By Sarah Fiorello

By: Parker Venator

Imagine sitting down at the Glenwood Pines and having a thick, juicy, medium-rare hamburger placed in front of you. As you sink your teeth delicately into the first bite, you are hit with a sudden burst of delicious flavor. You chew it slowly so as to savor the delightful taste of ketchup intermingled with beef, pickle, and tomato. Since the creation of the almighty hamburger, Americans have made it a major component of their diet. Hamburgers are an option on almost every menu across the United States and are routinely grilled in many American households. In addition, hamburgers are served worldwide to nearly all types of consumers by global chains such as McDonald’s and Texas de Brazil. The taste, texture, and source of protein may be a few of the key factors that make this meal so appealing to consumers. Although hamburgers can provide health benefits (through iron, etc.) in proper portion sizes, they also act as a hazard to our environment. In fact, the relationship is actually quite harmful: as the desire for beef products (such as hamburgers) grows, our environment faces a significant increase in climate change. A simple hamburger is responsible for an environmental toll that includes deforestation (necessary to raise livestock for the creation of hamburgers), methane and carbon dioxide emissions (resulting from the bovine digestive system and global transportation of cows), and the overuse of freshwater (to grow livestock).

The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest poses a major threat to our climate and is a direct result of cattle ranchers clearing large tracts of land. The Amazon rainforest is being exploited so that Brazil’s cattle farmers can continue to be a main exporter of beef for developing countries, even though the rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen (Mackintosh, 2019). The slash and burn technique used in the Amazon rainforest clears the land for permanent pastures and results in degraded grasslands once the land has been fully utilized by cattle. Cattle ranchers within the US are also eradicating forests and other ecosystems that help fight climate change (by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis) just so they can increase their supply of beef. This lack of carbon dioxide recyclers is leading to an increase in the ‘greenhouse effect’ as the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases rise.

Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest (Image by Felipe Werneck/Ibama via Flickr)

Cows also have a major impact on global warming because they excrete methane into the atmosphere as their digestive system uses microbes to break down and absorb nutrients from grass. The release of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are harmful to the environment by trapping heat radiated from the sun. Although the atmosphere only contains about 1,800 parts per billion of methane, methane’s unique chemical structure makes it 28 times more effective at warming the earth than carbon dioxide (Borunda, 2019). For example, greenhouse-gas emissions from the agricultural sector are responsible for approximately 22% of global emissions and livestock production accounts for almost 80% of the agricultural sector’s emissions (The Lancet, 2007).

With the global population increasing, not surprisingly hamburger demand is also increasing. Currently, there are 1.4 billion cattle in the world with demand expected to increase in second and third world countries (Borunda 2019). Ermias Kebreab, Director of the UC Davis World Food Center states, “We expect by 2050 there is going to be a 300 percent increase in beef demand in Asia” (Borunda 2019). With the demand for beef on a steady incline, alternative diet solutions for cows present viable options to decrease the release of methane into the atmosphere. Studies have shown that there is up to a 60% reduction in methane emissions when a cow’s diet includes 1% seaweed (Quinton, 2019). The addition of corn or other high-energy grains can produce a similar quality beef product while also maintaining a lower methane output than normal grass fed beef (Fountain, 2020). These ideas must be further researched if we want to reduce methane and carbon dioxide emissions while still increasing the number of hamburgers produced for global consumption.

Water is another scarce resource heavily relied upon by massive cattle populations. As the source of life for all plants and animals on earth, fresh water is vital for raising livestock. Yet, the water used for cattle is higher per unit of edible product in beef than in any other livestock (Meat Science, 2015). The Water Footprint Network estimates that approximately 460 gallons of freshwater are required for every quarter pound of beef (Harvey, 2015). To put this into context, for every quarter pound hamburger ordered at McDonald’s, 460 gallons of freshwater must be used for cow consumption. Multiply this value by the average 50 billion burgers per year that Americans consume and now the overconsumption of freshwater is clear.

Not only are massive amounts of water needed to feed cattle, but beef production also leads to increased water pollution. A recent Mexican study linked pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to grow feedstuff to freshwater and marine eutrophication (Resources, Conservation, & Recycling, 2016). The excess of nutrients in water is referred to as “green water” and has devastating environmental effects. Jake Beaulieu of the United States EPA states, “We estimate that the greening of the world’s lakes will increase the emission of methane into the atmosphere by 30 to 90 percent during the next 100 years” (University of Minnesota, 2019).

Although the creation of one hamburger has minute environmental effects, when an entire planet demands hamburgers those negative effects are amplified into a major climate crisis. With approximately 50 billion hamburgers consumed by just Americans each year, the amount of deforestation, water usage, and emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are a major threat to our natural climate. And this environmental damage is rarely taking place where the hamburger is consumed. Instead of Americans witnessing widespread deforestation on their own soil, the indigenous people of Brazil watch as the Amazon Rainforest is reduced log by log to produce the hamburger enjoyed at a local American pub.

It is difficult to believe that the hamburger you consume at a restaurant is responsible for the melting of glaciers and the extinction of species, but unfortunately, this is the case. With the global population steadily increasing and third world countries desiring more livestock, a heavy dependence on meat production will only exacerbate climate change in the future. There are three possible solutions to this situation: we decrease the number of hamburgers being consumed, we transition to alternative sources of meat such as plant-based hamburgers (resulting in fewer harmful effects on the environment and less scarce resource use), or we change the diet of beef cattle. While all three are important, the fact of the matter is that alternative production methods must be used to satisfy global demand for hamburgers because the universal demand will skyrocket over the next century and our environment cannot withstand the damage hamburger production will be responsible for. Climate change will only worsen and become irreversible if we continue to produce hamburgers using these environmentally hazardous methods.

Work Cited