By Gabe Lareau
At the start of 2022, the world took part in its yearly tradition of adding new data to all the graphs tracking our ongoing environmental catastrophe. Previous forecasts turned out to be pretty accurate: 2022 would become the hottest year on record for the ninth year in a row. A heat wave in Europe caused 20,000 excess deaths and global coal use reached a new high, surpassing 8 billion tons.
In light of all this bad news, I decided it was time to treat 2022 differently — the reckless personal environmental choices I knew were wrong but still committed would be things of the past. With a bike as my main transport, laundry often clothesline-dried, and lightbulbs mostly LEDs, I’d checked almost every box an individual can in order to live a sustainable lifestyle. But there was one thing I’d willingly ignored for too long: meat. Its production, consumption, and disposal all contribute significantly to climate change and other ecological problems, so I decided that 2022 would be the Year of No Beef. During this year, I would deliberately avoid any red meat from animals that burped greenhouse gases, like beef and lamb. Special dispensations would be seldom to maximize my carbon impact.
Spoiler alert: I failed the Year of No Beef twice over.
Why was not eating beef so difficult? For an entire nesting doll of reasons. There are the complex structures of our global economy and food systems, built by powerful corporations wielding cash stores to fund biased “science.” And then there are the cultural influences that have impacted my tastebuds from the outset. Old habits, especially societally expected ones, die hard. Like most Americans, I was taught from an early age that a meal was incomplete without an animal on the plate, and cow was often the animal of choice. People grill beef with relative ease, chumming around with a beer in their hand while they do it. Its endless cuts are easily integrated into casseroles, curries, Reubens, and roasts. It’s so delicious. It has fueled a decades-long addiction I could not simply quit cold turkey — or cold beef, rather.
As an American, at least I knew I was not alone. We prodigal Americans slaughter the fattened calf. Often. Our World in Data reports that, in 2020, Americans consumed 37 kg (81 lbs.) of beef per capita — the second most in the world behind only Argentina and more than four times the global average. The United States is also tied for first place in overall meat consumption with Portugal, totaling 149 kg (328 lbs.) per person per year, well over twice the world average.
This meat culture runs deep. There is a certain, quintessentially American character to the Memorial Day or Fourth of July cookout and the football tailgate. Beef equals freedom and family. It defines the American identity. À la the recent controversy surrounding gas stoves, pro-environment messages of mitigating meat consumption have been convoluted into a false but provoking message of, “They want to take away our burgers!” For many, abandoning meat is equivalent to debasing our national character.
But loving meat is hardly just an American thing. It spans the globe and goes back deep into human history. Over 2.6 million years ago, our earliest hominid ancestors — perhaps out of hunger-driven desperation or inspiration from our own predators — began to sneak smackerels of this calorie- and protein-dense animal flesh into their diet. We didn’t really stop. Every ancient society, from the Han Dynasty to the ancient Romans, regarded meat as a fine delicacy, even if it did purportedly give the latter the runs. With the advent of industrial farming, the price of meat plummeted as its popularity skyrocketed. Instead of consuming a mostly plant-based diet, where we capture the sun’s energy in chlorophyll, industrial meat production rerouted that energy from plants into animals on an unprecedented and unsustainable scale. Americans’ obsession with meat has made livestock an unwilling, and inefficient, middleman in the food energy transfer system. That one extra step has become a vacuum for resources and a vent-pipe for emissions.
Put another way, meat is as environmentally destructive as it is delicious. Meat production currently accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Science Magazine, and beef is by far the worst offender. One kilogram of beef emits about 100 kilograms worth of CO2 equivalents. For comparison, pork clocks in at about 12 kg, while chicken is at 10.
A variety of factors is at play here. Most notable (and pungent) is the fact that a cow’s digestive system produces methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. Despite its much shorter lifespan within the atmosphere compared to CO2 — “around 12 years compared with centuries” according to the International Energy Agency — its presence is still bad for the climate. “Methane is responsible for around 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution,” according to the International Energy Agency.
Things compound when you realize that nearly 194.7 kg of beef — nearly 780,000 cattle — are wasted in the United States every year, mostly due to discoloration of the raw meat. If those cows had never been made, the U.S. would have saved nearly 581,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Instead, by wasting them, on top of all of the emissions associated with beef production, the discarded meat ends up emitting more than if we had eaten it. This is in part why, in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a report saying that if food waste were a country, it would take the bronze medal in emissions. Meat contributes “to over 20% of the carbon footprint of total food waste,” meaning all of those emissions to make it were wasted only to put more greenhouse gases into the air.
This massive waste was also, in part, why my Year of No Beef met such a quick end. In the unique situation of a university dining hall, I didn’t have any say over what the cooks would serve on any given day. I was faced with a conundrum: On the one hand, I didn’t want to drive up demand whenever they served beef. But, on the other, having it go to waste would have been arguably worse. Most days, I figured that a burger I didn’t request is better than one wasted. They also smelled really good.
While many have managed it successfully, trying to abstain from meat for the sake of the environment as an American — for reasons of taste, culture, economy, systems of food provision, and more — is still just hard, and it often just feels futile. Everything we do, from the planes we ride to see our families to the meat we eat to sustain our bodies, carries an environmental cost, but obsessively micromanaging our personal actions would ultimately eliminate only a small slice of the pie and would distract from larger, systemic carbon emitters.
While there’s some truth to the argument that individual choices are insignificant in fighting climate change, it’s worth pausing to think about it when one of the meat industry’s biggest advocates uses that insignificance as a selling point. Frank Mitloehner — a professor at the University of California, Davis with well-established connections to the cattle industry — has made the insignificance of individual food choices a central talking point. As Jenny Splitter writes in Undark, “The quintessential Mitloehner take” is this: “Worry less about the burgers and more about Big Oil. He praises what animal agriculture gets right … but he staunchly rejects the idea of telling anyone to eat less beef for the planet.”
It seems that Mitloehner counters every environmentalist argument against meat with a canned rebuttal claiming either innocence or insignificance. In fact, he did exactly this in an interview on the YouTube channel What I’ve Learned and its video, “Eating less meat won’t save the planet. Here’s why” — which drew nearly 5 million views.
Mitloehner’s cornerstone example cites a 2017 study that showed that if 10% of the U.S. population went vegan, emissions would be reduced by .26%, adding, “We’re talking about changes that aren’t even measurable.” And he is correct. However, what Mitloehner gets wrong here is not in his answers but in his presentational framework.
The title of the video, and Mitloehner’s whole philosophy is, paradoxically, factually true but steeped in flawed logic. Of course eating less meat won’t save the planet — no one thing or person will. Ending internal combustion engines alone won’t save the planet. Transitioning away from oil alone won’t save the planet. Mixing less concrete alone won’t save the planet. All of those combined (and so, so much more) will.
Instead, what many will take away from Mitloehner, especially in the What I’ve Learned video, is that it’s OK to continue on with business as usual; your choice of whether or not to eat beef will have nearly zero effect on climate change. After all, you’re only one person. World Resources Institute analyst Jessica Zionts puts it this way: “By framing emissions as smaller than sectors like transportation, which [Mitloehner] frequently does, the livestock industry can continue to say, ‘Look how small agricultural emissions are anyway.’ … And by that reasoning, dietary changes won’t make much of a difference to combating climate change.”
The fact that Mitloehner’s research frequently produces pro-meat conclusions is less surprising when we take into account that much of it is funded by the dairy and cattle industries. As Matthew Hayek, a New York University scholar specializing in food production’s relation to climate change, explains it, “Industry influences the types of questions you’re going to ask.” Take for example, a 2019 UC Davis study conducted by one of Mitloehner’s colleagues, Ermias Kebreab, and funded in part by a dairy company. Its findings are quite remarkable — the paper “implies” that “methane emissions could potentially be halved by using seaweed as a feed additive to dairy cattle.” Producing more efficient cows, via seaweed or not, will be a necessary step to curbing emissions. The paper, and Mitloehner’s teachings, though, carry the “implication” that cows are irreplaceable. If one truly was concerned about reducing emissions, why research a compromise on the old method when newer, more effective solutions like plant-based or lab-grown meat are available? Why opt for natural gas instead of solar for energy; why a more fuel-efficient car instead of an electric one? Sure, you’ll be better off smoking this cigarette instead of eating mercury, but it’ll still poison you.
The cigarette analogy doesn’t end there. Scientists who conduct dairy and meat industry-friendly research could arguably be included in the parade of corporate villains in Merchants of Doubt — a 2010 book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The book describes how, for decades, Big Tobacco-funded scientists defrauded the public, playing down health risks and even going so far as to say that cigarettes have health benefits. An article published by UC Davis celebrating the seaweed-cow paper is similar to an unsettling degree. Its penultimate subheading: “Cows as part of the climate change solution.” Focusing mostly on ranchers — and ignoring the fact that 70% of American cows reside in ecologically unsustainable and destructive factory farms — the UC Davis article hails the practice of “maintaining healthy root systems” to help offset the greenhouse gases emitted by cows, a practice that, if adopted en masse, “could sequester 16 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.” I cannot help but think that such a future is as much a pipe dream as Mitloehner’s 10% vegan “what if” scenario.
Speaking of land use, Mitloehner doesn’t. Half of the entire world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. A majority of that space is used to grow feed for livestock, not humans, according to a 2021 paper by two University of Illinois professors, Xiaoming Xu and Atul Jain. Beef production requires a great deal of space and, as a result, farmers have also had to increase their pasture sizes. That’s partially why beef is so environmentally toxic: Bovines are bigger, so they require more space. Unfortunately, farmers make that space by destroying natural woodlands. Again, we see another installment of a pattern environmentalists encounter all too often: If the problem can get worse, it usually does.
According to most estimates, around 20% of the Amazon Rainforest has been razed. In every country that the Amazon covers, 80% of deforestation efforts are to make way for cattle ranching. Scientists estimate there would be an irreversible “tipping point” for the jungle at 20-25% deforestation. In 2021, deforestation in the Amazon reached a 15-year high when the forest lost 5,100 square miles, an area nearly the size of Connecticut. If trends continue, more than 10,000 different plant and animal species could go extinct — a dispiriting death-blow to one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, the so-called lungs of the planet.
The way these forests are cleared, largely by combustion, not only transfers the carbon stored in the trees into the atmosphere, but also transforms former carbon-sink regions into meaty emission factories. The feeding, raising, and production of beef have created an environmentally destructive feedback loop: The more greenhouse gases we release from cut-down forests, the easier it is to emit even more through cows. This is what beef apologists like Mitloehner deliberately overlook: Even if beef’s direct greenhouse gas emission output is negligible, we’re shrinking the “lungs of the earth” to make way for its methane-spouting production.
So, how do we proceed?
Things are going to have to change, obviously. Whether they will or not depends on how much we’re willing to sacrifice. Today, the way we make our meat is not sustainable, no matter how you slice it. “The World Counts” reports that meat consumption has more than doubled in the past 30 years. By 2050, it is expected to double yet again. Enthusiasm for plant-based alternatives, like Impossible or Beyond Meat, is slowing to a crawl. All the while, our planet is set to breach the 1.5 degrees centigrade warming threshold by 2027.
A possible solution may lie in an alternative philosophy. A 2017 book by Brian Kateman started the “Reducetarianist” Movement. Their self-purported mission is a triple-threat: human health, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare by way of a 10% (or more) meat reduction in diets. In addition to the original source text, the Reducetarians have a documentary and book titled “Meat Me Halfway,” a foundation, podcast, fellowship, and cookbook.
Food is tricky, environmentally speaking. Unlike international travel or lighting up the exterior of your house at night, it’s not exactly optional. The dilemma between going hungry or emitting greenhouse gases isn’t a choice, no matter the diet — you’re biologically programmed to choose the food every time. But unlike switching away from a gas-powered vehicle or hopping off the grid by installing solar panels, food is far easier to turn sustainable. It’s simple: Eat less meat.
The Reducetarians present a compromise — a half-solution that both acknowledges the dire need for people to change their diets, while keeping in mind how hard that is. One of their cornerstone studies, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2021, notes how the Reducetarian message can nearly lead to that 10% meat-reduction number. This was most effective among those within the “younger, more liberal, more educated, and lower income” demographic — one that you could say this author generally inhabits. The Reducetarian outreach has proved effective, too. Since moving out of a university residence hall and into my own apartment, I’ve nearly abandoned eating beef altogether, save for the occasional indulgence. What became a twice or thrice weekly meal has been relegated to maybe once a quarter. Reducetarianism’s main focus is on education and communicating its message of a better world, for good reason, too — because the hard data for the 10% meat reduction figure shows little impact.
According to a 2019 study published in Nature, if every single American reduced their meat intake by a quarter, we’d save a little more than 1% of our greenhouse gas output. It is a depressing figure, and one that reminds us of our original conundrum: We inhabit systems where the big, structural decisions are already made for us. Like it or not, our economy runs mostly on fossil fuels, and our culture expects our bodies to run on meat. Wanting to do better, how do we reconcile our limited personal power?
Enter what University of Illinois Nobel Prize-winning Professor Donald Wuebbles has called the most important weapon in our arsenal for fighting climate change: communication. A lot can come about by simply engaging with an issue and voicing our concern, and environmentalists everywhere are echoing a similar message. Grist contributor David Roberts has advised the best way to communicate about climate change is to “Pull up a barstool.” A 2020 paper in Climatic Change argued that the narratives we need today are ones that are “positive and engaging” and “empower people to act.” Author John Green, while managing the construction of a mass-funded hospital in Sierra Leone, often thanks his followers above all for their attention — what he calls everyone’s “central resource.”
The true value of my bungled Year of No Beef was to shape my ability to communicate the problem of beef consumption, and to actively champion the Reducetarian philosophy I embraced out of that failure. The value of our choices, however small, is not in how much carbon is expended, but in how we promote a position that goes against the flow of our structured systems. With our diets, that means trying to eat less meat — but more importantly, keeping on talking with your mouth full.
About the Author …
Gabe Lareau is a senior from Moline, Ill., studying English with a concentration in Literature and Science, and is pursuing a Certificate in Environmental Writing. Gabe also works as a Communications Intern for iSEE, has blogged for Let’s Move Quad Cities, and has successfully advocated for a $30,000 grant for World Bicycle Relief in “The Project for Awesome.” He hopes to join the Peace Corps after graduation.
This article was written for ESE/ENGL 360, a Certificate in Environmental Writing course.