If Americans swapped beef for beans, the US would immediately realize 50 to 75 percent of its emissions reduction targets.
First things first. While some of us think it would be great if everyone stopped eating beef, we realise that this is America ... land of the free and home of the hamburger. We'll see pigs flying before we see Americans giving up their beef altogether, so consider this a thought experiment. But a very telling thought experiment and one played out to significant conclusion by researchers.
And what did they they discover? The key to reducing harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) is more likely to be found on the plate than at the pump.
The scientists, headed by Helen Harwatt from Loma Linda University, suggest that if Americans turned to beans instead of beef, the United States would "immediately realize approximately 50 to 75 percent of its GHG reduction targets for the year 2020."
We have all heard about the environmental virtues of reducing our meat consumption, but the team really puts it into perspective and shows that beef cattle are the most GHG-intensive food to produce, while the production of legumes results in a whopping 1/40th the amount of GHGs as beef.
"Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy," Harwatt says.
"The nation could achieve more than half of its GHG reduction goals without imposing any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing," she adds.
The 10-page report explains that beef production is basically a terrible way to use land – and trading in beef for beans would free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation, "a total of 1.65 million square kilometers or more than 400 million square acres, which is approximately 1.6 times the size of the state of California."
Harwatt says that more than 30 percent of Americans are now purchasing faux meat products, a trend that suggests we actually can live without meat.
"Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?" she queries. "It looks like we'll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn't allow us the luxury of 'business as usual' eating patterns."
See the whole report: Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets.