Death to cheeseburgers? Maybe not


If you're concerned about the effect your food choices have on the environment, you might want to reconsider cheeseburgers. A recent study shows that beef and milk products are the world's most polluting foods, thanks to the greenhouse gases released by cows. 

Meanwhile, in what has to be awkward news for locavores, the study, reported by the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology, also found that eating locally offers few benefits in terms of preventing greenhouse gases.

Crunching numbers from the U.S. departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Transportation, a Carnegie Mellon University research team calculated that shipping food from where it was produced to where it's finally consumed creates only 4 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Producing the food accounts for 83 percent.

So if you're serious about combating climate change with your eating habits, you need to make your decisions where they count. Locally purchased veggies, for example, have a larger impact on reducing greenhouse emissions than the local purchase of any other type of food, according to the study.

The production of cattle, on the other hand, creates so much greenhouse gas that the delivery from meat packer to consumer makes barely a dent in the cow's greenhouse-gas hoof print. Much carbon gets burned in the raising and shipping of cattle feed and in moving cows around during production. And even the grass-fed cow next door produces methane -- one of the worst greenhouse gases -- as a metabolic byproduct. 

The researchers calculated that if one were to eat 100 percent locally, a feat that's probably rare, it would save roughly the equivalent of one cheeseburger per week's worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the statistical averages suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from food transport are relatively small compared to the emissions caused by production, those numbers don't reveal that today's average production and consumption practices are much more polluting than they need to be. Meanwhile, the people who are developing, using and supporting less destructive farming practices weren't statistically significant enough to be included in this study, acknowledged lead researcher Chris Weber.

"The subset that gardens or buys food at farmers' markets is too small," he says.

If locavores and their ilk are too few to be statistically significant, it suggests that all the conscious eating that some people are trying to do won't do a lick of global good as long as everybody else is popping cheeseburgers like Prozac. Nonetheless, I prefer drinking the Kool-Aid of local, sustainable farming. Nobody has proven it makes no difference, and I think that aiming for a carbon-neutral diet has plenty of perks.

Reducing your intake of "average" cheeseburgers can't hurt your survival odds. Meanwhile, the above-average vegetables and grass-fed beef that are being produced with care by your local farmer offers, in my experience, above-average flavor. And getting your food from the source can offer a super-sized serving of fun.

At the farmers' market last week, for example, a rancher named Ernie told me about a blind steer he couldn't herd into his coral for slaughter, so the inspector and the butcher had to go into the pasture to inspect and kill it. "It's the best way," Ernie said. "I wish we could do it that way every time." Only under special circumstances, like with blind animals, is a field inspection permitted. "It's peaceful, there's no adrenaline; the meat's a lot better." 

I bought a rib-eye steak off of Ernie's blind steer. Then Ernie got going about how yellow his butter is these days, thanks, he believes, to the dandelion-rich diet of his dairy cows. At that point, I noticed Ernie's feta, which reminded me that I have a patch of spinach that needs to be harvested.

Ernie's blind cow, thinly sliced and fried with yellow onions, Philly-style, was spectacular. Ernie's yellow butter was so good I ate it plain, like cheese. And my spinach-feta salad, with red onions, was perfect.

The world has too many cows. But maybe, for special occasions, it's okay to have a few of our tasty bovine friends around -- especially if you're a fan of organic agriculture, which uses manure as fertilizer. As my farmer friend Steve once pointed out: "Somebody has to make that s---."

If we reduce the quantity but increase the quality of the beef and milk products we eat, then we'll eat better and perhaps live longer, while having more fun. And if there are enough of us, we'll probably leave a better planet behind us.

Ari Levaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a food writer in Missoula, Montana.

Anonymous says:
Aug 12, 2008 10:20 AM
Any ruminate animal in the world gives off methane gas as a by-product of their 4 compartment stomach process. That means for thousands of years, the buffalo across North America released methane gas as they grazed the prairies. Deer, moose and elk continue to do it today. Let's not put blame on cattle for our greenhouse problems. Ruminating animals (any with a cloven hoof), have been around much longer then our automobiles have or anything else mechanical that we use to create energy.
Cattle use green vegetation and turn it into a food source for the rest of the world very efficiently. We should be thankful we have this food source in the United States. Other countries aren't as lucky.
Anonymous says:
Aug 13, 2008 09:48 AM
Luck has very little to do with our self-inflicted ecological problems. The chain of causation is clear: industrial cattle production destroys valuable topsoil, pollutes our atmosphere, and poisons watersheds. Industrial corn production, much of it used for cattle feed, is creates a gigantic, ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River empties into it like the world's largest sewer pipe. Humans bear the ultimate responsibility for this ecological holocaust.

As for other countries, if Brazil continues to be as "lucky" as the United States in terms of cattle production, there won't be any biodiverse rainforest left in the Amazon Basin. I wonder how lucky we'll all feel then?
Anonymous says:
Aug 18, 2008 01:58 AM
I don't know that I can concur with Becky's comment about cattle being efficient, "Cattle use green vegetation and turn it into a food source for the rest of the world very efficiently." What happened to the logic of eating lower on the food chain? No animals are particularly efficient in their energy conversion of food, that's why food webs have limited trophic levels. I'm also wondering how many ruminants were on the planet prior to human agriculture compared to the number here now as a result reducing wildlife while increasing livestock. There's much info to consider and points to be made but eating locally and eating lower on the food chain certainly can't hurt.
Anonymous says:
Aug 13, 2008 09:48 AM
The Chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recently stated that for every person who stops eating meat the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to taking an SUV off the road. That's pretty significant. Multiply that reduction by several million and you're making a significant reduction in the mega-tonnage of CO2 and methane dumped into our atmosphere annually.

Why in the heck is "not eating meat" still considered to be a radical position? I stopped eating meat 22 years ago because I don't like killing animals and don't want to pay other people to kill animals for me in some mechanical-industrial hell. I love food and drink in general and I'm at least as healthy as my omnivorous friends. It's really not difficult to be vegetarian. Most people like animals and don't like global warming. So what's the deal? Why aren't there a lot more vegetarians?
Anonymous says:
Aug 18, 2008 01:59 AM
I couldn't agree with you more-

I think for the meat eaters (only my opinion as I haven't been one for 18 years) quitting meat completely involves admitting there is something wrong with it in the first place. People are so tightly bound up in the ideas instilled in them by parents and peers, giving them up can be tantamount to giving up family and friends. People are more afraid of not fitting in than they are of causing irreparable damage to the planet. doesn't say much for the 'superiority' of the human race, does it? Alex
Anonymous says:
Aug 18, 2008 01:59 AM
"every person who stops eating meat the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to taking an SUV off the road. That's pretty significant."

Except it's really not. SUVs are not the problem when it comes to greenhouse gases - or, they are, but they're such a small part of the problem that focusing on them is absurd. And so with animals; cows are responsible for perhaps a few percent of the warming trend. Power generation, global commodities transportation, and the inefficiency of our buildings and infrastructure are the main contributors.

The ideological self-gratification of using global warming as a club of shame to beat SUV owners and meat eaters over the head may be fun and smug, but re-insulating your attic, replacing your windows with more efficient glass, and consciously purchasing products with minimal embodied energy are more relevant contributions. For every unit of energy saved in the house, 3-4 units of load are relieved at the power station, as the grid no longer loses 2-3 units of energy to lossy power lines. THAT's substantial.
Anonymous says:
Aug 21, 2008 12:49 PM
Rather than argue about who is doing more to lower our carbon foot print- vegetarians or hybrid car drivers- everyone needs to do something. Do what you can do! I don't eat meat. I think it helps if you eat less. If you can't give it up, replace it with a couple of meat free meals every week. Change out your energy-hog light bulbs. Watch the power draw of things that are turned off and get a power strip. Insulate your house. Drive less and yes, get a tire guage and use it! If we all do a little, it can add up to a lot without one extra expenditure of tax dollars or investment in technology.
   While we argue, the planet is literally burning up. Just do something!
Anonymous says:
Aug 21, 2008 12:49 PM
It's sad and pathetic that we have allowed raw consumption to define our social status, our "success". The SUV is analogous to the cheeseburger: both of these mass-produced commodities epitomize the gluttony of our hyper-consumptive society. Massive ecological damage is accruing as a direct result of our American lifestyle choices. Ironically, our massive consumption doesn't even make us happy.

The time we had to plan and implement meaningful CO2 emissions reductions has been squandered through decades of mindless contrarianism and the deliberate cultivation of doubt about the climate change "hoax". If we can do something, anything to reduce our carbon emissions, and it's as easy as not eating meat or not driving an SUV, then we should commit to these modest changes.