Is Beef-Eating a Sacred Cow?

On Earth Day (April 22, 2016) leaders from over 160 countries officially signed the Paris Climate Agreement vowing to stem global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Although this is an important step, world leaders and even environmental protection organizations seem to be forgetting that the meat and dairy industries make a significant contribution to climate change. I have no doubt that many of the leaders, while patting each other on the back about this historic signing, also tucked into some great filet mignon or blanquette de veau and savoured some of France’s more than 350 varieties of cheese.

Why is no one talking about the need to shift to more sustainable diets? Many credible studies have concluded that food animal production is a major source of green house gas emissions and an inefficient source of food for a growing global population. I ask myself why are so few citizens aware of these facts? Are the meat and dairy industries so powerful that they can suppress this damming information? Or is it more about us — the consumers, voters and donors — who don’t want to change our diets, even if it could save the Earth? Is it a “cowspiracy”?

Ok. I watched Cowspiracy recently on Netflix. It puts the message into a much more entertaining form than I can and certainly asked some disturbing questions I had not even thought about. It is clear that the bottom-line of the film is “go vegan.” I know that message is hard to swallow for many, including me. I even wonder if going vegan would result in a truly sustainable agriculture system.

Over the last year and a half I have read a number of research documents on sustainable agriculture produced by reputable research organizations and think tanks. There can be no debate that we need to reduce the growing global demand for animal-based food, especially beef and dairy. Cattle are inefficient sources of calories and protein with only a 1% and 4% conversion rate to human edible calories and protein, respectively.

Animal-based foods are more resource intensive and environmentally impactful than vegetable-based foods. Currently three-quarters of global agricultural lands are tied up in producing animal-based food, which in total produces only 37% of the overall protein consumed by humans. Turning this around, only 25% of the agricultural land currently produces 63% of the protein consumed by humans. This indicates that we have capacity to produce more food within the current agricultural footprint if we switch to more vegetable-based protein sources in our diets.

According to a 2012 UN study, the livestock sector is also a major factor in climate change, contributing approximately 15-25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, an amount equal to the whole transportation sector. A family eating a kilogram of grocery-store beef is equivalent to driving the average car 160 kilometres. Switching from beef to chicken would not only increase the efficiency of agriculture but could reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. Changing to a vegetarian diet could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by 99%.

According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s food demand projections, the demand for a Western-style meat and dairy-rich diet is expected to increase by 80% by 2050 due to the expanding “global middle class.” In the same timeframe the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion. At the same 1 in 9 ratio as today, 1.1 billion people will be hungry or undernourished. The number may be even higher, given the challenges presented by climate change and constrainsts on agricultural expansion.

Global think tanks have been struggling with the dilemma of food sustainability while coping with environmental crises of climate change and associated droughts, floods, destructive weather patterns, and warming temperatures on land and in the oceans. Although industrial intensification of food production has been one avenue of investigation to increase food supplies, it has resulted in conditions of raising livestock that are neither ethical nor sustainable. Clearly dramatic changes are needed.

The World Resources Institute has recently produced a paper 
“Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future” (2016) ” in which the authors recommend three avenues towards sustainable food production aimed at the consumer end of the food value chain:

  1. Reduce overconsumption of calories. While over half the world’s population are consuming more calories than they need, thereby heading towards overweight and obesity, 795 million people (1 in 9) do not have enough food to lead healthy active lives, according to United Nations World Food Programme statistics.
  1. Reduce overconsumption of protein by reducing consumption of animal-based foods. Much of the over consumption of calories seems to be in excess protein, especially animal protein, which is a very resource intensive and inefficient source of protein.
  1. Reduce consumption of beef specifically. Stemming demand for beef is likely the most important factor. Beef has the most inefficient conversion “feed input to food output ratio” and its consumption is on a trajectory to grow 95% by 2050 due to the global spread of the Western style diet.

These recommendations do not require abstinence of a vegan or vegetarian diet for all but would require major reductions in consumption of meat and dairy on a global scale. This might be through adopting of the old style Mediterranean diet or other vegetable-protein centric ethnic diets, or simply by extending Meatless Mondays to more days of the week.

In my home we cut our meat consumption by more than half by eating local free-range meat no more than every other day with vegan or vegetarian meals in between. When we do eat meat we stick to the recommended portion size of no more than 4 ounces, not the honking 8 to 12 ounce sirloin you get at restaurants.

While changing our eating habits at home is relatively easy, eating out is not. In Ottawa where I live, there are few restaurants that offer healthy satisfying vegan or even vegetarian options. I think consumers need to have more choice. Even meat eaters might want to have more meatless choices—we need to demand it. Every time you go out ask for a vegan or vegetarian choice. Share the results. Help build a grass-roots movement for more non-meat and dairy choices.

And also ask your politicians and any environmental organizations you may support to consider these issues.

Individuals can make a difference. As consumers, voters and donors we have the power to make change happen—Let’s use it!




Ranganathan, J. et al. 2016.
“Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.” Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Accessible at

Schwarzer, Stefan. “Growing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Due to Meat Production,” United Nations Environmental Program (2012),

Godfray, Charles and Tara Garnett. “Food Security and Sustainable Intensification.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369 (2014): 1-10. Online at


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