Vegetarianism used to be about animal welfare. Now, an increasing number of Americans are choosing to go vegetarian to help the planet. That’s right: a vegetarian diet has a much smaller eco-footprint than meat. There are some exceptions to this (the UN is pushing for eating bugs as a sustainable solution to world hunger) but, overall, you can count on the fact that you are doing something good for the planet just by adapting a plant-based diet. Compared to poultry, fish, and pork, beef is the worst in terms of sustainability. Here are just some of the shocking facts about sustainability of the beef industry.
Cow Farts and Burps are a Big Source of Greenhouse Gases
Cows are a type of animal known as ruminants. They have four stomachs where they digest their food. The stomachs contain bacteria which help digest the food. In the process, methane gas is produced. The methane gas is expelled mostly through burping but also farting. Depending on the diet of the cow (grass-fed cows produce less methane gas than cows on an unnatural grain diet), a single cow produces about 26 to 132 gallons of methane per day!
Yes, there are plenty of funny stories about barns exploding because of gassy cows, but the issue is not a joke. The 2013 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that livestock are responsible for 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, most of which is from the methane-filled farts and burps of cows. According to the EPA, Methane traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2.
30% of All Land on Earth is Used for Livestock
With the world’s population above 7 billion, it is starting to feel a bit crowded here. So, it may come as a surprise to hear that 30% of the earth’s land is being used for livestock. The land is being used directly to raise livestock and indirectly for crops to feed the animals. Consider that just 10% of the land is being used to raise crops for humans and you get a picture of how much land is being taken up by the livestock industry. (source)
Beef is Incredibly Inefficient Source of Calories
Like all living things, cows need food to grow – approximately 80 pounds of food per day. Obviously, a cow isn’t gaining 80 pounds per day. A lot of that food is burnt off in metabolic processes. When you calculate the amount of calories that an average cow consumes in its lifespan compared to the amount of calories it creates, you see just how inefficient beef farming is. It takes about 17 calories of grain to produce 1 calorie of beef! (source)
It is Even Less Efficient than This!
The “caloric efficiency” of beef is usually calculated just by amount of calories in/calories produced. When you factor in all of the resources used to raise beef, it becomes even more inefficient.
It requires resources like water, fertilizers, and land to grow crops for livestock. Those crops must then be shipped to the feedlots. The livestock must be transported to slaughterhouses. The butchered meat must be processed. It is then transported to various factories around the globe.
Of course, it also takes energy to create vegetarian foods too – but a heck of a lot less. A report by David Pimentel of Cornell University found that a single calorie of beef requires 28 calories of fossil fuels. By comparison, it takes just 3.3 calories of fossil fuels to create a calorie of grain protein for humans. (source)
Beef Burgers are Destroying Rainforests
When you think of destruction of the rainforest, you probably think of trees being cut down to be made into luxury timber. Really, 2/3 of the rainforest cut down from the 1950s to early 1990s was to make pasture land for cows. It isn’t the Central and South Americans which are hungry for beef (many people in these areas can’t afford beef). Cattle are typically raised in poorer countries to keep production costs down for wealthy people in Westernized countries like the US. (source)
A Pound of Beef Uses the Same Amount of Water as 6 Months of Showering
John Robbins explains how much water is involved in meat production very well in his book The Food Revolution. He calculated the amount of water you would use if you took a 7-minute shower every single day for 6 months. This amount of water is comparable to the amount of water used to produce one pound of Californian beef: 2,464 gallons. You could save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for 6 months!
FYI: a vegan diet only requires about 300 gallons of water a day compared to 4,200 for a standard omnivore diet in the US (source).