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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

THE BIG READ

Environment

This Meat Could Help the Planet!

Cars and factories get most of the blame for polluting the environment. But another major offender could be the beef on your plate. Scientists think they have a solution.

As You Read, Think About: How does eating beef affect the environment?

Researchers around the world have spent years trying to create the perfect burger—one with just the right flavor, juiciness, and color. It needs to sizzle when it hits a hot grill and make your mouth water.

But these experts aren’t trying to make a burger from beef—or even one from potatoes, beets, and other plants like those now sold at Burger King and TGI Fridays. Instead, they’re working to produce a patty made entirely from animal cells in a lab. And researchers hope it will help save the planet.

How? It may surprise you, but beef has a huge effect on the environment—much greater than chicken, fish, or vegetables. That’s because raising cattle requires a tremendous amount of land, water, and other resources. Millions of acres of forests have been cleared to grow food for the animals to eat.

And perhaps most damaging of all, cows release greenhouse gases as part of their digestion process. When those gases—such as methane and carbon dioxide—collect in the atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat close to Earth’s surface, contributing to climate change.

Researchers around the world have spent years trying to create the perfect burger. It should have just the right flavor, juiciness, and color. It needs to sizzle when it hits a hot grill. It should make your mouth water.

But these experts are not trying to make a burger from beef. They are not even trying to make one from potatoes, beets, and other plants like those now sold at Burger King and TGI Fridays. Instead, they are working to produce a patty made entirely from animal cells in a lab. And researchers hope it will help save the planet.

How? It may surprise you, but beef has a huge effect on the environment. It has a much greater effect than chicken, fish, or vegetables. That is because raising cattle requires a huge amount of land, water, and other resources. Millions of acres of forests have been cleared to grow food for the animals to eat.

And perhaps most damaging of all, cows release greenhouse gases as part of their digestion process. Those gases include methane and carbon dioxide. When they collect in the atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat close to Earth’s surface. That contributes to climate change.

According to the United Nations, nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gases released worldwide each year can be attributed to livestock, mostly cows. That’s roughly the same as what’s produced by all cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships combined.

In recent decades, worldwide beef production has skyrocketed from 62 billion pounds in 1961 to 150 billion pounds today. That’s partly because the global population is rising. Plus, higher incomes in countries such as China mean more people can now afford meat. In the United States, the average American eats a whopping 58 pounds of beef each year (the equivalent of about 230 burgers!). 

This rising global demand is contributing to humans’ disastrous impact on the environment—and scientists warn that it could get a lot worse. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, they say, droughts, heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent—and severe. Tens of millions of people globally could be forced to flee their homes as a result. 

“That’s why it’s really important that we act immediately,” says Gidon Eshel, an environmental scientist at Bard College in New York. “One way we can help is by changing our diets, particularly by eating less beef.”

According to the United Nations, nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gases released worldwide each year can be attributed to livestock, mostly cows. That is roughly the same as what is produced by all cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships combined.

In recent decades, worldwide beef production has skyrocketed. It has gone from 62 billion pounds in 1961 to 150 billion pounds today. That is partly because the global population is rising. Plus, higher incomes in countries such as China mean more people can now afford to buy meat. In the United States, the average American eats a whopping 58 pounds of beef each year. (That is equal to about 230 burgers!)

This rising global demand is contributing to humans’ disastrous impact on the environment. And scientists warn that it could get a lot worse. They say we must take drastic action to address climate change. They say if we do not, then droughts, heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent and severe. Tens of millions of people globally could be forced to flee their homes as a result.

“That’s why it’s really important that we act immediately,” says Gidon Eshel. He is an environmental scientist at Bard College in New York. “One way we can help is by changing our diets, particularly by eating less beef.”

What You Need to Know

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Burning fossil fuels to power factories is a major cause of climate change.

Climate Change A long-term change in Earth’s climate, including an increase in the average global temperature, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. Experts say human actions—particularly the burning of fossil fuels (including coal and oil) to power our homes, cars, and factories—are mostly to blame. Raising cattle for beef is a significant climate change contributor as well. 

Climate Change A long-term change in Earth’s climate, including an increase in the average global temperature, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. Experts say human actions—particularly the burning of fossil fuels (including coal and oil) to power our homes, cars, and factories—are mostly to blame. Raising cattle for beef is a significant climate change contributor as well. 

A Major Gas Problem 

Why do cows have such a big impact on the environment? Believe it or not, experts say it mainly has to do with, well, their burps.

As cows eat, their stomachs produce bacteria that help them break down grasses and other plants. In the process, those bacteria create methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Cattle then release that built-up methane into the atmosphere by burping it out silently through their noses—and, to a lesser extent, by farting. (Yes, seriously.)

Why do cows have such a big impact on the environment? Believe it or not, experts say it mainly has to do with, well, their burps.

As cows eat, their stomachs produce bacteria that help them break down grasses and other plants. In the process, those bacteria create methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Cattle then release that built-up methane into the atmosphere. They release it by burping it out silently through their noses. And, to a lesser extent, they release it by farting. (Yes, seriously.)

Cow burps and farts contain methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

In fact, a single cow can burp up to 132 gallons of methane per day. Multiply that by the more than 1.4 billion cattle currently being raised for food worldwide. That adds up to a lot of methane. (Even their manure releases the greenhouse gas!)

Cows aren’t the only animals that digest food this way. Sheep, goats, camels, and a few others do too, but they don’t release nearly as much methane as cattle. In total, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cows and other animals with similar digestion processes account for 27 percent of total methane emissions in the U.S.—second only to the oil and gas industry.

In fact, a single cow can burp up to 132 gallons of methane per day. Multiply that by the more than 1.4 billion cattle currently being raised for food worldwide. That adds up to a lot of methane. (Even their manure releases the greenhouse gas!)

Cows are not the only animals that digest food this way. Sheep, goats, camels, and a few others do too. But they do not release nearly as much methane as cattle. In total, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cows and other animals with similar digestion processes account for 27 percent of total methane emissions in the U.S. That is second only to the oil and gas industry.

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Taking Up Land

Gassy burps are just one part of the problem with beef production, though. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the beef industry takes up nearly 60 percent of Earth’s total agricultural land—about 12 million square miles. That’s an area as big as the entire continent of Africa.

In some countries, particularly in Latin America, millions of acres of rainforest have been cleared in recent decades to grow corn, soy, and other food for livestock—and to make room for the animals to graze. But trees help combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. When forests are converted into farmland, the carbon dioxide they’ve absorbed is released back into the atmosphere —and fewer trees are left to help absorb greenhouse gases.

In addition, producing fertilizer and using it to grow food for cattle releases greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, are also used to operate farm equipment, process meat, and ship beef all over the world.

But gassy burps are just one part of the problem with beef production. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the beef industry takes up nearly 60 percent of Earth’s total agricultural land. That is about 12 million square miles—an area as big as the entire continent of Africa.

In some countries, particularly in Latin America, millions of acres of rainforest have been cleared in recent decades. The land has been cleared to grow corn, soy, and other food for livestock. It also has been cleared to make room for the animals to graze. But trees help combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. When forests are changed into farmland, the carbon dioxide they have absorbed is released back into the atmosphere. And fewer trees are left to help absorb greenhouse gases.

In addition, producing fertilizer and using it to grow food for cattle releases greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, are also used to operate farm equipment, process meat, and ship beef all over the world.

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

Some researchers say meat grown in a lab might one day replace traditional beef.

Cutting Back on Beef

The good news, however, is that researchers are working on ways to decrease beef’s impact on the environment. One potential solution is for people to replace the beef burgers in their diets with the plant-based varieties that are now sold in many grocery stores and restaurants. 

Such alternatives don’t contain any meat at all and are far better for the environment. One study found that creating a Beyond Burger—made from peas, coconut oil, and more than a dozen other ingredients—produces 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than making a beef burger. 

But the good news is that researchers are working on ways to decrease beef’s impact on the environment. One possible solution is for people to replace the beefburgers in their diets with the plant-based kinds that are now sold in many grocery stores and restaurants.

Such alternatives do not contain any meat at all. And they are far better for the environment. For example, a Beyond Burger is made from peas, coconut oil, and more than a dozen other ingredients. One study found that creating a Beyond Burger produces 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than making a beef burger.

Shutterstock.com

Some researchers are aiming for something a bit more extreme: replacing beef burgers with synthetic meat grown in a lab. How does this work? Scientists use cow muscle cells to grow strands of “meat,” which are then combined to form patties. The first lab-produced synthetic burger—created by a company in the Netherlands in 2013—cost $325,000 to make and took nine weeks to grow. 

Since then, businesses worldwide have invested billions of dollars to produce less-expensive—and better-tasting—lab-created burgers. Some experts predict that the market for plant-based and other alternative meat products could be worth up to $85 billion by 2030.

Some researchers are aiming for something a bit more extreme. They want to replace beefburgers with synthetic meat grown in a lab. How does this work? Scientists use cow muscle cells to grow strands of “meat.” Those strands are then combined to form patties. The first lab-produced synthetic burger was created by a company in the Netherlands in 2013. It cost $325,000 to make and took nine weeks to grow.

Since then, businesses worldwide have invested billions of dollars to produce lab-created burgers that are less expensive and taste better. Some experts predict that the market for plant-based and other alternative meat products could be worth up to $85 billion by 2030.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Scientists are strapping backpacks on cows to capture the methane in their stomachs.

Battling Burps 

In the meantime, researchers are experimenting with new types of cattle feed to make cows less gassy and, therefore, less harmful to the planet. Others have strapped backpacks on cows to try to capture their methane-filled burps and farts before they’re released into the atmosphere.

Plus, farmers and ranchers have been working for years to make beef production more efficient. In fact, even though the number of cattle in the U.S. has decreased by one-third since 1975, the country produces more beef today than it did back then.

In addition, Germany, Denmark, and a few other nations are debating adding specific taxes on beef. Lawmakers hope that if meat costs more, fewer people will buy it.

In the meantime, researchers are experimenting with new types of cattle feed to make cows less gassy. That would make them less harmful to the planet. Others have strapped backpacks on cows to try to capture their methane-filled burps and farts before they are released into the atmosphere.

Plus, farmers and ranchers have been working for years to make beef production more efficient. In fact, even though the number of cattle in the U.S. has decreased by one-third since 1975, the country produces more beef today than it did back then.

In addition, Germany, Denmark, and a few other nations are debating adding specific taxes on beef. Lawmakers hope that if meat costs more, fewer people will buy it.

Eat Less Beef 

But the easiest, fastest, and most effective solution, experts say, is for everyone to simply eat less beef. Research shows that cutting out just one burger per week would prevent as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking a car off the road for 350 miles. 

Many Americans, especially kids and teens, have gone even further, switching to vegetarian or vegan diets. (A vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, while a vegan avoids all animal products, including dairy and eggs.) Experts say Americans could shrink their food-related climate impact by at least one-third by moving to a vegetarian diet. 

That’s partly why 18-year-old Nadia Nazar, one of the founders of the climate action group Zero Hour, became a vegetarian in middle school. She urges other kids to do the same. “I’m proud that I’m not contributing to the effect that meat has on the climate,” she says.

But experts say that the easiest, fastest, and most effective solution is for everyone to simply eat less beef. Research shows that cutting out just one burger per week would prevent as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking a car off the road for 350 miles.

Many Americans, especially kids and teens, have gone even further. They have switched to vegetarian or vegan diets. (A vegetarian does not eat meat, while a vegan avoids all animal products, including dairy and eggs.) Experts say Americans could shrink their food-related climate impact by at least one-third by moving to a vegetarian diet.

That is partly why 18-year-old Nadia Nazar became a vegetarian in middle school. Nadia is one of the founders of the climate action group Zero Hour. She urges other kids to become vegetarians too. “I’m proud that I’m not contributing to the effect that meat has on the climate,” she says.

Eating less beef would go a long way toward protecting the planet.

Of course, many experts point out that beef isn’t completely bad. For one thing, the meat industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone. And scientists say that beef can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation. 

But just cutting back can have a major impact on the planet. That’s partly why some families and schools are adopting “Meatless Mondays.” On those days, they serve only plant-based meals, like veggie tacos. Reducing food waste would help too, experts say, since Americans throw away 23 percent of the meat they buy each year, or 7.2 billion pounds. 

If people all over the world were to do their part, these small shifts could go a long way toward helping the environment. After all, not everyone can bike to school instead of riding in a car or install solar panels on their homes to sustainably generate power. “But,” says Eshel, “everyone can eat less beef.”

Of course, many experts point out that beef is not completely bad. For one thing, the meat industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone. And scientists say that beef can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.

But just cutting back can have a major impact on the planet. That is partly why some families and schools are adopting “Meatless Mondays.” On those days, they serve only plant-based meals, like veggie tacos. Reducing food waste would help too, experts say. Americans throw away 23 percent of the meat they buy each year. That comes to 7.2 billion pounds.

If people all over the world were to do their part, these small changes could go a long way toward helping the environment. After all, not everyone can bike to school instead of riding in a car. Not everyone can put solar panels on their homes to sustainably generate power. “But,” says Eshel, “everyone can eat less beef.”

Write About It! Create a video, a poster, or a podcast that encourages your friends and family to eat less beef. Explain how eating beef affects the environment—and how they can help protect the planet by cutting back.

How YOU Can Help

Producing beef takes a major toll on the environment—in part because raising cattle requires a huge amount of land, water, and other resources. Plus, cows release a powerful greenhouse gas called methane when they burp and fart. Inspired to learn more about climate change and how you can help protect the planet? Here are some ways you can make a difference.

STAY INFORMED
• Learn more about the effects of climate change
, greenhouse gases, and what you can do to help protect the environment at climatekids.nasa.gov. Test your knowledge with interactive games, activities, and more.

SPREAD THE WORD
• Help raise awareness about how eating meat affects the environment.
Share what you’ve learned from Junior Scholastic with your family and friends. If you post about the issue on social media, use the hashtags #ClimateAction and #JuniorScholastic.  

• Write a letter to your U.S. senators or representative. Let them know your views on climate change and what you think they should do to help protect the planet. (Find names and contact information for members of Congress at congress.gov/members.) Not sure exactly what to say? We’ll walk you through the process with our Skill Builder Speak Up! Then send your note by email.

CHANGE YOUR HABITS
• Adopt “Meatless Mondays.”
Work with your family to plan and cook plant-based meals one day a week. If you post a picture of the meals on social media, use the hashtags #MeatlessMonday and #JuniorScholastic. Not ready to go totally meatless for a whole day? Try cutting out just one serving of beef each week.  

• Reduce food waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans throw away a total of 7.2 billion pounds of meat each year, worth more than $19 billion. Encourage your family to cook or freeze the meat they buy before it spoils and to eat leftovers instead of throwing them away.