My Beef with Beef
By Mary Brown, with contributions from Carol Finlan
January 24, 2022
10 years ago, I stopped eating red meat – beef, pork, and lamb. It wasn’t an environmental concern, or a health-conscious choice. I just couldn’t stomach the thought of killing four legged animals anymore. Also, my son had chosen to become vegetarian, and it simply made it easier for us to visit. I was intrigued by the variety of delicious new foods he was eating and introducing to us. I would soon discover there were a host of other much more compelling reasons to stop eating meat.
Following my retirement at the end of 2019, I was looking for ways to give back to the world that had given me so much. Environmental groups were providing a plethora of messaging about the impacts of climate change, and I soaked it up. Climate scientists have been able to track historical changes in the composition of our atmosphere by looking at ice core data. I learned the startlingly scary fact that for the past 800,000 years, which includes all of human history, the atmosphere has averaged at a steady 280 ppm CO2.  But in just the last 200 years this CO2 level has shot up to 419 ppm. A website called CO2.earth gives the daily CO2 level and the news is not good.  This rise in CO2, and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) including methane and nitrous oxide, directly corresponds to the rise in the earth’s average global temperature.  The past 6 years have been the warmest years on record since 1850.
Scientists have done many climate studies since the early 1800’s and are long past questioning if GHGs are the cause of global warming. In fact, they have spent the better part of the past 30 years trying to convince us to change our ways to reverse this trend. I was compelled to learn if there was anything I could do personally in my daily life to be part of the solution, or at the very least to stop being part of the problem.
I began a quest to learn more about our human impacts on the earth. What were our most important human activities causing the rapid rise of GHGs over the past 100 years? It turns out Agriculture, especially the production of beef is among the 5 major contributors to GHGs alongside gas powered transportation, electricity production from fossil fuels, industrial fossil fuel use, and residential and commercial heating, cooling and waste management.  And we humans have direct control over most of these activities in the choices we make every day. Join me on My Beef with Beef journey as I endeavour to make a positive impact on slowing climate change.
*Mary Brown and Carol Finlan are twin foodies. They both spent 35 years working in food development. They are passionate about food preparation, sustainability and waste. They both retired in 2020 with a wealth of food knowledge to share. What’s a pair of retired twin foodies to do?
Since my retirement at the end of 2019, I have been looking for ways to reduce my environmental footprint. Last year, I came across a chart, GHG Emissions per Kilogram of Food Product, which blew my mind.  Suddenly, I became aware of how harmful beef production is to our environment compared with every other food.
It was a further revelation to learn that the practice of buying food from local sources was just a small factor, almost insignificant, compared with the type of food we eat. It is the methane production from cows, which packs about 30 times the warming capacity of CO2, that is mainly responsible for the high carbon footprint of beef and other ruminant animals. This means that dairy products, especially concentrated ones like cheese, also have a high impact. And it’s not just the GHG emissions that are a problem. Our North American love affair with beef has been impacting the earth in several negative ways.
So, what are the environmental consequences of eating red meat compared with beans?
- GHG Emissions: 1 kg of beef generates 60 kg of greenhouse gas. Compare this with 1 kg of beans which generates less than 1 kg of GHG.
- Water: The production of 1 kg of beef requires about 15,000 litres of water. The production of 1 kg of pulses (beans) requires only about 4,000 litres of water.  Fresh water is a precious commodity we can’t afford to waste.
- Deforestation: The production of beef is the single biggest factor for the loss of tropical rainforests worldwide. 71% of deforestation in South America between 1990 and 2005 was due to cattle ranching. We need to devote more land to trees, not less, to help suck the CO2 out of the air.
- Land Use: Perhaps the most important consequence – Grazing cattle takes up a lot of farmland. This is a real problem since the global population is expected to rise from 7 Billion to 10 Billion by 2050. The World Resources Institute (WRI) predicts we will need to ramp up current food production by estimated 56% by 2050 to feed everyone. Meat is an inefficient food source. If the grazing land were instead used to grow crops such as beans or wheat for direct human consumption, we would generate far more calories to feed the world.
It became clear to me that all of us really do need to adopt a more plant-based diet. Because I personally know a number of people that say they are eating less red meat today, I was under the impression that the trend toward vegetarianism was on the rise everywhere. But the truth is, the production of meat has doubled in the past 30 years and it’s still going up especially in developing nations. 
Last year, Greenpeace published an article describing 7 reasons, including the 4 above, why we need to stop eating beef.  I hardly needed any more convincing evidence that my decision to move toward a plant-based diet was well founded. If you are looking for great vegan food in Milton, check out The Green Eatery on Martin Street just south of Main. These days I’m doing everything I can in my daily life to reduce my greenhouse gas contributions to the planet. Cancelling beef will not solve global warming on its own, but it’s a heck of a good start.