Global livestock production accounts for 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, indicating that the livestock industry is exacerbating climate change in major ways.
“A large amount of beef production is occurring in regions with tropical forests,” UW Oshkosh biology professor Brad Spanbauer said. “Forests are being cleared for cattle pasture, which reduces the number of forests that can take up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Additionally, cows produce a significant amount of methane from their guts. When these gases are released, they trap 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.”
According to UWO biology professor Shannon Davis-Foust, beef is the most unsustainable form of meat.
“Switching to chicken would be more optimal by far,” Davis-Foust said. “In terms of using more fossil fuels, in terms of water, cows are the least efficient source of food that we have.”
Davis-Foust said another reason to limit beef consumption, besides the impact on climate change, is the health effects.
“Red meat is not good for you; it is well known to be correlated with heart disease,” Davis-Foust said. “It’s a win-win-win if you’re not eating any kind of meat at all. It’s much better for your health.”
Buying from local producers has less of an impact on climate than buying from large corporations.
“Purchasing from your local food market is always better because your food is said to travel an average of a thousand miles to get to your plate today,” Davis-Foust said. “Any time you can purchase food from a local area, you are reducing your food miles.”
Spanbauer said in addition to food miles, meat production requires energy-intensive processes that use a significant amount of fossil fuels.
“All of these processes increase the embodied energy of that burger patty that you are about to eat,” Spanbauer said. “Embodied energy is all of the energy included from production, processing and transport of a product.”
UWO associate professor of environmental studies and biology, Misty McPhee, said reducing meat consumption is the biggest thing someone can do to lower their carbon footprint.
“Without question, if you’re sitting around going, ‘I want to drive a Hummer and I want to take long showers,’ fine,” McPhee said. “Just eat less meat.”
Meat production from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, is also incredibly water-intensive.
“The water it takes to run those big meat facilities is beyond comprehension, and all those pumps take fossil fuels to run,” McPhee said. “But if we’re looking at a world that is losing the availability of fresh water, which ours is very rapidly, CAFOs are a big problem with that.”
According to McPhee, what is going to cause people to change their diets is if the immediate cost of eating something becomes greater than the benefit.
“If a hamburger becomes a $20 experience, I guarantee you a lot less people would eat hamburgers,” McPhee said. “Right now, you buy a hamburger for what, $7, and that cost doesn’t even come close to covering the environmental impact of that purchase.”
UWO environmental studies professor Jim Feldman said the best way to combat climate change is to get society as a whole to work together.
“What we do as individuals matters a tiny amount, but what we do collectively — if we can pass laws, if we can get corporations to commit to lowering their carbon footprint, that’s ultimately going to have a much bigger impact,” Feldman said. “It’s much more than just individual choice.”