Meat alternatives are an improbable climate solution

Oct 3, 2019

A recent New Yorker story suggested that eating four pounds of beef contributed the equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions as flying from New York to London. The write-up went on to tout meat alternatives as a possible climate savior. 

That seems a little far-fetched.

It also seemed far-fetched to researchers Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, and Darren Hudson of Texas Tech. “Four pounds of beef in the United States DOES NOT equate to the greenhouse gas emissions (per passenger) of a flight from New York to London,” Mitloehner and Hudson wrote in response.

According to the calculations of Mitloehner and Hudson, a flight from New York to London produces about 1,980 pounds (a little less than one metric ton) of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger. Eating four pounds of beef, on the other hand, produces approximately 88 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger.

Mitloehner and Hudson write the difference is in the details. The New Yorker story is using a “global” number for a United States audience.

To get a better sense of greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture in the United States, consumers and policymakers alike should look to the USDA. In a recent study, the USDA concluded cattle production accounted for just 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

So, before giving up a medium-rare steak and baked potato, consider the facts over the fear and take it from some researchers who know: “Maybe – just maybe – American farmers and ranchers deserve some credit for efficiencies that for decades have decreased greenhouse gases while improving food production at unprecedented levels,” Mitloehner and Hudson wrote.