Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.”
RALEIGH – Is there any big thing that humanity can do today, right now, that could have a significant impact on Earth’s climate change problem? We are looking for a relatively inexpensive, relatively easy thing to do that would move the climate change needle in a positive direction. We want to lower greenhouse gas emissions in some important way that is fast, relatively painless, and that won’t derail the economy.
To understand how difficult this goal can be, let’s first look at a negative example – something that is the opposite of quick-and-easy. What if we said, “We are going to replace all of the gasoline-powered cars, SUVs and pickup trucks in America (all 270 million of them) with electric vehicles next year.” This would be great if we could do it. Assuming the electricity to recharge all these new EVs comes from clean sources like solar and wind, it would eliminate something like a gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions per year if we stopped burning gasoline in cars in the US
The problem with this idea is that it isn’t really quick or easy. We need to manufacture 270 million new electric cars, and the billions of new batteries needed for these cars. This will take many years. If each car costs $35,000 then we are talking about roughly $10 trillion to pay for them. This is a lot of money. Then we need to redo the power grid to move that much electricity around, and we need to generate all that new electricity cleanly. You get the idea: it’s definitely not quick-and-easy. We can and should do it, but it will take 10 or 20 years.
So the question is, is there anything that humanity can do relatively quickly and relatively easily to significantly reduce emissions? And here is something to consider – a positive example that humanity could actually pull off. What if we banned beef cattle worldwide starting today?
Why ban beef cattle?
Epicurious.com famously banned all new beef recipes on its popular recipe site because of all the environmental problems created by beef. When they announced the ban, they noted these facts:
“Almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock (and everything involved in raising it); 61 percent of those emissions can be traced back to beef. Cows are 20 times less efficient to raise than beans and roughly three times less efficient than poultry and pork.”
In other words, we could drop global greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 10% – a gigantic drop – if we ban beef. Even if we replace all that beef with chicken, it would still be a huge win. And this is an important point: this proposal is not asking anyone to become vegetarian or to stop eating meat. The proposal here is that humanity stops eating just a single type of meat: beef from cattle.
Why beef specifically? There are at least four good reasons to ban beef:
- Beef cattle are an inefficient way to create meat compared to something like chicken or fish. Therefore, cattle can consume the huge amount of feed per pound of meat produced compared to the alternatives. We will explore how inefficient beef is in a moment.
- A large percentage of the feed for all these inefficient beef cattle, especially Chinese beef, is coming by burning down the Amazon rainforest and converting the rainforest into agricultural fields.
- Beef cattle also consume a large amount of fresh water during their lives.
- Beef cattle and their manure can produce a huge amount of methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 25X more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
Let’s look at these one-by-one points.
Problem #1 with Beef and Dairy – Cattle eat a lot
First let’s understand that there is a surprisingly huge number of cattle here on planet earth. Altogether, there are about a billion head of cattle on Earth on any given day. That’s roughly one head of cattle per eight people. And since cattle weigh a lot more than people, by weight cattle and people are approximately equal on planet Earth.
We raise all these cattle primarily so that we can eat them. Here are some surprising cattle facts:
- It takes a long time – 18 to 24 months – for cattle to grow from calf to market weight.
- It can take 5,000+ pounds of grain in a feedlot to reach market weight.
- Typical cattle weigh 1,300 to 1,500 pounds when slaughtered.
- This yields an 800 to 900 pound carcass, and the carcass yields 500-ish pounds of actual beef that people eat.
- Cattle eat 10 to 11 pounds of grains per pound of beef we eat.
For comparison, a chicken uses far less feed to create a pound of meat. Perhaps a third or a quarter of that. Why? Because it only takes a chicken 8 to 10 weeks to reach market weight. One reason: Cattle are warm-blooded animals, and they therefore burn calories to stay warm. Cattle needlessly burn a lot more calories (and therefore feed) during their relatively long lives compared to chickens. Fish are even more efficient at converting feed to meat because fish are cold-blooded.
There is such a thing as grass-fed beef, yes, but the large majority of US cattle are raised in feedlots on grain. Why? Because it takes a lot of pasture to feed cattle, perhaps one acre of pasture per animal depending on pasture quality. And then the grass-fed beef tastes funny to the average consumer, so grass-fed beef are typically finished with lots of grain anyway to improve the taste. As we will see in a moment, a great deal of the beef produced in Brazil is grass-fed, and this grass is being created by burning down the rainforest.
Because cattle are so inefficient at converting feed to meat, it takes a gigantic amount of grain or grass (and therefore agricultural land) to keep a billion cattle alive. If this grain were instead feeding humans or much more efficient meat animals, it is a huge win.
Problem #2 with Beef – Humanity is burning down the Amazon Rainforest for beef
One of the big problems with beef is that it drives the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. According to this article:
“Understanding how Brazil’s beef industry and rainforest destruction are inextricably intertwined reveals a truth that JBS doesn’t acknowledge: As the region’s biggest beef producer, its supply chain is also among the biggest drivers of Amazon deforestation the world has ever known. While marketing itself as a friend of the environment, JBS has snapped up more cattle coming out of the Amazon than any other meatpacker in an industry that’s overwhelmingly to blame for the rainforest’s demise. It has helped push the world’s largest rainforest to a tipping point at which it’s no longer able to clean the Earth’s air, because large swaths now emit more carbon than they absorb.”
There is so much grain now being produced in the Amazon rainforest that China and Brazil want to build a new railroad for the grain. This will only speed up the collapse of the rainforest, which will have a gigantic negative effect on the entire planet. A video like this one can help you understand the problem:
Problem #3 with beef – Cattle produces a huge amount of methane
As mentioned above, methane is an extreme greenhouse gas that is 25X more potent that carbon dioxide at warming the planet. Unfortunately, cattle produce large amounts of methane through farting and burping because they are ruminants. Cow manure can also produce methane as it decomposes.
Because there are a billion+ cattle on our planet, and because these cattle fart and burp a lot, the amount of methane that cattle produce adds up. Cattle-produced methane as greenhouse gas is roughly equivalent to all of the carbon dioxide produced by the world’s transportation sector. Therefore, if we banned beef and eliminated all the cattle on the planet, it would be approximately the same effect as completely electricfying all of the cars, trucks, boats, trains and planes on the planet. And while electrifying everything would realistically take a couple of decades, we could eliminate all of the cattle on Earth in a couple of years.
What would a global beef ban look like?
Could we get the world to ban beef? Of course we could.
The world banned whaling – See the International Whaling Commission.
The world banned chlorofluorocarbons before CFCs destroyed the ozone layer – See the Montreal Protocol.
Banning beef worldwide in order to cut humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly should be easy to do because it would be such a huge win.
The best part is that all the cattle would be gone in a couple of years. We would block the birth of new cattle, and then humanity would eat one billion cattle. What could be easier?
The benefits of a beef ban would be profound. Here are the big three benefits:
- The huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
- A huge reduction in destructive pressure on the Amazon Rainforest
- A huge reduction in the amount of agricultural land needed to grow human food.
The arrival of factory grown meats is upon us
And there is one more piece of good news. Right now, at this particular moment in history, humanity stands right on the cusp of new technologies for producing meat. Meat substitutes can be made from plants – see for example Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – or actual meat can now be grown from animal cells in meat factories. Bioreactor beef is one name for it.
The first of these large-scale meat factories was announced last week by the company Good Meats. Imagine a single facility that can produce 20 million pounds of meat per year using bioreactors. Then imagine dozens of companies and facilities doing the same thing. With investment and incentives we really could speed up this process and all our beef would soon be grown in bioreactors instead of feedlots. See this article (https://interestingengineering.com/worlds-largest-cultivated-meat-facility) and this video for details.
Here is the bad news: Traditional agriculturally produced beef is terrible for planet Earth. The traditional beef industry produces about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes a huge amount of agricultural land. In addition, beef is helping to destroy the Amazon Rainforest.
Here is the first piece of good news: It would be easy for humanity to ban traditional beef. In a couple of years humans would eat all the planet’s cattle. Human greenhouse gas emissions could quickly drop by 10% in the process.
Here is the second piece of good news: Humanity stands right on the cusp of replacing traditional beef with bioreactor beef, and it could be a relatively quick and easy transition given proper government support/acceleration. We might not even notice that traditional cattle are gone.
The only question is: Can humanity do the right thing here? Or will we instead wait for decades, bickering and quibbling all the way, to make the transition away from traditional beef while the planet heats up and the rainforests burn?
More from Marshall Brain:
Humans are destroying all the fish in the ocean – here’s how
Geoengineering could be key to combating climate change – check out these ideas