There is a cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that nobody likes to talk about, and it is cow farts. In a single day, a lone cow can fill a 55-gallon bag with methane-laden gas–methane being a GHG as much as 30 times more damaging than carbon dioxide–and at least 1.5 billion cows roam the planet. The meat and dairy industry accounts for as much as 15% of global emissions.
Various solutions have been proposed to rein in cattle-fueled methane: A scientist at Texas A&M University is developing a closed-loop dairy concept to trap emissions from manure and convert it into fertilizer; a group of farmers in Argentina has gone down a less sophisticated route and begun to harvest cow farts in giant bags. But a team of American researchers, led by Helen Harwatt at Loma Linda University, are suggesting that the key might be people switching up their diets–and swapping out beef for beans.
Before we get sidetracked by the myriad “one gas for another” jokes to be made, let’s first get through the science of it all. This one change, the researchers found, would lead to the United States immediately hitting 50% to 75% of its GHG reduction targets for the year 2020. Beef is the most emissions-intensive food to produce, but–despite the fact that we, as a nation, have collectively reduced our consumption of it by 19% since 2005–it’s among the most popular proteins of choice in the country. Beans and legumes don’t carry the same all-American cache as a burger, but the researchers found that their production results in one-fortieth of the emissions produced by the livestock industry.
A number of dietary adjustments have been floated as potential alternatives to our emissions-heavy consumption habits. The Reducetarian Solution, a new book, advocates for collectively reducing the societal consumption of animal products by stating to cut back small amounts of meat, and plant-based food startups like Impossible Burger are finding new ways to recreate the experience of eating meat without harming the planet.
But the gimmicky nature of examining the effect of one dietary swap, Harwatt told Loma Linda University Health News, is the point. “Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy,” Harwatt said.
Through her research, Harwatt also discovered that shifting to beans and legumes would free up a good deal of land currently monopolized by the inefficient livestock industry. Around 42% of cropland, or 400 million square miles, currently used for beef production, would be liberated for other uses, which could go a long way toward supporting new, sustainable ways to feed our growing population.
While in the study, the researchers are careful to note that “beans for beef” is not yet being weighed as a climate policy option, Harwatt indicated that it could be. “Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?” she said in Loma Linda University Health News. “It looks like we’ll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn’t allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.” Now, joke away.