It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Americans love to stuff their faces with cow meat. There may be nothing more stereotypically American than grilling burgers on the Fourth of July. Meatloaf is a home-cooking classic. And few dishes in the country’s cookbook have the same cachet as steak or match the succulence of a barbecued brisket. In 2021, Americans ate 20 billion pounds of beef. That’s roughly 60 pounds per person, or a Big Mac every other day, plus a Whopper every three or four days. So it’s no wonder that the United States is the world’s top producer of veal and beef.
But this picture of the country’s beef consumption — a major factor in greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture, which accounts for about one-tenth of the country’s total — is more skewed than the raw numbers might lead you to believe. New research indicates that not all beef eaters are created equal. A small percentage of the country’s population — just 12 percent — accounts for half of the country’s beef consumption on any given day, according to a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Nutrients.
“It’s startling that it’s concentrated among a small minority,” said Diego Rose, a professor at Tulane University and a co-author of the paper.
From a climate standpoint, these beef guzzlers are not all that different from gasoline superusers — the 10 percent of drivers who account for one-third of the country’s gas use. A single cow can belch up to 264 pounds of methane in a year, the equivalent of burning almost 4,000 pounds of coal or driving a gas-powered car about 9,000 miles. That’s why climate advocates say people should eat less beef if they want to help ease climate change. “Beef is kind of like an environmentally extravagant source of protein,” Rose said. “It’s like the Hummer of the protein world.”
According to previous research by Rose and researchers at the University of Michigan, getting Americans to cut their beef consumption by 90 percent – and other animal products by 50 percent – would reduce emissions by the same amount as taking every single car off the road in the U.S., and another 200 million cars off the roads in other countries, for a year. The good news, in other words, is that the entire population of the United States doesn’t need to be convinced; a focus on changing the eating habits of the small group of beef eaters could go a long way.
Who, exactly, comprises that group? “There’s some of everybody,” Rose said, but men and people between the ages of 50 and 65 are most likely to be big beef eaters, the study found. The study doesn’t explain the gender gap, but other research has linked similar findings to a perception that meat is more masculine and to a conclusion that men’s spending habits are worse for the climate than women’s.
The meat-eating gap doesn’t end with gender. College graduates, young people, old people, and people familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines all tend to eat less beef, the study found. Past surveys have indicated that Republicans are more likely to eat meat (not just beef) than Democrats. And people with higher incomes tend to eat more meat at first but less meat over time compared to people in the low-income bracket.
It’s not clear whether telling people who eat a lot of beef that their eating habits are contributing to global warming would actually make them change their ways. Some research suggests it might. But many people who feel wrong about eating meat still eat a lot of it. Psychologists call this the “meat paradox.” That term originally denoted the cognitive dissonance associated with consuming animal flesh while feeling morally wrong about animal suffering. But the same mental gymnastics appear to be associated with beef consumption and climate change, too.
Still, that doesn’t mean that ethical arguments are ineffective, according to Peter Singer, the moral philosopher and animal rights advocate who has spent much of his life trying to convince people not to eat meat. In a recent article in the Atlantic, he wrote that meat eaters can be convinced that eating meat is wrong, but the effect of that persuasion “is felt most powerfully at the level of the policy changes that voters will support, rather than in people’s choice of what to buy at the supermarket.” Getting money and lobbyists out of politics would be a start, Singer wrote. While his article focused on animal welfare, it might as well have been about climate change. Top U.S. meat and dairy companies have spent millions of dollars trying to kill climate legislation.
Voters, consumers, and political and corporate leaders still seem far from convinced enough to take collective action to lower beef consumption. Arby’s has shunned plant-based meat and even teased critics with its “Marrot” — a carrot look-alike made from turkey meat. One of the main Republican talking points in opposition to the ambitious climate proposal known as the Green New Deal, which aimed to tackle agricultural emissions without mentioning cows, was: “They want to take away your hamburgers.” Two years ago, a fake story made the rounds alleging that President Joe Biden would limit Americans to one hamburger a month. In response, Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, told the president to “stay out of my kitchen.”
Knowing that a small portion of Americans eat much of the country’s beef won’t make the political climate any less hostile. But it might help hone arguments about the benefits of eating less beef and the dangers of guzzling it.