The Real Problem With Beef

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2019, The New York Times Company)


The potentially unhealthful effects of eating red meat are so small that they may be of little clinical significance for many people.

This finding, just released in multiple articles in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is sure to be controversial. It should certainly not be interpreted as license to eat as much meat as you like. But the scope of the work is expansive, and it confirms prior work that the evidence against meat isn’t nearly as solid as many seem to believe. (While I had no role in the new research, I co-wrote a commentary about it in the journal.)

Red meat has been vilified more than almost any other food, yet studies have shown that while moderation is important, meat can certainly be part of a healthy diet.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons to eat less meat. Some point out that the ways in which cattle are raised and consumed are unethical. Others argue that eating red meat is terrible for the environment.

Recently, meat substitutes have emerged as a possible solution, but the promise is much greater than the reality, at least so far.

Burger King and other fast-food chains are trying out Impossible Foods burgers as a vegan answer to beef. Let’s dispense with the idea that this is “healthier” in any way. The Impossible Whopper has 630 calories (versus a traditional Whopper’s 660). It also contains similar amounts of saturated fat and protein, and more sodium and carbohydrates. No one should think they’re improving their health by making the switch.

What about the environmental argument? Almost 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land is used to raise livestock. We grow a lot of crops to feed animals, and we cut down a lot of forests to do that. But beef, far more than pork or chicken, contributes to environmental harm, in part because it requires much more land. The greenhouse gas production per serving of chicken or pork is about 20 percent that of a serving of beef.

Cows also put out an enormous amount of methane, causing almost 10 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to climate change.

There has been a lot of hope that Beyond Meat’s pea protein or Impossible Burger’s soy could serve as beef burger substitutes, reducing the need for cows. That’s unlikely to happen, according to Sarah Taber, a crop scientist and food system specialist. Ground beef is not the problem; steak is.

“There’s no profit to be made in ground beef,” she said. “That all comes either from leftover parts once cattle have been slaughtered for more expensive cuts, or from dairy cattle that have outlived their usefulness. If everyone gave up hamburgers tomorrow, the same number of cows would still be raised and need to be fed.”

In other words, to improve the environment by reducing the number of cows slaughtered, we’d need to find a way to replace the many other cuts of beef Americans enjoy. No lab, and no company, is close to that.

To greatly reduce the reliance on cows, we’d also need to wean ourselves from our high level of milk consumption. The increasing use of alternative milks, like oats or soy, could help, but the dairy industry still dominates.

(The dairy industry’s claims about the health of its product are somewhat overblown. Milk isn’t nearly as “necessary for health” as many believe.)

Some companies are researching ways to replace the more complex cuts of meat that drive the market. These companies aren’t replacing beef with substitutes; they’re trying to grow it in the lab using stem cells.

Tamar Haspel, who writes on food policy for The Washington Post, has said such advances are not likely soon. Nor is it clear that they would have an overall positive impact, unless we are sure that this meat can be made in a more energy-efficient way than we can raise cattle.

If meat substitutes won’t help in the short run, other things still might. Some believe that raising cattle on pastures, from birth until slaughter, might sequester carbon in the soil better than having cows finish their growth on feed lots. Researchers at the University of Florida argue that it can also be profitable for farmers in warmer climates to do just that. It would require the cattle industry to make significant changes, as well as to relocate, and it seems unlikely they’d be willing to do that.

“Grass-feeding cattle without grain is the norm in New Zealand, but almost no one in the United States does it,” Dr. Taber said.

It’s also worth pointing out that it would probably take longer to raise cows this way, giving them more time to emit methane.

Other new developments could help with that problem. Some have proposed farming insects to make animal feed. And feeding seaweed to cows, even in small amounts, can significantly reduce their methane burps.

One problem with seaweed is that the component that helps reduce methane emissions is classified as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s present in small amounts in seaweed, though, and humans have been eating seaweed safely for a long time. A larger problem is that we are unprepared to farm the unbelievable amount of seaweed it would take to feed all the cattle the world is raising.

“Picture a seaweed farm the size of Manhattan,” Dr. Taber said.

Until people are truly ready to reduce consumption of dairy or consumption of higher-end beef cuts, or to commit to raising cattle differently, it seems unlikely that any of the changes with respect to ground beef will make a significant environmental difference in the near future.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. I asked Dr. Taber what we might advise people, right now, to help the environment.

“Who needs steak when there’s bacon and fried chicken?” she said.



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