Animals Environment & Health HKFP Voices

A steak’s contribution to global warming

by Emily Botsford

In recent years, we have been programmed to view emissions from the transportation industry as one of the leading causes of global warming. We have been encouraged to ‘go green’ by using public transport instead of cars or walk and bike everywhere to reduce our carbon footprint. Little did we know that the best way to reduce our emissions was simply to cut down on our meat intake.

CWR - Eat A Steak Or Take A Bath


Shockingly, the entire world’s transportation, that’s cars, boats, trains, planes etc., produces fewer greenhouse gases than the world’s livestock. Globally, the livestock sector produces 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the transportation industry produces 13 percent. Carbon dioxide emissions from the livestock sector are related to the livestock production process and fossil fuel burning during manufacture of fertiliser for feed production, among others. The methane that is produced through the digestive systems of cattle is 23 times more potent in global warming than carbon dioxide.

But it is not just the world’s 1.4 billion cows’ digestive systems that are the problem. These cows need somewhere to graze and they also require vast quantities of feed. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of current deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. Slash-and-burn agriculture is common, which, given the situation in Sumatra recently, makes it hard to imagine the scale of this in the Amazon. Worldwide, the deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tonnes (3.4 percent of global emissions) of carbon to the atmosphere every year. The social costs and negative environmental impacts resulting from deforestation are enormous and are responsible for soil degradation and erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and loss of carbon contributing to global warming.

climate change

If the loss of rainforest and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions weren’t enough to make you think twice about having a steak, then consider the water cost. With many parts of the world in severe drought, and the likelihood of this increasing year on year with global warming, it seems unlikely that cutting down on meat would help, but that is exactly the case. Meat is incredibly water intensive. If you think about it, we have millions upon millions of hectares of farmland just to feed the animals we will end up eating. These crops require water to grow, as do livestock, so there is a significantly larger amount of water going into every non-veggie meal. In fact, 17 bathtubs of water are required to produce one 8oz steak.

Aside from the enormous amount of water that is needed to produce one steak, the feed conversion ratio is appallingly low in comparison to other meats. In order to produce one ton of beef, 8 tonnes of feed needs to be inputted. This is significantly larger than the feed conversion ratios of other meats such as pork at 3:1. So each steak signifies crops that could have been used for human consumption. With an exponentially growing population, reaching a projected 9.1 billion by 2050, global food production must increase by 70 percent (FAO, 2009). With very inefficient conversion ratios for cattle, it seems ridiculous that so much food should essentially be lost with every cow.

climate change

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone becomes vegetarian, though that would certainly help alleviate the pressures on our planet described above. I know that that is a lifestyle choice many would not be prepared to make. However, you can still do your part by making a conscious effort to eat less meat, specifically beef. Try going veggie for at least one day a week. Skipping steak once a week with your family would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for almost 3 months. Next time you order, think about the cost to the environment.

Emily grew up in Hong Kong and has a Bachelors in Psychology and a Masters in Marine Science. Working for the ADM Capital Foundation she spends most of her time focused on marine conservation, particularly in the South China Sea, and the illegal wildlife trade.


A steak’s contribution to global warming