One of the biggest drivers of the climate crisis, accounting for a third of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, is food production, with meat – particularly beef – at the top of the list.
The US is the biggest consumer of beef in the world, but, according to new research, it’s actually a small percentage of people who are doing most of the eating. A recent study shows that on any given day, just 12% of people in the US account for half of all beef consumed in the US.
“It may be that some of those 12% don’t realize the impacts that beef has on their health or the environment,” said study author Diego Rose, professor and director of nutrition at Tulane University. “The concern is, on a usual basis, are you eating a disproportionate amount?”
Research has shown that beef production, which goes hand in hand with deforestation to create grazing land for cows, is responsible for over 4.2bn metric tons of global carbon emissions. Consuming beef is up to 10 times more impactful than chicken, and over 50 times that of beans. Numerous health studies have shown risks of elevated heart disease from red meat.
So who is this 12% consuming all that beef?
Men and people between the ages of 50 and 65 were more likely to be in what the researchers dubbed as “disproportionate beef eaters”, defined as those who, based on a recommended daily 2,200 calorie-diet, eat more than four ounces – the rough equivalent of more than one hamburger – daily. The study analyzed one-day dietary snapshots from over 10,000 US adults over a four-year period.
White people were among those more likely to eat more beef, compared with other racial and ethnic groups like Black and Asian Americans. Older adults, college graduates, and those who looked up MyPlate, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) online nutritional educational campaign, were far less likely to consume a disproportionate amount of beef.
The USDA recommends eating no more than 4oz (113 grams) of all meat, poultry and egg products. On average, teenage boys consume more meat, poultry and eggs than is recommended by these guidelines, and for adult men, the distance from the recommendations is even greater, the study reveals.
Experts say there are deep historical and cultural reasons why beef intake is higher for men and boys.
“There’s this connection between meat consumption and masculinity,” said Joshua Specht, author of the book Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. “Historically, to be a successful man in America meant eating beef.”
Beef was first introduced in North America as European colonizers cleared Indigenous land and wildlife like bison. It became a core part of the nation’s identity in the late 19th century, with the expansion in the United States west.
Meat, apple pie, football, having a truck, it becomes a marker of identity
In the early 20th century, with the arrival of immigrants from Europe, where eating meat was reserved for special occasions, the vast grazing land and industrialization of beef production meant that the rare delicacy was more attainable. Federal subsidies for beef production later made it even cheaper and easier to access.
Specht said that meat is now part of “what it means to be American”. “Meat, apple pie, football, having a truck, it becomes a marker of identity.”
Making a positive impact on the climate doesn’t necessarily mean giving up all meat – even reductions and substitutions can make a difference. A study from last year showed that people who replaced chicken for beef decreased their carbon dioxide emissions from food by 48% each day.
A recent study published in Nature shows that if by 2050, people substitute half of the global beef, chicken, pork and milk consumption for plant-based alternatives, emissions from agriculture and land use to produce these animal products would decline by 31%.
The way to approach such substitution should focus on “trying to convince people to start with a gradual change”, said Marta Kozicka who authored the substitution study, “as radical solutions might be a bit difficult to accept for some people”.
Rose says it’s critical for educational programs to try to reach disproportionate beef eaters, since changing their diets will have the most impact. But is it possible? Specht is skeptical, given how ingrained our eating habits are, and says that a better strategy is to try to prevent people from becoming disproportionate eaters in the first place.
“There are lots of folks that can cut back,” said Rose. “The more people understand the health and environmental implications of beef eating, the more that some of them will eat less.”
He added: “We may like the cheap price of beef, but we’re paying a lot more for it than we realize.”