Why Cows Are the 800 Lb. Gorillas of Climate Change

Want to help the environment? Cut meat out of your diet.

Photo Credit: Charles Henry/

The impact of climate change has some people turning to walking more and driving less. But the reality is that simply by eating less beef, you could have an even greater impact in the fight against global warming.

A recent report from the Guardian states that, “The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.”

The reality is that agriculture has one of the most devastating impacts on global warming and accounts for 15% of all emissions. But livestock in particular plays the largest role accounting for half of the emissions.

Professor Gidon Eschel of Bard College in New York notes that part of the problem is government subsidies, which favor a meat-eating diet. "Remove the artificial support given to livestock industry and rising prices will do the rest. In that way you are having less government intervention in people's diets and not more," Eschel told the Guardian.

Professor Tim Benton at the University of Leeds agreed. "The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less meat," he said.

Eschel published his findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The beef industry, he discovered, is the worst environmental offender, and grass-fed cattle have as great as impact as grain-fed beef. Not only does beef require more feed than pigs or chickens, but, "Only a minute fraction of the food consumed by cattle goes into the bloodstream, so the bulk of the energy is lost."

Next time you consider buying an ultra-efficient car, why not just skip the hamburger instead?

Clarissa A. Leon is AlterNet's food editor. She formerly served as an investigative research assistant at The Daily Beast and The Nation Institute. 

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