Last week, rumors swirled that President Joe BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE had proposed a ban on burgers. The claims, first reported by UK tabloid The Daily Mail, led to audible gasps of outcry and sent many a meat lover on the defense.
By now, news reports have surfaced the real story — Biden did not actually propose a plan to make Americans cut their beef intake in an effort to curb climate change. But, should he? What if that’s exactly what we need to save America and our world from the destructive perils of climate change? Even though Biden may not be encouraging us to cut beef, consider the mounting, emergent, and scientifically-grounded reasons for why we should do it anyway.
The burger-banishing claims we heard last week were deciphered from a 2020 study, conducted by the University of Michigan and Tulane University, which suggested that if beef consumption was reduced by 90 percent in the U.S., and other animal products were reduced by 50 percent, over 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) could be prevented from entering the atmosphere.
The idea checks out — considering that globally, animal agriculture produces between 15–51 percent of all greenhouse emissions (37 percent is considered a reasonable estimate). Even at that lowest estimate, if animal agriculture contributes just 15 percent of all GHG emissions, it still equates to a greater climate impact than all modes of transportation combined. And it’s not only air that’s impacted by animal agriculture. Roughly a quarter of the global supply of freshwater — an increasingly scarce resource — is used to produce meat and dairy. To paint an even clearer picture, a one quarter-pound beef hamburger requires an incomprehensible 425 gallons of water — just to produce the beef in this burger.
Animal agriculture is also one of the worst polluters of our waterways. For example, one mid-sized dairy farm with 200 cows can produce approximately 24,000 pounds of manure every day. The state of North Carolina alone produces nearly 10 billion gallons of animal waste per year. Where does all that waste go? To start, it leaks into groundwater, which creates disastrous amounts of pollutants in our water systems, killing wildlife and altering ecosystems.
Recent estimates project that more than 1,000 species will lose at least a quarter of their habitats by 2050 if meat consumption continues unabated. Currently, almost a third of all documented biodiversity loss is as of a result of animal agriculture. This is not only due to environmental degradation, but also mass deforestation. The massive amount of space required to farm and feed livestock animals has led to the destruction of whole wild ecosystems. Currently, we are using around 77-83 percent of all farmable land on earth to raise and feed farmed animals, all while producing only 18 percent of the world’s calories. This is particularly shocking when you consider that close to 99 percent of all animals raised for food in the U.S. are not freely roaming open pastures but are instead living in confined conditions on factory farms.
The ethical aspect can also not be ignored. Cutting back beef consumption in the U.S. by 90 percent would effectively prevent the breeding, farming, and brutal slaughtering of around 30 million animals every year — all for a food that is relatively easy to replace.
As the market for plant-based meat alternatives unarguably booms, with sales of plant-based meat growing by 45 percent from 2019-2020, a viable alternative to the all-American beef burger is increasingly within reach. From supermarket aisles to fast food restaurants like Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Subway, plant-based burgers are becoming increasingly commonplace. These products are made from plants — boasting dramatically lower carbon footprints.
So why wait for Biden, or any person of political power, to tell us it’s time to cut back on burgers to save the planet? The reasons are clear, and the consequences of not doing so appear dire. It’s clear we don’t have time to wait for someone to force food off our plates in place of something better. It’s up to us. One burger, and one bite, at a time.
Jennifer Barckley, is the vice president of communications at The Humane League.