Why Eating Beef is Bad for the Environment

Omair Ali

Perspectives Editor

When people think about the environment, they usually think of fossil fuels, plastic pollution, and excessive water usage. But people are not aware of the whole spectrum of issues that make up human-driven environmental malice. For instance, many people do not understand the direct impact of the cattle industry on the environment.

How Cattle Farming is Bad for the Environment

One of the most significant contributions of cattle farming to the environment is greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, the Global Methane Initiative reported that 29% of global methane emissions came from enteric fermentation, more than all fossil fuels combined. Enteric fermentation is a digestive process that takes place inside several livestock animals, but cattle constitute most of the global methane emissions due to enteric fermentation. The rumen, a compartment in the cattle stomach, is where microorganisms known as “methanogens” conduct enteric fermentation, a process that converts carbon dioxide into methane. Consequently, cattle would belch this methane, which would allow methane to escape into the atmosphere and behave as a greenhouse gas for several years.

Cattle farming is also an absurdly inefficient use of water. Per the Water Footprint Network, the average global water footprint of beef is approximately 1851 gallons of water per pound of beef produced, which is far more than any other crop or livestock. To put this figure into context, consider we are advised to drink eight cups of water a day, which amounts to only 182.5 gallons a year.

A third environmental dilemma created by cattle farming is nitrate leeching. Cattle excretions contain nitrogen-based molecules like nitrate, which can end up in bodies of water. When there is a high concentration of nitrates in water, it can lead to a process known as eutrophication, which would induce algal blooms. Algal blooms are bad for the environment because they readily devastate aquatic ecosystems.

Conflicting Consumer Attitudes Between Beef Consumption and Environmental Conservation

Based on recent Gallup polls, there is no doubt that an increasing number of Americans are supporting environmental stewardship.  But, given the colossal size of the beef cattle industry, which is comprised of dozens of millions of cattle, it is more than likely that most meat-eating Americans would be unwilling to replace beef in their diet for the sake of the environment.

These conflicting views, embodied by the American public persona, presents an ambiguity moving forward: Should Americans fully commit themselves to preserving the environment, or should Americans only do what they think is most convenient? The latter appears to be the predominant approach as very little has been done so far by the public to call for restrictions on beef production and consumption.

But, at the very least, Americans ought to be aware of the decisions they make—no matter how “indirect” they might seem. Next time Americans are concerned with drought-induced water shortages in various regions of the country, they should also keep their personal beef consumption in mind to see how they are aggravating drought-like conditions. When Americans fear the anticipated effects of anthropogenic climate change, such as rising sea levels, they should keep track of their carbon footprint related to beef consumption as well.

With recent events calling for a larger role of science in politics and the public sphere, I hope that more people will be encouraged to become cognizant of their decisions; especially choices like beef consumption that will continue to worsen the environment.