Cow Threat

“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”

Originally Published: 18 May 2017 By: Emma Howlett

Why is it happening ?

This quote from Professor Tim Benton at the University of Leeds points to the vast environmental impact of the agricultural industry; it is the second biggest global contributor to global warming and must be reduced in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. According to the UN, the global livestock sector produces 285 million tons of meat per year, and accounts for a dramatic 51% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced. However, a U.S. study found that it is beef in particular that bears the largest environmental footprint. Its production reportedly requires 28 times more land and creates five times more climate-warming emissions than pork or chicken. Staggeringly, nearly half of all the water used in the US is for raising livestock, and to produce just one pound of beef, 1,799 gallons of water are needed, which is over three times that for pork. Currently, 30% of the world’s land mass is used for growing feed and grazing livestock, with detrimental effects such as deforestation and depopulation. As the demand for beef in both developed and developing countries increases, the escalating population of cows on our planet will create irreversible environmental destruction.

Why does it matter?

It is the huge scale of beef production that makes its environmental impact so proportionately massive. The UN projects the global human population to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 — therefore it is also set to rise accordingly. And as the demand for beef in both developed and developing countries increases, the escalating population of cows on our planet will create irreversible environmental degradation unless we take immediate and individual action. For both humanitarian and environmental reasons, this problem matters: researchers at Cornell University argue that 800 million people could be fed with the grain that the US feed livestock, and in the UK we apparently throw away 570,000 tonnes of fresh meat every year. This is not sustainable or morally correct. Moreover, it is impossible to justify that 80% of the world’s hungry children live in countries with food surpluses that are fed to animals kept for consumption by the affluent. The impact of beef production, in destroying the environment and depriving humans of basic nourishment, gives an imperative to reduce it

What can you do about it?

As a response to this issue, one can adopted a vegan diet, but this is not necessary or the only way to make a significant impact. Although the spreading of vegetarianism has been estimated to cut food-related emissions by 63%, even the smallest attempt to reduce the amount of beef one eats, along with other meat and dairy, can make a huge positive environmental impact. In fact, the average British person eats 2–3 times more meat than is good for them, so there are additional health benefits too.

The first priority is to fully understand the problem. Millennials can read Viva’s account on why eating meat is a major cause of world hunger and watch the ‘Cowspiracy: the sustainability secret’ found currently on Netflix to explore this problem further. The investigation of alternatives and new approaches to the use of animal products is also essential when looking to future developments, such as the innovations of Andras Forgacs in his TED talk ‘Leather and meat without killing animals’. This needs to be taken further past individual action to the level of governments and global organisations. Lobbying for a price reform to reflect environmental costs and an emphasis on sustainability needs support, just like non-for-profits such as the Environmental Working Group who advocate awareness and action in this area.

Image Credit: Impacting Our Future


Emma Howlett briefs from Oxford, UK. She is a candidate for a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient and Modern History.