Having been a strict vegetarian since 1970, I've enjoyed almost fifty years of dietary self-satisfaction. (Vegetarians aren't as smug as vegans, but we're close.)
So when I saw a Politico headline today, "Democrats bite on burgers and straws -- and Republicans feast," I anticipated that the article was going to irritate me, which indeed it did.
Politico engaged in some questionable analysis of the lengthy CNN climate forum featuring Democratic presidential candidates. Here's some burger-related observations.
Democrats’ verbal targeting of everything from plastic straws to cheeseburgers is stoking fears among anti-Trump forces that they’re unwittingly playing into Republican culture wars.
...Andrew Yang, in the same [GOP] web ad, said, “We’re going to be OK if the vast majority of the world goes vegetarian immediately.”
“I just don’t even know what to do with ‘Burgergate,’” said Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist from the cattle-rearing state of Texas. “It is such a fringe position that is out of step with an overwhelming majority of Americans — and let us not forget that a pretty wide swath of the country including Texas and the ‘Breadbasket’ are major beef producers.
Well, the plain fact is that eating meat, especially beef, results in much higher carbon emissions than a vegetarian diet.
Here's part of an answer to a question in the August 17, 2019 issue of New Scientist that asked, "From an environmental perspective, is it better to eat imported foods like tofu, quinoa and sweet potato or beef from the farm a few kilometers up the road?
This question is easy to resolve. In a paper in Nature last year, a team led by Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University examined the impact of various foodstuffs in terms of carbon. This shows that protein from beef is 73 times worse than protein from soya.
A kilogram [2.2 pounds] of beef protein has the equivalent carbon emissions of a passenger flying from London to New York and back. The overall carbon cost of a kilogram of beef protein is equivalent to 1250 kg of CO2. Aircraft emissions for long haul flights are roughly 110 grams per passenger per kilometre, and the return distance is 11,170 km -- so 1229 kg of CO2.
However, there are caveats. That's the way of science: things are complex. A simple answer may be true -- beef is much more carbon intensive than tofu -- yet needs some explication. Here's part of what I found via a dive into Google's response to "eating meat carbon emissions."
It's a myth that going vegan or vegetarian is the key to fighting global warming. So says Skeptical Science. (Tagline: Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism.)
Animal agriculture is responsible for 13–18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally, and less in developed countries (e.g. 3% in the USA). Fossil fuel combustion for energy and transportation is responsible for approximately 64% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally, and more in developed countries (e.g. 80% in the USA).
...So, animal agriculture and meat consumption are significant contributors to global warming, but far less so than fossil fuel combustion. Moreover, fossil fuels are an even bigger contributor to the problem in developed countries, which use more energy and have increased livestock production efficiency.
Still, switching from beef to chicken, or better, tofu, reduces dietary carbon a lot. So says a National Geographic story.
Replacing the carbon-heavy beef on your plate with carbon-light chicken will cut your dietary carbon footprint a shocking amount: in half. That’s according to a first-ever national study of U.S. eating habits and their carbon footprints.
...The evidence is clear regarding the need to shift diets to less meat and more plant-based proteins for both health and environmental reasons, says study co-author Martin Heller of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems at the School for Environment and Sustainability.
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on our planet. So says a The Guardian story based on research published in the journal Science.
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.
...The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.
So while Republican deniers of global warming can joke all they want about Democrats wanting to ban burgers, science has the last laugh. Meat-eating isn't good for the planet.