Leading the world consumption of beef with $30bn worth of products, America has set an unsustainable model of alimentation and exploitation of resources. World consumption statistics show a strong and worrying upward trend, with more and more people gaining economic emancipation and access to fat, tasty burgers.
For those unfamiliar with beef production, the process is highly resource-intensive, involving thousands of litres of water for a single burger. The causes for such waste are not industrialisation and inefficient mechanical processes, but the cows themselves. By breeding billions of cattle, mankind has altered the natural equilibrium of species and heavily disrupted environmental stability.
Pollution Is Not The Problem
How much does breeding a cow cost? The pitfall of this question is, if one considers only direct effects, the resulting number will be relatively low. The highest cost in breeding cattle is animal feed, which often consists of cheap soy or other grains.
Nevertheless, externalities are rarely taken into account when analysing the meat industry. Cheap soy certainly does not come down from the sky like rain! A single cow eats tonnes of feed per year, and there are more than 70 billion farm animals in the world. Further, soy cultivation is extremely water-intensive, requiring 450 litres of water for each acre of ploughed soil.
The total acres of land needed for cattle sustainment can be easily calculated. Estimating an average tonne of produce for each acre, we would need 70 thousand billion of land acres to feed the beloved cows. Since the animal population is rapidly growing and soil will get infertile, new land has to be ‘stolen’ from rainforests each year.
Finally, when considering its environmental impact, beef outweighs by far alternative products. For example, compared to the famously unsustainable palm oil, cattle ranches cause six times as much deforestation. Most importantly, cows are the main emitters of methane, and the meat industry is responsible for 53% of total greenhouse gases. Global warming and poisonous emissions depend on people’s culinary habits.
Nutritionally-wise, beef does not prove any benefits to human health. Several Eastern populations have traditionally fed on soy, rice and vegetables and benefited from an equal, if not improved, life expectancy compared to Western people.
Drawbacks of a predominantly meat-oriented diet encompass, among others, moderate chances of developing obesity, diabetes, heart-related diseases and cancer. The worrying consumption rates of 2kg per week and 1.3 kg per week in the US and Europe respectively would lead to severe environmental degradation if adopted globally by emerging countries.
What Does It Take?
Global reports on the beef trade show an alarming trend: since 2010, imports of beef in China have more than doubled. Yet, if methane emissions continue with the current rate, the threshold of greenhouse gases will be soon exceeded and global warming will become exponential and unstoppable. The only way for human salvation might be switching to balanced diets and convert pastures back to forests or cultivated land.
Vegetarian diets could provide food with one-sixth of the land needed for carnivore diets. We currently dispose of sufficient plants to feed the global population, yet we nourish animals rather than humans. Can the world go vegan? Probably not, or not in the immediate term. Nonetheless, the world cannot stay carnivore in the long term. Switching to sustainable diets will require years, if not decades, but one must start now and build awareness of the climatic disruption.
What would happen if the cost of externalities was included in the final price of burgers?