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.

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Marina Koren
April 25, 2014, 8:37 a.m.

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) 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. 

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