Beef & Cows & Cattle – How Do They Contribute To Food Waste & Climate Change?
- Approximately 1,000,000,000 cattle worldwide
- 1 cow weighs between 500kg-1000KG
- 1KG of beef requires 15,000 litres of water
- 1KG of beef creates 60KG of CO2 emissions
This is very back of the napkin stuff. But the maths works out to yield absolutely staggering numbers. The numbers only make sense when read alongside The Food Waste Manifesto. But just bare in mind that this isn’t taking into account the real environmental damage beef farming creates. Which is the feed requirements upon the grain and soy industries of the developing world. But more on that later.
- 1,000,000,000 (cows) x 600KG (low estimate average weight of cow) x 15,000 (litres of water for 1KG of beef) = 9,000,000,000,000,000 litres of water for the cattle industry (quadrillion, 15 zeros)… a stupid number
- 1,000,000,000 (cows) x 600KG (low estimate average weight of cow) x 60KG (CO2 per KG of cow) = 36,000,000,000,000KG (trillion, 12 zeros)… a stupid number.
I must say however, the numbers don’t really add up. For example, Our World In Data estimates that we produce annually 36,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2 which you might notice is precisely the number I got for CO2 emission from cows alone… so I am certainly thinking that the cow emissions are overestimated given the incentives of the people at play who are compiling these figures (more environmental organisations, rather than independent bodies).
The exact numbers are of course unknown, there are far too many variables and far too much complexity to capture precisely the cost. But even if we generously allow for say 10% variability either end of the number we are still confronted with staggering and incomprehensible figures which are wholly unsustainable.
The Big Producers
Surprisingly it is the USA that still maintains dominance over the cattle industry. I would have suspected Brazil or China taken over by now but nonetheless you can measure below the worlds top producers and notice the spread. Two nations in the Eastern and two in the Western hemisphere, as well as two nations in the Southern as well as two in Northern hemispheres.
Brazil are by quite a distance the largest producer of beef feed (soy & grain) in the world, and as we learnt in The Food Waste Manifesto, this component of the agricultural production is really the most taxing and wasteful activity involved.
Beef used to be for reserved for special occasions and exclusive to the high-income. But such is the developmental progress economies across the world have experienced in the last 70 years the role beef plays on the plate of billions has changed. The majority of the world’s population live in developing nations. China, India, Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, Indonesia and more… thanks be to religious traditions in India and co for a cattle pressure release.
The worlds developing populous have decided that the second beef becomes affordable to them that it will be precisely what they purchase at the supermarket. So, we have in addition to an increasing consumption level in the west a ballooning in demand everywhere else.
(Increasing demand for cattle) x (environmental damage per cow) = a very difficult problem to solve.
More cattle is not so simple as simply producing more cattle. It requires more soy, more water, more grain. Which requires more land and then more water again. The problem with growing the food that our food eats is that we… kind of don’t care about how it‘s produced. We don’t hold the grain and soy that our animals eat to the same standards we would hold our tofu and corn flakes too. Therefore we relegate this job to the cheapest corners of the earth available to us. But the problem with the cheapest corners of the earth is that they are typically the cheapest for a reason, and those reasons are typically what we would prefer to close our eyes too.
Brazil has very little governance and oversight regulating how the Amazon is deforested and then how the land is treated. This makes them quite an attractive prospect for low-cost soy and grain. However! We cannot allow price to dictate these matters. The costs are far bigger than what is being accounted for. Externalities are rarely priced accordingly, the negative externality Brazil soy farmers impose upon the globe is extremely underpriced.
Incentives, incentives, incentives.
It is no use trying to convince the world that they are better off eating vegetables. Vegetarianism and veganism is a luxury of the first world. While many communities will survive off beans and rice out of necessity, a dripping carne asada is universally what they’d prefer. As stated above, part of the problem with cheaper and cheaper cows produced to the highest efficiency is just that. They just aren’t very good. If not for salt, they would barely taste of anything and they fall well short of nutritional expectations. The answer to everything here is price.
Incentivise through legislation higher standards for beef and higher standards for the feed they produce. Restrict the import and components of production that come from places that don’t adhere to the revised standards.
I know this is much easier said than done, and the implementation of the legislation as I imagine it would decimate many jobs in this industry. But such is the cost of change. Beef would become more expensive for all of us. But this would allow us to turn our attention to a wider cross-sections of meat, forcefully reducing our consumption of beef closer to both a healthier and more environmentally sustainable level.
And yes, higher prices would restrict the developing populous access, this is also written into the cost.
Incentives, incentives, incentives. What matters more…
Cheap, accessible, poor quality beef for everyone at a significant cost to the environment? Or expensive, inaccessible, high-quality beef to be eaten occasionally at significant benefit to the environment?
It is an easy question to answer for me, for while I do love beef and would hate to see it become more expensive, I know that I can broaden my horizons across many different types of meat and fish. industries which in themselves, must be solved as well.
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