict it/tax it in such a way as to make it unprofitable). We should ban bad farming practices, like feeding cows all sorts of things they really shouldn’t be eating. Now someone will say – but prices will then rise astronomically? So what? With a price hike, consumption will naturally come down. Which was the point of this article, no?

    • Matt Lichtash (Author) says

      Hi AS, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Interesting point about pork – perhaps fodder for a different article! In general, I like how you raised arguments, and then addressed potential counterarguments. In terms of the question “is grass-fed beef better” I’d point you towards this Washington Post article that does a good job describing differences between grass- and grain-fed beef. In short, it’s complicated, and that’s why I didn’t want to get bogged down in these details in the article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/is-grass-fed-beef-really-better-for-you-the-animal-and-the-planet/2015/02/23/92733524-b6d1-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html.

      Regardless, beef’s large climate impact is a main reason I argue we should reduce its consumption. The health risks of eating too much red meat are also very concerning – as a risk averse individual I’d argue consuming less is prudent for that reason alone. I agree that there seem to be problems with soy – that’s why I didn’t want to get that prescriptive in what I think we should eat more of. But that’s a great point and definitely substance for a future article.

      Re: your assertion that calls to limit beef consumption are ineffectual: to clarify, are you saying that they won’t reach a lot of people because of society’s mental preference for beef? Are you saying that this is an impractical-to-adopt proposal? And would you distinguish my approach of choosing a concrete, easy-to-remember benchmark, from others that just abstractly call for eating less beef (have you seen this tactic presented elsewhere?)? In the end, I wrote this piece because I believe it won’t require a lot of hard choices (one hamburger per week is reasonable), it’s not being talked about by most environmental groups, and that my approach tries something new by quantifying a target. If you’re merely being a bit pessimistic… then I hope you’re wrong 🙂

      Re: going top-down instead of bottom-up, I think that approach opens up a whole other can of worms about the role of government, one that I didn’t want to delve into here. It’s also possible that these approaches might not be mutually exclusive – but I’ll stay agnostic on that here. At the end of the day, if societal beef consumption is to go down, that’s going to involve a lengthy debate involving the majority of the people in this country (either in individuals banding together or legislators debating new laws, and thus involving their constituents) – choosing a top-down approach will not avoid that, in my opinion. I also agree that factory farming, as it’s currently done, negatively impacts the environment and our health, and that we need to be doing much much less of it.

      Thanks for taking the time to engage with my arguments! I also encourage any of the other commenters to respond to my arguments here, or others from the piece.

      Cheers,
      M

  4. “The United Nations [report] in 2013…”

    This FAO report, upon which all the bogus statistics in this article are based, is a laughing stock for which its authors apologized.

    Getting rid of all beef, if for some reason we actually wanted to do so, would have minimal impact on GHG production. Keep your eyes on the ball, folks. And that is building RE infrastructure ASAP so we can shut down infrastructure which burns fossil fuels.

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