Eliminating beef could halve farmland use

Treehugger has always written about meat issues, we’ve offered vegetarian and vegan diets for years as a way to reduce our carbon footprint, and we continue to write about reducing our meat consumption. But it’s a hard sell; as Bill Gates writes in his new book,

“I can see the appeal of that argument, but I don’t think it’s realistic. On the one hand, meat plays too big a role in human culture. In many parts of the world, even where it’s is rare, eating meat is a crucial part of celebrations and festivities. In France, the gastronomic meal – including starter, meat or fish, cheese and dessert – is officially listed as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. .

A new data dump from the Our World In Data gang gives a different graphical perspective. Hannah Ritchie titles her report “If the world adopted a plant-based diet, we would reduce global agricultural land use from 4 to 1 billion hectares, a reduction of 75%”, but as Bill Gates notes , this is exaggerated for many people .

Our world in data

In terms of land use, beef and lamb take up a huge amount of land, 2.89 billion hectares for pasture and then 43% of cropland for animal feed production.Inasmuch asIf everyone goes vegan, global land use for agriculture drops from 4.14 billion hectares to just 1 billion.Inasmuch asBut as Gates and most of our readers will recognize, that’s not going to happen.

Our world in data

Where it gets interesting is when you look at what happens when you ditch most of the beef and mutton, but milk, cheese, and the occasional burger from Elsie and dairy cows remain on the menu. Land use drops dramatically, to just over half. Ditch the dairy and the burger, but still keep the chicken and the pork, and it drops by half again.Inasmuch asFrom a land use perspective, it’s only slightly different to going fully vegan.

Our world in data

This is because cows are extremely inefficient converters of their food into protein. As Ritchie notes:

“Beef has an energy efficiency of around 2%. This means that for every 100 kilocalories you feed a cow, you only get 2 kilocalories back from beef. In general, we see cows being the least efficient, followed by l “lamb, pigs then poultry. As a general rule: small animals are more efficient. That’s why chicken and fish tend to have a lower environmental impact.”

Treehugger is full of posts about the problems of industrial production of chickens and pigs, and dairy products aren’t exactly benign. But going vegan is hard, and a lot of people can’t do it, don’t want to do it, or don’t have the discipline for it, including me.

But while trying to live a 1.5 degree diet where I try to reduce my carbon emissions to less than 2.5 tonnes per year, I had very little difficulty following a diet where we eat much less meat in general and almost no beef. It’s not that difficult at all. And as Ritchie concludes, “it would free up billions of hectares for the return of natural vegetation, forests and ecosystems.” We get two for the price of one: less methane emissions from cows and more trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Our world in data

My colleague Katherine Martinko has talked about this before, cutting down instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, eating less meat and being reductionist. I wonder if, in the climate crisis, it is not better to choose our goals carefully and to be strict climatologists, eliminating red meat, shrimp and greenhouse tomatoes, and consuming moderate amounts of other foods which aren’t that bad from a strictly carbon footprint perspective.Inasmuch asI’m sure ethical vegans will have something to say about this, but it’s a good place to start.

Amalia H. Mercado