If We All Swapped Beans for Beef, We'd Be Close to 2020 US Emission Goals

CC BY 2.0. Jjron

One single dietary change by Americans could yield 46 to 74 percent of greenhouse-gas reductions pledged by Obama in 2009.

So many of us are feeling the sting. We’ve been recycling and using reusable shopping bags and driving hybrids and making some/many/all of our decisions based on environmental impact. And then a new regime sweeps into office and we’re faced with a big kahuna who seems driven by some strange compulsion to reverse all the planet-friendly progress that’s been made.

It’s almost enough for one to throw up their hands and surrender. But at the same time, I think for a lot of us, the stubborn determination to defy the denial and work even harder on reducing our personal impact has been sparked. Which is why I love this thought project by Helen Harwatt, a researcher specializing in environmental nutrition, a discipline that focuses on promoting both human health and sustainability.

James Hamblin writes in The Atlantic about Harwatt’s research, in which she calculates the effect of every American giving up beef and eating beans instead. I actually wrote about this research back in May, but I was so taken by Hamblin's take on it that I'm revisiting it; it feels even more relevant after having spent more time in the Washington DC twilight zone. He writes:

Recently Harwatt and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University calculated just what would happen if every American made one dietary change: substituting beans for beef. They found that if everyone were willing and able to do that—hypothetically—the U.S. could still come close to meeting its 2020 greenhouse-gas emission goals, pledged by President Barack Obama in 2009.

It’s pretty profound. I always wonder, "what if everyone stopped using plastic shopping bags?" and other hypothetical musings. It’s a similar kind of question, but one with scientists behind ot to provide an answer. Hamblin continues:

"Even if nothing about our energy infrastructure or transportation system changed—and even if people kept eating chicken and pork and eggs and cheese—this one dietary change could achieve somewhere between 46 and 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the target."

And seriously, does a bean burger seem so bad?

Bean burger

Shpernik088/CC BY 2.0

“I think there’s genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have,” Harwatt told Hamblin.

And I think she’s right. Here on TreeHugger we have loads of articles about the environmental impact of meat; but as Hamblin points out, this research is unique in that “a person’s dedication to the cause doesn’t have to be complete in order to matter.” One single swap could make a huge difference. Keep eating your chicken and pork if you swing that way, just substitute beans for beef.

Now generally this is where the beef-defensive start chiming in about the impact of beans, but the case against beef is pretty clear. I’ll summarize the argument: In the world’s largest feed lots, the cows eat soybeans, the cows convert the beans to meat, we eat the meat. Hamblin picks up the trail, explaining: “In the process, the cows will emit much greenhouse gas, and they will consume far more calories in beans than they will yield in meat, meaning far more clearcutting of forests to farm cattle feed than would be necessary if the beans above were simply eaten by people.”

With 212 million cattle in Brazil alone, the impact is enormous. In total across the globe, almost a third of the arable land on the planet is used to produce meat and animal products. Remove the largest piece of that puzzle, and we reduce deforestation and land degradation dramatically as we stop the process of turning our crops into meat; by removing the middleman, so to speak. If Americans traded their beef for beans, the researchers found, it would free up 42 percent of U.S. crop land.

“The real beauty of this kind of thing is that climate impact doesn’t have to be policy-driven,” says Harwatt. “It can just be a positive, empowering thing for consumers to see that they can make a significant impact by doing something as simple as eating beans instead of beef.”

You can read Harwatt's study here and see Hamblin's great piece in The Atlantic here.