On November 8th, 2016 I gave up beef. Here’s why I’m challenging you to do the same.
The 2 facts and 4 point argument I used to convince myself
I love beef. I love the first bite of a medium-rare cheese burger fresh off the grill, juices oozing. I love beef stroganoff so much I cooked it at my own birthday dinner party last year. But on November 8th, 2016 I gave up beef. And I’m asking you to do the same.
To be clear, I am not (and do not intend on becoming) a vegetarian; I still love meat and fish and giving those up is currently beyond my will-power. But I have come to the conclusion that the negative consequences of consuming beef are so large, and the costs of giving it up so low, that I now believe that eating beef is a morally dubious act akin to buying a gas-guzzling pickup truck.
It sounds like a hyperbolic comparison, but lets start with two facts and I'll build my argument from there.
1. Beef is by far the worst mainstream food product for the environment.
I bet you knew that a unit of beef was worse for the environment than an equivalent unit of chicken, pork, or turkey. Maybe you thought it was 30% worse; maybe you even thought it could even be 100% worse. But if you are anything like me, you were probably completely unaware that a serving of beef is between 400% and 600% more polluting than an equivalent serving of chicken.
These are the findings from two independent, peer-reviewed studies:
The methodology of each study is slightly different, but the order of magnitude is the same, and it has been repeated in other studies multiple times: Beef is at least twice as polluting as pork and turkey, and at least four times as bad as chicken, measured in units of CO2 equivalents per unit of produce.
(Yes, lamb is even more polluting, and I’ve given up lamb too, but beef constitutes a much larger proportion of our diets, so that’s my focus).
Per the UMich factsheet, a small serving of beef (4oz is small in my book) produces the same emissions as driving 9.4 miles. Make it a normal sized 10oz filet mignon, and it’s the equivalent of driving nearly 25 miles. Now you see where the pickup truck comparison comes from.
2. Demand for beef is driving deforestation (more than other commodities), and deforestation is really, really bad
As bad as beef is on a standalone basis, it gets worse. Much worse. If today’s global diet was held constant, we would only have to worry about the charts above, but the reality is that global demand for beef is rising. As suppliers seek to meet this demand, it’s exacerbating a problem that is even worse for the environment than agriculture (although clearly they are interconnected): deforestation.
A landmark UN Food and Agricultural Organization study in 2006 estimated that when it comes to climate change, "the livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a higher share than transport." The study goes on to say that "the largest share of [livestock's CO2 emissions] derives from land-use changes - especially deforestation - caused by expansion of pastures and arable land for feedcrops."
According to a more recent study, beef is the primary driver of deforestation globally, but especially in Latin America, where it “was responsible for 71% of total deforestation between 1990 and 2005”. #MoBeefMoProblems.
I recommend reading the article and study in the links above if you are interested in learning more about deforestation.
While I’m sure the above didn’t make for pleasant reading, it is necessary to understand the relative proportions of impact in order to establish a baseline for my argument. Some of you may already be convinced that consumption of beef is morally questionable, but I think it’s more likely that you are shocked but skeptical. Stick with me though — I managed to convince myself to forever give beef up based on the following 4 arguments:
Giving up beef is a zero-cost change to a more sustainable life, with immediate impact: The fight against climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge in the 21st Century, but sustainable living often comes at great expense — installing solar panels can be expensive, sourcing locally farmed organic produce is expensive, and driving an electric car can be expensive. Giving up beef, however, is free! In fact, if you live in a city where you can take public transport or cycle to work, I’d go so far as to argue that giving up beef is the best possible single change you can make to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The next time you choose a Chicken Shack instead of a Shack Stack, or a carnitas bowl instead of a steak bowl at Chipotle, you can savor that delicious dish knowing that it you could eat it 2 or 3 more times before you’d have had the same impact as the beef alternative.
Giving up beef is free, and it’s immediate — and as a result it is a lifestyle change that can be easily adopted by others, potentially multiplying your impact. We all (consciously or unconsciously) pay attention to what trends our peers are establishing, and by giving up beef rather than just saying you’ll eat less of it, you are establishing that characteristic as a part of who you are. People will notice.
The 80/20 rule: I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule — the idea that you can get the majority of the benefit of a particular goal or challenge with just a fraction of the effort — and giving up beef is a perfect example. While vegetarians can justifiably argue that their lifestyle choices are more sustainable than mine or yours, it comes at a great cost (How many restaurants offer 5 or 6 entrees but only 1 vegetarian option). Fortunately for those of us who want to make a difference (albeit unfortunate for the planet), beef is so much worse for the environment that by giving up beef you achieve most of the environmental benefits of becoming a vegetarian without actually having to become one.
Substituting beef has never been easier: Steak and burgers are staples of the American diet, and for many American restaurants these are the dishes that can make or break their reputation. Fortunately, the rise of two concurrent trends makes it easier to give up beef than ever before: the widespread use of chicken and pork in innovative New American dishes instead of beef, and the more nascent emergence of viable beef substitutes. It wasn’t long ago that chicken and pork were considered inferior ingredients to beef (and luxurious seafoods) in the world of fine dining, but that’s all changed today. Read this delectable Pete Wells review of the whole roast chicken for two at the NoMad, and it is clear that chicken can compete with the best beef dishes in the world (the review ends by saying, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the chef Daniel Humm made chicken breast sexy again in the year 2012”). And just think about how often your mouth waters upon reading a menu with a pork belly dish, an ingredient that has only become mainstream in the past 5 or 6 years.
We are also on the verge of having beef substitutes that are just as good as the real thing. Today’s veggie burgers have come a long way from the “mushy and maligned” veggie burgers of yore, as the NYTimes chronicles, with decorated chefs taking on the challenge of creating a burger worthy as a standalone dish in it’s own right. But it is the companies attempting to replicate an authentic beef burger with plant-based ingredients that interest me more. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have independently developed burgers that look, smell and (so I am told) taste like a burger. That delicious picture of burgers at the top of the page? That’s the Impossible Burger. Check it out at Momofuku Nishi or Public in NYC.
It's worse for you as well as the environment: I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t really why I gave up beef, but when debating whether I could give up beef it did help to acknowledge that there is a clear health benefit to eating less red meat.
So that’s it. Beef isn’t good for you or the environment, and giving it up is easier than ever (and much easier than becoming a vegetarian).
If you’ve made it this far, I want you to set yourself a personal challenge: Give up beef for one month. I think you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to give up — I know I was. If you want to get really corny (but also to help hold yourself accountable and multiply your impact), share this article on FB/Twitter with the hashtag #MoBeefMoProblems.
I am no health expert, environmental scientist or moral crusader. I’m just a guy who was shocked at the relative magnitude of beef’s impact vs. other meats, and am shocked at how easy it has been to give up. I love beef, but when I think about my personal impact on the world, giving it up was a no-brainer. I hope you’ll join me.
Ross Garlick — beef-free for 105 days and counting.