We are pleased to welcome Caroline Jones as a guest contributor to Below2°C. Caroline is a researcher at the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. She writes about the climate impact of a hamburger, more specifically, its impact on the deforestation of the Amazon. (Rolly Montpellier, Co-founder and Editor)
Source: Image from Pixabay
The Climate Impact of A Hamburger
You sit down at your favorite burger joint. You don’t even need a menu – you know your order by heart. But before you order that hamburger (or before you throw it on the grill, if you’re in a home-cooked type of mood), let’s take a minute to think about just how far your burger had to travel before it ended up on that plate in front of you.
The journey of your hamburger [may] begin in the amazon.
More specifically, it likely begins in the amazon in Brazil, home to about 60% of the tropical rainforest. Only – as you’re likely aware – that rainforest is quickly disappearing. And it’s a little bit your fault.
Why? Because in addition to being home to 60% of the amazon rainforest, Brazil is also the world’s largest exporter of beef. And those two things aren’t highly compatible. In order to make more room for cattle ranching, the amazon is being cut down. In fact, a 2009 study found that 4/5 of deforestation in the amazon could be linked to cattle ranching. And the vast majority of the beef being produced in Brazil goes to the U.S. The United States buys 200 million pounds of beef from Brazil and other Central American nations every year, and demand is on the rise – which means more and more of the amazon will have to go.
So once the land has been cleared to make room for cattle, what’s next for your hamburger? Cows need food and water – a lot of it, actually. Every pound of beef produced requires about 35 pounds of topsoil, 2,500 gallons of water, and 12 pounds of grain. To put that in perspective, the amount of water used to produce 10 4oz. hamburgers is the same amount that a person uses to shower for a year.
Source: J.L. Capper, Journal of Animal Science, December, 2011.
The Food That Your Food Eats
A big part of the problem with beef is the food that your food eats. Cattle are usually fed combinations of corn, soybean meal, and other grains, which are grown using fertilizer (around 17 billion pounds per year), and pesticides (around 167 million pounds per year). Spoiler alert: these are really bad for the environment, too.
On top of that, growing feed and raising cattle takes up a lot of valuable land. 30% of the Earth’s land mass – and 80% of agricultural land in the US – is used to raise animals and to grow the food they eat. That’s land that could be used for renewable energy farming, or just for growing food that goes to humans, rather than animals. And as our global population continues to shoot upward, we’re going to need that land to be used for something more efficient than meat production – we might not be able to feed ourselves if we don’t.
The process of raising cattle isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, either. Industrial beef production is actually one of the most damaging environmental processes that we engage in. 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from cattle farming, along with 37% of methane emissions (and a lot of that just comes from the cows’ digestion – yup, cow farts), 65% of NO2, and 9% of overall CO2 emissions. Methane is the super villain of all of these – with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and with the average cow emitting roughly 117 pounds of it every year. That’s why cutting down on your meat consumption is the best thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint – even better than abandoning your car.
Source: Global Weirding video produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media
Once your hamburger has been raised, fed, watered, slaughtered, and packaged for sale, it still has to get from wherever it was raised to your nearest convenience store. That means more carbon emissions from transportation.
If all this has made the hamburger on your plate a little less appetizing, don’t just throw it away: methane emissions from landfills can amount to between 30 and 70 million tons every year. That’s just one part of the huge problem of food waste in the United States, which currently accounts for between 30 % and 40 % of the food supply (or 133 billion pounds, or $161 billion worth of food).
But back to your burger. If at this point, you’re feeling maybe a little guilty about your meat indulgences, there are things you can do to reduce the impact of your diet.
Reducing the Impact of your Diet
Obviously, the best thing you can do is to stop eating meat. Rates of vegetarianism in the United States have been rising rapidly, as more and more people find the ethical, environmental, and health impacts of meat to be more compelling than the tempting smell of bacon. If you don’t think you can handle going cold turkey (or no turkey, if you’ll pardon the pun), try cutting back to only eating meat on weekends, or limiting yourself to the less carbon-intensive types of meat.
Beef and lamb are by far the worst for the environment, but chicken and turkey have a much smaller carbon footprint. You can also donate to projects like The Carbon Fund, Cool Effect, or Ripple Africa, which use donated funds to help offset the carbon impact of our daily unsustainable activities by replacing harmful energy sources (think: coal, oil, etc.) with clean ones like wind power and solar power.
So the next time you find yourself at that burger joint (or supermarket, wherever you buy your meat), take a minute to think about how much you could help the planet by making a different choice. Maybe it’s time to try those black bean burgers…
Caroline Jones is a researcher at the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. Her writing has been published by Brookings, ClimateHome.org, and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter and LinkedIn.