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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)

Tracking The Impact of A Hamburger, Below2C

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.

If you’re not sure why you should care about deforestation, check out how it relates to climate changehuman rights, and the environment.

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.

Tracking The Impact of A Hamburger, Below2C

Source: J.L. Capper, Journal of Animal Science, December, 2011.

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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.

Tracking The Impact of A Hamburger, Below2C

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 FundCool 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…

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  1. A Vegan world would solve a lot of the current problems. But convincing everyone that they can survive on a plant based diet, is harder than it sounds. I am vegan and try to set an example, but my husband seems oblivious to the whole wasteful nature of the world and the impact we have on climate. He ignores my pontification on the subject. So what hope do we have converting anyone else?

    • I hear what you’re saying Colette. I’m not a vegan but we have cut out beef (almost 100%) and consuming a lot less meat than we used to. If everybody did at least that much we would be in much better shape on the planet. But then what about the emerging middle class in developing countries. Those world citizens seem to want to emulate the Western lifestyle which includes meats. Not to mention the additional 1.5 billion people who will join the human race by 2050.

      The agricultural challenges that lie ahead are only amplified by our increasing global population. I’m afraid I have to end on this rather dismal note.

  2. Good grief, people, do you really think that 35 pounds of topsoil and 2,500 gallons (more than ten tons) of water just vanish from the universe for every pound of hamburger you eat?

    The truth is that one pound of trimmed, boneless beef requires between 5.5 and 11 gallons of water (all of which is recycled), and no topsoil.

    Why do climate activists just make stuff up, in complete disregard for what the truth is?

    Fortunately, by improving plant growth, anthropogenic CO2 emissions are helping to feed the world, and green the planet. About 15-20% of current agricultural output is directly attributable to the benefits of the CO2 which we put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The IPCC estimates that about 28% of all the CO2 we put into the air each year is taken up that year by accelerated plant growth.

    If we lost the extra agricultural production that we get thanks to anthropogenic CO2, we could almost, but not quite, make up the deficit by putting ALL of the world’s rainforests under cultivation.

    This is not new information. The benefits of CO2 fertilization have been known by scientists for a century. Here’s a 1920 Scientific American article about it.

    Here’s a photo from that article. The potatoes on the left were grown with the benefit of CO2 from blast furnace exhaust. The potatoes on the right were grown under normal conditions. Scientific American called anthropogenic CO2 “the precious air fertilizer,” and from this photo you can see why:

    • Thank you Dave for your comments and welcome to Below2C.

      Unfortunately you and I are miles apart on the issue of animal agriculture and climate change in general. I suggest you start looking at sources, blogs and sites that are not of the “climate skeptic” variety. Clearly your data is biased against the need to take action to curtail global warming.

      You argue in favour of CO2 fertilization which is highly suspicious given that our atmosphere is choking with emissions that include CO2. On that basis alone we should be able to increase agricultural outputs to feed the entire population, all 9 billion of us by 2050. Your “precious air fertilizer” is but a misnomer for nasty air pollution.

  3. Hmmm…Looking at Dave Burton’s comment…plant life does like CO2…because that is what it takes in to grow, producing oxygen as its waste product.

    Ah, doesn’t that sound like a perfect balancing mechanism…yes, of course, but no it doesn’t. ???? Why you might ask?

    We have of course, (since the industrial age), been producing more CO2 than plants can take up, especially as we continue to bulldoze and log forests (the lungs of the planet) at an alarming rate. The oceans take up much of the excess (sparing our lungs for the moment), but the oceans are heating, acidifying, and becoming oxygen depleted dead zones in the process…melting the cooling system of the planet in the Arctic and Antarctic. When that ice is gone, the exponential temperature rise in the atmosphere will hit life very hard and mass extinction is not only possible, but extremely probable (including us).

    If we stopped all human caused greenhouse emissions tomorrow, would we change anything? Well, it wouldn’t take long for the air to clear, but, we still have a very warm ocean and many feedback loops already causing polar vortexes (wild looping of the ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams) and changes in rainfall, may take much longer (decades or longer) to rebalance. And that polar ice will continue to melt. So what does that mean? It is possible that without the sun dimming effect of the greenhouse gases, the sudden increase in solar radiation becomes a secondary problem that continues the warming process. And many plants may also struggle to survive with the decreased CO2 and sudden stress from increased radiation.

    Either way, we are going to see problems. Dave, I think your scenario of cutting down remaining forests to grow food is an absolutely diabolical idea. It will only exacerbate and expediate an outcome that is fast becoming the only one… We will be tested very severely on our survival in a fluid climate that changes more quickly than any animal (especially us) can evolve to live in it!

    Instead of talking about how much water a hamburger requires, we should be looking at how we can make our water reserves last and feed biospheres where life can be preserved.

    As always, we are missing the big picture of climate change and focusing on who is right or wrong… The climate doesn’t care!

    • I agree Colette. We know that plant life requires CO2 but of course it’s all about balance, as you point out. Far more CO2 is being dumped into the atmosphere than can be absorbed by plant life. And deforestation only adds to the problem.

      Good explanation.


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