My beef with Beef

Giving up beef reduces your carbon footprint more than giving up your car. This month is about why I’ve switched to keeping my beef consumption rare

In the famous Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger of two sons demands his inheritance before his father dies. This foolish son then takes and squanders his wealth in a foreign land. Later, starving and alone, realising his folly he returns to his Father, who, is an act of extravagant love throws him a massive welcome home party. His older brother, understandably pissed by his sibling’s reckless behaviour, storms out with the complaint:

“You never gave me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

Moral of the story? Don’t deny a righteous brother his steak.

Yet last year it happened that, as the song goes, “on top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese, I lost my poor meatball” … and not because somebody sneezed… because I realised it was bringing about the destruction of our planet.

OK, I’m being facetious, my one little meatball did not by itself cause global warming, but I have learnt it causes significantly more harm than I realised.

How did I discover this? It started when my cousin become vegan because of Leonardo DiCaprio. Or more specifically, his movie Cowspiracy, the 2014 documentary film about the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

I was curious. And as I watched it I became 12 again, as Leo beckoned me into a world of nigh-apocalyptic terror. But this time, I was Kate Winslet who wouldn’t budge over on the floating raft and let poor Jack not get hypothermia (there was space!!). Some of the stats in the film were inflammatory (the claim that animal agriculture causes 51% of greenhouse gas emissions was amended later), but the film was my gateway drug. It provoked me to ask better questions about my choices as a consumer.

Maybe if we eat less beef there will be less destruction for everyone

Since then I’ve learnt that animal agriculture, more specifically our huge consumption of animal products, has a lot to answer for. It’s a huge contributor to many of the major environmental issues we’re facing, accounting for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s 5% more than all global transport (air, rail, boat, road) combined. But critically, it releases significantly more methane, a gas that is 25–100 times more destructive than CO2 on a 20 year time frame.

And beef? Beef is the worst. Pound for pound beef causes 5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than all other categories of meat.

It uses more water, compared with its next worse offender pork, more than 3x more water contributing to a frightening trend of desertification, species extinction and water pollution.

I felt like it was time to budge over on the raft.

So I’ve tried to significantly cut down my meat consumption, to treat it like a treat. Since Christmas I’ve eaten beef 6 times (3 of those in the same holiday week, yes, I still love a BBQ burger). At home, we’ve replaced beef mince for lentils in Bolognese (or sometimes lamb, which, as our righteous brother experiences, has a significantly lower carbon and water footprint), grilled aubergine for grilled steak and chickpeas for chicken in curries. It’s been, on the whole, really good. We both lost about 4kg switching to a more plant based diet and the food shop is cheaper.

I don’t know if I, or my husband and our extended family, are ready for me to go fully plant based. But as giving up beef is better than giving up cars for my pollution footprint, this first step is well worth pursuing.