US Meat Eaters Need to Cut Back on Beef by Nearly Half

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The authors of new report don't want to take away your hamburgers, but say that US meat eaters need to cut back beef consumption by 40 percent to help keep the planet habitable.

Earlier this year, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka said of supporters of the Green New Deal, “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” Heaven forbid anyone would want to do anything to keep the planet habitable for future generations.

Obviously, the conservative attack is hyperbole. For instance, we don't really want to take away all your hamburgers ... just 60 percent of them! Or at least that's the number that the authors of a 565-page report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future, recommend as one of the solutions to keep things livable around here.

A collaboration between the World Resources Institute, the World Bank Group, United Nations Environment and others, the report offers a comprehensive list of actions for how we might be able to sustain the three billion more people who are expected to be on the planet by 2050. How do we make enough food for everyone without increasing emissions, fueling deforestation or exacerbating poverty?

Or as the authors ask: Can we feed the world without destroying the planet?

The short answer: "It is possible – but there is no silver bullet."

The report details a 22-item “menu of solutions” that target both supply- and demand-side measures, noting that, "we must produce more food, but we must also slow the rate of growth in demand – especially demand for resource-intensive foods such as beef."

Which is where the hamburgers come in. From the report:

"Ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) use two-thirds of global agricultural land and contribute roughly half of agriculture’s production-related emissions. Ruminant meat demand is projected to grow by 88 percent between 2010 and 2050. Yet, even in the United States, ruminant meats (mostly beef) provide only 3 percent of calories. Closing the land and GHG [greenhouse gas emissions] mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20 percent of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40 percent relative to their consumption in 2010."

Given that the U.S. falls into the "high ruminant-meat consumers" camp, Americans will need to eat 40 percent less beef; Europeans will need to reduce their consumption by 22 percent.

CNN crunched the numbers here to see just what that would look like: "In 2010, Americans ate 59.3 pounds of beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. To get to a 40% reduction that would mean eating 23.72 pounds of beef for the year. With an average hamburger patty being about 4 ounces, you could have just about a burger and a half worth of beef a week."

And there are ways to switch that up; you could continue to eat three burgers a week, for example, if you made mushroom-beef burgers. (You can read Sami's experience with this clever flexitarian hack here: The half-beef/half-mushroom burger: Notes from the field.)

See? We don't want to take anyone's hamburgers all together. Even if it would be better for the planet, and way better for the cows. However, just reducing consumption could be an important part of the solutions for achieving a sustainable food future. As the report concludes, "despite the many obstacles to be overcome, we believe that a sustainable food future is achievable ... but such a future will only be achieved if governments, the private sector, and civil society act upon the entire menu quickly and with conviction."

You can read the report here. And for wonderful, delicious, and satisfying plant-based approaches to try, see related stories below.