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What the U.S. and China Have in Common When It Comes to Steak and Climate Change What the U.S. and China Have in Common When It Comes to Steak and Clim...

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What the U.S. and China Have in Common When It Comes to Steak and Climate Change

The nations' meat-eating habits spell trouble for levels of greenhouse-gas emissions.


(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Luxembourg may consume the most meat per capita, but it's not the country whose carnivorous eating habits have climate-change experts worried.

It's two other, much bigger countries: the United States and China.


Worldwide, agriculture is responsible for one-third of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. A majority comes from grazing livestock, and mostly from beef, whose share of livestock carbon emissions is six times that of poultry on a per-unit basis. And the U.S., the world's biggest consumer of red meat, and China, whose demand for beef is set to skyrocket, are large contributors to those emissions.

Reaching the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's global-warming mitigation goals, a recent study found, would require both countries to eat a lot less meat.

Per capita beef consumption in the U.S. has actually dropped in recent years, from its peak of 88.8 pounds in 1976, to 58.7 pounds in 2009. Red meat has been linked to a number of cardiovascular diseases, and doctors are advising their patients against eating too much of it. The recession has also contributed to the decreased demand for beef.


But people in the U.S. still eat the stuff in excess: per capita consumption ranks second after Luxembourg across the world and is three times the global average.

China, on the other hand, is steadily becoming a meat-eating nation. Its levels of meat consumption doubled between 1990 and 2002. Red meat consumption is expected to increase 116 percent by 2050. The rising demand is due to a growing affluent culture in the country, influenced by Western eating habits. More money, more meat on the menu. Here's what that looks like in a graph, compared with U.S. trends:

(Earth Policy Institute)

Climate experts say there's still hope for curbing this upward trend, because historically, China lives off a whole-foods, plant-based diet. A recent massive public-relations campaign to curb the consumption of shark fin soup in China led to a plunge in the traditional delicacy's demand. A similar effort, to steer people away from beef and toward pork or chicken, which require less water and resources to produce, could work in China.


American history, however, is steeped with a taste for burgers and steaks. Whether the looming threat of climate change is enough of a catalyst to change U.S. palates remains, for now, unclear. 

This article appears in the April 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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