Our Beef with Beef

The steaks are high

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We'll be discussing an American staple, a food that holds a special social status in our diets — beef. Beef is so important to Americans that we've actually developed a “cattle complex.” 

At a Glance 

Today, the meat industry is worth over $2 trillion, employing over 5.4 million people. The U.S. produces over 100 billion lbs of meat a year, with the production rate growing 2-3% each year. Because of the $38 billion of government subsidies, Americans are able to cheaply purchase meat, with an average consumption of over 243 pounds per person.

With the world’s population planned to reach over 10 billion by 2050, the current meat industry is incredibly unsustainable or ethical in the long run for numerous reasons. Let’s moo-ve right into it.

Environmental Cost

As one of the most popular livestock in the U.S., cattle agriculture is a major contributor to environmental damage in the world today. While we discussed milk production in our milk edition, beef production creates around 40% of global greenhouse gases, with tons of methane released into the air a day.

Here’s a simplified beef industry supply chain:

  1. Growing up: Calves are raised with their mothers until they are a few months old, often in small ranches under 100 cattle.

  2. Auctioning and weaning: Calves are sold in an auction to wean them off their mothers and shipped to new pastures.

  3. Fattening: Calves then continue to graze in pastures (3% of U.S. beef) or feed off of grains in feedlots (97%) until they are around 30-36 months or 16-25 months, respectively.

  4. Processing: Cattle are then transported to be slaughtered at around 1100-1400 lbs. The meat is graded, packaged and shipped by four main meatpacker corporations.

  5. Supermarket: Retailers then buy and sell to customers.

Land used for grazing pastures and growing cattle feed takes away from natural habitats and agriculture, leading to a loss of biodiversity. 77% of the agricultural land in the world is used for livestock and feeding livestock, despite only 17% of most consumption coming from animals (only 33% of the world’s protein intake comes from animals as well).

Expanding land for livestock plays a major role in deforestation. In Latin America, 70% of deforestation results in grazing pastures. This work helps accelerate species extinctions, turning many grasslands into deserts. The estimated loss rate is about 50 to 500x higher than expected based on past extinction rates from fossils.

In addition to carbon emissions, farmers use tons of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides when growing cattle feed, leading to additional nutrients and toxins that damage the natural habitat, creating coastal “dead” zones and coral reef degradation. Cattle also lead to large amounts of erosion and antibiotic use that will bleed in the surrounding life.

Cattle livestock also require tons of water and gasoline, quickly draining the Earth’s natural resources. Every pound of grain-fed beef requires a gallon of gasoline and cattle consume 8% of global human water use. There is also a considerable amount of beef-related food waste from consumers and from recalls due to disease.

Animal Cost

Every year over 35,000,000 cows are slaughtered per year for food in the United States. The laws on animal farming are lax, and the way cows are treated in factory farms is extremely cruel. 

When cows arrive at the farms they are marked with tags for identification, with ranchers pressing hot fire irons into their flesh. Their horns are also cut or burned off. They live in very cramped spaces that are feces and mud filled. The cattle are fed an unnatural diet of grain and corn, meant to fatten them up quickly. In addition they are fed lots of antibiotics to keep them alive and continue fattening. And when their time is up they are taken to the slaughterhouse.   

An undercover video that an animal welfare group, Compassion Over Killing, took at Central Valley Meat Co (a slaughterhouse that supplies beef to Costco, McDonald's, In-N-Out, and the National Lunch program) showed workers illegally shocking cows up to 40 times, killing the cows slowly. 

If you read our article on the true cost of milk, you may remember that male cows are separated from their mothers right after birth to supply the veal industry. They are confined in solitary stalls for 16-18 weeks. They are fed mostly liquid and are purposefully kept anemic and weak to yield pale meat.

Human Cost

Each country has a food they revolve around: in Italy it's pasta, in Asia it's rice, and in America it's beef. The U.S. is one of the largest consumers of beef, consuming 6.7B burgers at fast food restaurants per year. 

There are also numerous studies on how people eat in relation to their gender identities -- for men that are consuming something meaty-like steak, and for women it's something healthy-like a salad. Americans deem those who eat “masculine foods” more masculine, and those who eat more “feminine foods” more feminine. Men eat 3x as much meat as women do. And how does eating beef impact people's health? There have been many studies on this with these findings:

  • Over 42K women were studied over a 7 year period. Those that had higher consumption of red meat had links with a higher risk of invasive breast cancer

  • Another study that followed 53K women and 27K men (all healthy, heart disease and cancer free at the beginning of the study) found that those that ate red meat had higher mortality rates over the course of 8 years.

  • A recent National Institutes of Health-AARP study of more than a half million older Americans concluded that people who ate the most red and processed meat over a 10-year-period were likely to die sooner than those who ate smaller amounts. Those who ate about 4 ounces of red meat a day were more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than those who ate the least, about a half-ounce a day.

Meat is high in saturated fats, which raise cholesterol, and increase the risk of heart disease.  Ideally, meat should only be consumed max 2-3 times a week, and should be a side meal, rather than the main course itself. 

Beef Today

From everything we discussed, we hope we’ve made it clear that there is overwhelming evidence connecting beef production with the environmental, animal, and human cost we see in the world today. Yet, there are a lot of structural and social things to consider that exist today that keep us far from easily advancing the industry forward.

So while it is easy to change your own diet, to make real change will require lots of moving parts to work together. We’ll highlight a few of these key players:

  • Main meat distributors: Big players like Tyson Foods, Cargill and JBS will need to start making massive changes to adapt throughout the supply chain, coordinating with other contributors and market to consumers differently.

  • Small farm ranchers: While there are only a few main distributors in the middle of the supply chain, there are hundreds of smaller farmers that own ranches to grow calves. It will be difficult to transition these small players without support from the government.

  • Multi-dimensional industry: Outside of the main supply chain, many different industries have political stake in the current meatpacking setup — agro-chemical companies (fertilizer, pesticides), food manufacturers (frozen foods, pre-created meals), food retailers (restaurants), transportation systems (shipping), and equipment manufacturers.

  • Government: The government today subsidizes the meat industry, over $38B a year, making meat considerably cheaper in the U.S. Approaches to change monetary support and coordinate with industry similar to renewable energy corporations might be in place.

  • Accountability boards: Organizations like Greenpeace strive to uphold sustainability standards and track the commitments made by these players. It has not been good so far.

We’ll also note that there are still inherent problems with how meat consumption is portrayed in the world today. Human consumption towards plants is in huge competition for land with the meat industry. Scientists discovered that if current land was focused for direct consumption instead of livestock, 70% more calories would be available, meeting the needs of more than 4 billion additional people met with food insecurity.

This is also related toward displacement of smaller crop farmers across the world. While some small farm ranchers still exist, property rights of farmers that grow feed are taken over by large plantations. Meat industries in wealthier nations also dominate over meat industries in less socioeconomically disadvantaged countries, contributing to loss of local industries.

The Future of Beef

You might have heard the phrase "from farm to plate" but now the meat industry will have to make room for "from plant to plate" and "from lab to plate". And yes, you read the second one correctly. The global meat substitutes sector is worth $20.7B and is set to grow to $23.2B by 2024. 

Consumers’ dollars are showing up, with Nielsen reporting that about two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands with millennials (73%) and Gen Z (72%) even more on board. Sales of alternative meat products went up 264% during COVID-19 alone.

Plant-based meat organizations like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been instrumental in raising awareness and driving the movement. We’ll talk more about their health benefits in the alternatives section.

Along with the rise of plant-based meat, there's been innovation in lab-grown meat alternatives produced from animal cells and eliminates the need to slaughter animals. Some of the trailblazers in this space include Mosa Meat (early backed by Google's Sergey Brin, raised a Series B round of $55M last September), Upside Foods (raised a series B round of $161M last January), and  Aleph Farms. Singapore recently became the first country to approve cultured meat in a restaurant that SF startup Eat Just created. 

Despite all of this great success so far, plant-based still holds less than 1% of the market share of the U.S. meat industry and has a hard time adapting to “unstructured” meat products like nuggets. Some of the next steps include:

  • Improving the supply chain: There is no strong supply chain that exists for alternatives (although there are massive improvements being made), so support from the existing meat industry and government will be massive. Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Cargill and JBS have all invested or introduced new plant-based products. Government support similar to renewable energy is suggested to create a public and private collaboration.

  • Making more affordable, marketable products: The price of alternative products is not the most affordable compared to meat today, which can be offset by the government subsidy. Suggestions have been made to reduce the meat subsidy provided by the government and pivot this to alternatives instead. People have shown their willingness to pay more for sustainable meat.

  • Reducing the energy cost: Costs to make plant-based alternatives are significantly cheaper than the overall process, but lab-based alternatives still have long ways to go.

  • Managing the job industry: Thousands of smaller farmers within the supply chain will need to be funded to transition to growing more protein-rich plants or be supported in other sustainable jobs.

We want to note we focus on the U.S. Different countries have different meat cultures and could require different future approaches given the supply chain and social norms. We also highly recommend following organizations like Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation, Meat Science and International Association for Food Protection for more research and future innovation.

Love at First Bite 

We're really excited about all the innovation there's been around plant-based meats! Thankfully there are a lot of choices and the brands we listed have extensive product offerings. These options typically tend to be healthier (less saturated fat and calories) and extremely better for the environment (87% less water, 89% less greenhouse gas emissions, and 96% less land). Prices listed are per burger patty. Note that we are not sponsored to show any of these brands.

If you're interested to learn more about what ingredients are typically used in plant based meats check out this article. 

What You Can Do

  • Try reducing meat consumption (Meatless Mondays are a great opportunity) to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent of 348 miles), save 130+ gallons of water, and save some extra dollars on your grocery bill.

  • Opt in for a plant based meat alternative from our suggestions above.

  • Consider consuming more beans, nuts, or tofu for your source of protein.

  • Write and participate with government leaders to advocate for meat industry changes similar to renewable energy policy.

  • Share this article 🐮 to get the conversation moo-ving. Have discussions with your friends and family to spread awareness

Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.