A modest defense of the hamburger

imgresIf you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a hybrid car like a Prius?

The easiest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve argued, is to eat less meat. Because the emissions generated by the production of  beef, pork and chicken (in that order) exceeds those of plant-based protein, going meatless for a day or two each week makes a difference.

But curbing meat consumption won’t make nearly as much of a difference as driving a more efficient cars, some experts says–although comparing the climate impacts of Big Mac, a lentil stew, a Ford 150 truck and a Prius  is a devilishly complicated business.

Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, recently pointed me to an interesting new publication that explores this issue, and others. Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (available as a PDF here) report on a series of workshops held last year by the well-respected Institute of  Medicine that brought together environmental scientists, nutrition experts, government officials and business people to look at the effects of diet on the planet and on human health.

One of the experts, Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at   the University of California at Davis, who is chair of an FAO group studying the environmental impact of livestock, offered a defense of beef. He tried to  put in perspective the claims of activists who urge consumers to eat less meat for environmental reasons.

The report says:

In Mitloehner’s opinion, although scientists would agree that food choices are an important environmental emission source, they would also agree that food choices pale in comparison to transportation choices or energy production and use choices.

To illustrate his point, Mitloehner cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 33 percent of all GHG emissions are associated with production and use of energy and 27 percent are associated with use of transportation (EPA, 2013). Compare those figures to GHG emissions in the United States from the entire livestock sector, all species, based on life-cycle assessment9 at 3.4 percent (EPA, 2012). According to Mitloehner’s calculations, of that 3.4 percent, approximately 1.8 percent comes from the beef sector. Thus, GHG emissions from livestock in developed countries are dwarfed by carbon footprint contributions from other, larger sectors (e.g., transportation, energy, industry). The same is true of other developed countries.

Mitloehner questioned the impact of “Meatless Mondays” or “Beefless Mondays.” If 300-plus million people were to go beefless on Mondays, that would cut the 1.4 percent figure by a factor of 7 (number of days in the week), which would amount to a 0.2 percent reduction in the total greenhouse gas footprint. Mitloehner said, “While this is not nothing … it will not even compare to what we see from the transportation sector.”

Mitloehner may be right. He is especially critical of a 2006 FAO report that estimated that livestock contributes 18 percent of all GHG emissions, and those emissions were greater than those from the transportation sector. This number has been quoted widely but, he said, the comparison was inappropriate because livestock emissions were analyzed using a full lifecycle assessment, and then compared to transportation emissions that included only tailpipe emissions.

A very different view was put forth by Emily Cassidy of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues including Jon Foley has worked to quantify the environmental impacts of diet. The report says:

Americans consume a lot of meat, more than 110 kilograms per person per year, even though the nutritionally recommended amount is only about 23 kilograms per person per year (FAO, 2013). If meat consumption were to be reduced by 75 percent, to 30 kilograms per person per year, with the lost weight being compensated by fruits and vegetables, cereals, and other foods, what would happen to the environmental footprint of the U.S. diet?

Cassidy’s calculations suggest that such a reduction would significantlychange the environmental impacts associated with the U.S. food system. Specifically, a 75 percent reduction in meat consumption would result in a 27 percent reduction in land use, a 31 percent reduction in water use, and a 46 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

It’s complicated, no? One problem is that using global or even national averages when talking about the carbon impacts runs roughshod over important differences in farming and ranching practices, the electricity mix, shipping and a gazillion other variations. Did the corn that was grown and fed to the cow that was turned into a Big Mac require irrigation? Was the electricity fed to the Prius generated by a coal-fired power plant or by hydropower? Which has a greater carbon impact, salmon from Alaska or chicken from the Delaware shore? Climate change is a global problem, but all emissions are local, as Ory Zik has noted in developing his startup company Energy Points, which uses Big Data to analyze environmental tradeoffs.

So…if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a the Prius? The answer is, it depends. It sure looks as if switching to a Prius will have a bigger impact, but of course it’s easier to skip a few meals with meat than to buy a new car. What’s more, the health and environmental impacts of meat production in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) go well beyond climate, including the need to dispose of animal waste, potential water pollution, pesticide and fertilizer overuse to produce feed, antibiotic use and resistance, air quality and animal welfare issues.

Happily, it’s not an either or. You can cut meat consumption and drive a more efficient car.

Meantime, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill are working together to limit the environmental impact of beef production through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is all to the good.

That said, it would be so much simpler and more sensible to put a tax on carbon emissions and use price signals to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. Pricing carbon emissions into the costs of goods and services–electricity, gasoline, food and everything else–would unleash the power of markets and drive producers and consumers to smarter and greener choices.


  1. Lewis E. Ward says


    Thanks for the well thought out article on these complex issues. Reductionist thinking got us into this problem, the solutions will be found in understanding systems and wow the systems interact. Some readers (hopefully not yours) may feel it’s too complex, however every article that addresses the complexity with clear examples provides a basis for clarity.

  2. says

    And choosing to conceive one less child in your lifetime REALLY dwarfs the benefits of giving up meat or your testosterone-charged Dodge Ram pickup (Guts, Glory!). Great topic and information, Marc.

    I wrote an interesting post about all the things we might have to give up if we continue to fail at reducing population and getting over our economic growth fetish, and it’s a lot more than hamburgers and pickup trucks – http://www.growthbusters.org/2014/02/super-bowl-extravagance-or-big-family-indulgence-choose-one/

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  3. Ed Reid says

    I am continually fascinated by your fixation on a carbon tax. You are certainly correct that a carbon tax would increase the price of almost everything. However, a national carbon tax would have little to no measurable impact on global carbon emissions; and, the imposition of a global carbon tax appears to be highly unlikely. Therefore, your fixation appears to be focused ona victory of symbolism over substance.

  4. Stuart says


    The good news about this article is that there is a real effort to quantify the impact of GHG emissions. The bad news is that this needs to be done a larger scale. A meat versus vegetarian diet is irrelevant in meaningfully stopping the increase in atmospheric carbon levels.

    It all comes down to generating electricity in a manner that does not involve the burning of fossil fuels; solar, wind, hydro and nuclear. Either mankind has the will to do this, or it doesn’t. If we don’t, let’s move on. Peripheral discussions such as diet, bike lanes, and vehicle mileage standards only serve to distract everyone from discussing the elephant in the room.


  5. Marc Gunther says

    Stuart’s right. While changing our diet and making cars, appliances and homes more efficient will all make a difference on the margins–perhaps more than he might realize–in the end this comes down to substituting low carbon energy for fossil fuels and, despite what you may hear from “greens,” demonstrating a willingness to pay their higher costs. (If solar was in fact cheaper than coal today, we’d all be using solar.) Ed, that’s why I am more or less obsessed with the idea of a carbon tax. It’s the only way to get where we need to go. Another word for what you call “symbolism” is leadership, and if US leadership doesn’t by itself move the rest of the world to price carbon, then some form of border tariffs may be required. None of this is easy, I know, but it’s the best of a series of bad alternatives.

  6. Ed Reid says

    “It’s the only way to get where we need to go.”

    That is certainly not the case.

    “Another word for what you call “symbolism” is leadership, …”

    Leadership would be assembling the global community to act in concert to solve this global “problem”. The US acting unilaterally would not only be “symbolism” but also masochism, if not self-flagellation.

    It appears unlikely that world leaders would follow President Obama to the restroom, even if they all needed the restroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>