Beef to Beans: the Climate Impact

October 24, 2018


The low-hanging musical fruit.


Helen Harwatt is a researcher trained in environmental nutrition, a field focused on developing food systems that balance human health and sustainability. She’s interested in policy, but realistic about how much progress can be expected under the aforementioned leadership. So she and colleagues have done research on maximizing the impacts of individuals. As with so many things in life and health, that tends to come down to food.

Recently Harwatt and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University calculated just what would happen if every American made one dietary change: substituting beans for beef. They found that if everyone were willing and able to do that—hypothetically—the U.S. could still come close to meeting its 2020 greenhouse-gas emission goals, pledged by President Barack Obama in 2009.

That is, even if nothing about our energy infrastructure or transportation system changed—and even if people kept eating chicken and pork and eggs and cheese—this one dietary change could achieve somewhere between 46 and 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the target.

“I think there’s genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have,” Harwatt told me. There have been analyses in the past about the environmental impacts of veganism and vegetarianism, but this study is novel for the idea that a person’s dedication to the cause doesn’t have to be complete in order to matter. A relatively small, single-food substitution could be the most powerful change a person makes in terms of their lifetime environmental impact—more so than downsizing one’s car, or being vigilant about turning off light bulbs, and certainly more than quitting showering.

To understand why the climate impact of beef alone is so large, note that the image at the top of this story is a sea of soybeans in a silo in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The beans belong to a feed lot that holds 38,000 cattle, the growth and fattening of which means dispensing 900 metric tons of feed every day. Which is to say that these beans will be eaten by cows, and the cows will convert the beans to meat, and the humans will eat the meat. In the process, the cows will emit much greenhouse gas, and they will consume far more calories in beans than they will yield in meat, meaning far more clearcutting of forests to farm cattle feed than would be necessary if the beans above were simply eaten by people.

This inefficient process happens on a massive scale. Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of red meat, holds around 212 million cattle. (In June, the U.S. temporarily suspended imports of beef from Brazil due to abscesses, collections of pus, in the meat.) According to the United Nations, 33 percent of arable land on Earth is used to grow feed for livestock. Even more, 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of Earth is used for grazing livestock. In all, almost a third of the land on Earth is used to produce meat and animal products.

This means much less deforestation and land degradation if so many plant crops weren’t run through the digestive tracts of cattle. If Americans traded their beef for beans, the researchers found, that would free up 42 percent of U.S. crop land.

“The real beauty of this kind of thing is that climate impact doesn’t have to be policy-driven,” said Harwatt. “It can just be a positive, empowering thing for consumers to see that they can make a significant impact by doing something as simple as eating beans instead of beef.”

She and her colleagues conclude in the journal Climatic Change: “While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, the ‘beans for beef’ scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts.”

The beans for beef scenario is, it seems, upon us.

“I think it’s such an easy-to-grasp concept that it could be less challenging than a whole dietary shift,” said Harwatt. The words vegetarian and vegan have stifled some people’s thinking on what it means to eat well—to consume responsibly, conscientiously. Rather the beans for beef scenario is the dietary equivalent of effective altruism—focusing on where efforts will have the highest yield. “It’s kind of a worst-first approach, looking at the hottest spot in the food system in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, and what could that be substituted with without losing protein and calories in the food system? And at the same time, gaining health benefits.”


9 Responses to “Beef to Beans: the Climate Impact”

  1. a-rogers Says:

    This is definitely something we need to emphasize more !!

    Are you all squared with Todd on the tech situation? ann

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Ah yes, the musical fruit—-“the more you eat, the more you toot…”

    Getting significant numbers of Americans to eat even some beans in place of beef is wishful thinking. There’s a reason we eat so much beef.

    • colettebytes Says:

      Beef will kill you because most people eat far too much of it. Beans won’t kill you (unless you don’t cook them).
      We are omnivores, but only because we can adapt to many types of food (our survival mechanism). When we became meat eaters, it was due to drought. There were no berries or roots to be gathered so we stole the meat killed by lions and other large preditors just to survive. It was then that we developed hunting skills with crude spears made from flints attached to poles carved from branches. When better conditions returned to the planet, grasses grew… We learned to eat them too, but it took the invention of making fire, and cooking our tended crops before we could spend less time in the search of food, and more time developing family and community ties. Our big brains developed because we cooked food. It took less time to digest and increased nutritional benefit. Working together on the land, created community, language, social skills and intelligence to rememember, invent, convey, teach and improve survival.

      Meat, and the hunting of meat or the factory farming of meat is totally unnecessary for survival. We can survive without it, simply because we are homosapiens.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        You missed the bullseye with “When we became meat eaters, it was due to drought”, but hit it better with the discovery of fire and cooking food. Our ancestors began to eat meat in quantity only after they learned to cook it to reduce its toughness—otherwise they would need to spend 6 hours a day just chewing.

        See the 2005 National Geographic 2-hour special “The Search for the Ultimate Survivor … The Mystery of Us” for an excellent explanation of human evolution and how homo sapiens became the “last human standing”. The topics of fruits and berries vs meat and how fire and cooking made a difference are covered extensively.

        • colettebytes Says:

          More recent research with Dr Alice Roberts seems to suggest that meat eating did occur on the Savanna when droughts occurred. Humans simply stole meat from the kills of large carnivores. The development of cooking it was probably due to bacterial content that would render the meat as a disease source if not cooked. The meat eating trend definitely followed as droughts became ice ages as humans migrated (possibly their only form of survival).
          I think we can only postulate on the ‘why’ for meat-consumption. We do not have clear cut enough evidence, but starvation will encourage anyone to eat just about anything.

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    The trick to bean-burgers is to not even try to make them taste like beef-burgers. Into food processor add 1 15.5oz can chickpeas(rinsed/drained), 4 chopped green onions (or 1/4c chopped regular onion), 1 clove minced garlic, 1/2c breadcrumbs, 1t dried oregano, 2t moroccan spice blend (look it up), 1/2t salt, 1t lemon juice. Pulse to mix, scraping sides from time to time. Hand mix in 1 egg. 4 patties, refrigerate 20′ or more. Grill 3′ per side. Assemble burger as per usual (maybe less ketchup and more mayo).

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “There’s a reason we eat so much beef”. I got tired just reading this. Most Americans just do the easy thing like The Orange Menace in the White House and get a beefburger from some fast food place. I am also constantly amazed at the length of the drive-thru lanes.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I come from a land of well-seasoned food typical of poor people places that developed recipes to make cheap protein taste better. You can get umami with little or no meat.

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