Longhorn and Corriente cattle in a pen. Photo by Chris Stone

Americans love their hamburgers, but do they know the impact they have on the environment? 

The beef industry is not sustainable and is one of the main contributors to climate change. This sector is responsible for a significant amount of emissions of greenhouse gasses, especially methane.

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Cattle need a large area to graze, and deforestation is one of the most destructive human agricultural activities. Because this is such a large and constantly growing industry, mitigating its effects is difficult. 

One of the most significant issues with the beef industry is the methane released into the atmosphere. About 1.5 billion cattle are being raised in the world today and it is estimated that each cow will produce about 220 pounds of methane each year, according to the International Energy Agency,

“Methane has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than CO2…but is a much more potent greenhouse gas, absorbing much more energy while it exists in the atmosphere,” the agency says. An increase in methane from cows will lead to a rise in global temperature and cause irreversible effects.

The United Nations reports that increasing greenhouse gasses will lead to more extreme weather patterns, health risks, and lessened food availability. This is a big problem because as the human population reaches almost 10 billion, the desire to eat beef will also increase. This can only continue to harm our environment more. 

Deforestation is another critical topic to look at when discussing the climate effects of the beef industry. Beef production is responsible for 41% of deforestation worldwide, with the worst occurring in Brazil. According to North Carolina State University, “Between August 2020 and July 2021, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit the highest annual level in 15 years at 5,110 square miles.”

Forests are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon than they produce, but because trees are being cut down at such a high rate, this becomes less relevant. As deforestation continues, more carbon is being released than being absorbed. The main reason is to make more room for cattle to graze and to grow food to feed them.  

While these facts make the situation seem hopeless, it is not. To reduce our individual contribution to emissions, we do not have to make extreme changes. Going vegetarian or vegan is a great way to reduce emissions. But that extreme isn’t necessary as people can lessen their carbon footprint by simply eating less meat.

It can be beneficial even if people reduce their beef consumption to once or twice a week instead of four to five times a week. According to Scientific American, “If every person in the U.S. cut their meat consumption by 25 percent, it would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent.” While this may not seem like a significant change, the more people who do this, the larger the cut of emissions.

A small change by a few people can make a big difference in the fight against climate change for everyone. 

Aliyah Figueroa is a San Diego State University student majoring in sustainability.