How Much Beef is Too Much for the Climate?

When you think about tackling climate change, solar panels and wind turbines might come to mind, but not necessarily the food you put on your plate. Researchers at the World Resources Institute (WRI) released a report this week detailing a five-course menu of solutions for a sustainable food system. The report contains several recommendations for increasing food supplies while halting deforestation and keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C (3.6°F). Of these recommendations, reducing beef consumption is one of the biggest levers for achieving a sustainable food future.

Ruminants such as beef, lamb and goat have the highest resource requirements of any of the foods we eat. Producing beef uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the carbon as producing beans, per gram of protein. And the report projects an 88 percent increase in ruminant meat consumption between 2010 and 2050.

So how much beef is too much for the climate?

The authors modeled a scenario limiting ruminant meat consumption to 52 calories per person per day by 2050—the equivalent of 1.5 servings (or 1.5 burgers) per person per week—and shifting instead toward plant-based proteins. Americans currently eat about three servings of ruminants a week. In Brazil, average ruminant meat consumption is about 4.5 servings per week.

The environmental benefits of limiting beef consumption are enormous. According to the WRI report, reducing ruminant meat consumption in high-consuming countries to 1.5 servings a week would nearly eliminate the need for additional land for food production in 2050, avoiding hundreds of millions of hectares of deforestation. It would also close half of the gap between likely agricultural emissions in 2050 and the level need to hold warming below 2oC.

Such a scenario would still allow burgeoning economies to increase meat consumption above today’s levels, with global ruminant meat consumption rising by 32 percent instead of 88 percent. In some poorer countries, there is limited access to any meat, so report authors are not advocating that everyone should cut out beef entirely. The map below shows data on ruminant meat consumption in 2010 from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The countries in dark red eat more than 100 calories of ruminant meat a day, which is three servings a week or more.

Beyond reducing beef consumption in high-consuming nations, large opportunities exist to reduce emissions from beef production by boosting productivity on existing pastureland in the tropics and reducing emissions from enteric methane (cow burps) and animal wastes. Without any diet shifts, even larger agricultural emissions reductions would be necessary.

Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges, according to Janet Ranganathan, vice president of Science and Research at WRI and co-author of the report. Creating a sustainable food future will require a menu of solutions, but limiting your burger intake can have a massive impact.

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