Don’t have a cow

Concerned about climate change? You might want to pass on that burger and consider some stir-fried veggies.

There is no longer any serious debate about climate change: It’s clear that the Earth is getting warmer at an ominous rate, and that the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is speeding the process. A strong majority of Americans—around 75 percent—agree that decisive action is needed to reduce emissions, and most of us know at least some of the steps we can take, from driving more fuel-efficient cars to electing a president who takes climate change seriously. But there is at least one hugely important thing that we, as consumers, can do to help slow climate change that needs a lot more attention in the media: We can eat less meat.

The fact is that livestock production contributes one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases—even more than transportation. This means that change in food-production systems will be essential to any solution, and fortunately, it also means that making even relatively small changes in your diet can have a big impact. Consider: If all Americans reduced meat consumption by 20 percent, it would achieve the same emission reductions as if we all swapped a standard mid-sized car for a hybrid Prius.

How is that possible? It’s because most of the meat we eat today comes to us drenched in fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gases. Unlike traditional farming, where animals basically gather their own food (and scatter their own wastes) while roaming on range or pastureland, animals today are usually confined in feed lots, where food—mostly grain grown with copious amounts of fossil fuels on other industrial farms—is trucked in and waste shipped out. As these mammoth operations have replaced small, local farms, the meat must be shipped over greater distances, requiring even more fossil fuels.

It takes less than one one-hundredth of a gallon of gasoline to produce one 320-calorie meal if you’re having broccoli, eggplant, cauliflower and rice. To produce equivalent calories of beef—about six ounces—it takes 16 times as much fuel. And we Americans don’t settle for six ounces. We’re now eating 200 pounds of beef, poultry and fish per year, which is about 50 pounds more than during the 1950s. This over-consumption is linked to a long list of health concerns, and it’s a contributor to problems including world hunger, deforestation, and, yes, climate change.

The good news is that you don’t need to make a radical change to make a difference. Every pound of beef on your table is responsible for the same amount of greenhouse emissions as driving an average car 70 miles, so when stir-fried veggies or cheese enchiladas are chosen over meatloaf or steak, it’s roughly the equivalent of carpooling to work.

Eating less meat won’t stop global warming, but it will help. It will also probably benefit your health, and you might even find that cheese enchiladas or stir-fried veggies make for a nice change from all that meat. Consider making this change for yourself and your world.