Switching From Beef To Beans Could Slice Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to new findings, one lifestyle change could help the U.S. meet is greenhouse-gas emission goals: if everyone traded beef for beans in their diets.


Nov. 19 2020, Updated 9:38 p.m. ET

With one dietary swap, the United States could just about meet its 2020 greenhouse-gas emission goals without making a single change to our country’s transportation or energy infrastructure. The switch? Trading out beef for beans.

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Go ahead and eat all the cheese, chicken, eggs and pork your heart desires. Drive around in a Hummer and keep your air conditioning running 24/7. Simply ditch beef along with every other American, and the country will be on track to meet the emissions target put forth in 2009. 

At least, that’s the conclusion of a group of scientists who recently calculated the effects of this singular dietary change. The researchers hail from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University (LLU), and published their findings in the July issue of Springer Nature.

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What’s the beef with raising cattle for food? 

Producing beef requires hefty doses of natural resources. More than 2,400 gallons of water are required to make a single pound of beef (compared to 244 gallons for one pound of tofu). But the emissions are more startling.

Your average cow being raised for slaughter releases between 154 and 264 pounds of methane into the atmosphere every year. Accounting for the fact methane is 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in terms of how it affects the climate, this is equal to every cow producing 5,070 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.

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The ‘beef to beans’ scenario could remove 74 percent of greenhouse gases. 

The study was headed by Helen Harwatt, PhD, an LLU research fellow trained in environmental nutrition. Harwatt focuses her efforts on finding ways to mitigate climate change through behavioral changes in diet. 

“Our results demonstrate that substituting one food for another, beans for beef, could achieve approximately 46 to 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the 2020 GHG [greenhouse gases] target for the US,” the study reports. “In turn, this shift would free up 42% of US cropland (692,918 km2). While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, the ‘beans for beef’ scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts.”

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We’re already trending in the right direction. 

Harwatt told LLU she’s emboldened by the fact more Americans are purchasing meat alternatives and imitations, and noted this trend illustrates meat’s growing obsolescence.

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“Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?” Harwatt asked LLU. “It looks like we’ll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn’t allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.” 

Small actions can make big changes. 

Harwatt says she hopes the study shows people how powerful they can be to enact change.   “I think there’s genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have,” Harwatt told the Atlantic. “There have been analyses in the past about the environmental impacts of veganism and vegetarianism, but this study is novel for the idea that a person’s dedication to the cause doesn’t have to be complete in order to matter. 

A relatively small, single-food substitution could be the most powerful change a person makes in terms of their lifetime environmental impact—more so than downsizing one’s car, or being vigilant about turning off light bulbs, and certainly more than quitting showering.”      

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