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Biodiversity To Go: The Hidden Costs of Beef Consumption
by Dave Tilford

Recently, a program entitled Biography ran a short series on the fast food industry. Dubbed “Biography to Go,” the series examined the lives and legacies of Colonel Harlan Sanders, Dave Thomas, and Ray Kroc. (If Ray Kroc’s name and visage are less familiar than the founders and pitchmen of KFC and Wendy’s, it is because Kroc’s legacy rests instead on the image of the world’s most recognizable clown, Ronald McDonald.)

While some may question the educational content of a series about fast food, I found the shows fascinating. They offered a vivid portrayal of a popular culture shifting into overdrive during the late 1950s and 1960s, partly at the hands of these fast food moguls. The profiles on these industry pioneers showed how our reliance on fast food blossomed alongside our codependent love affair with the automobile. Beginning in the late 1950s, when golden arches and oversized red and white buckets began to proliferate across the landscape, they did so along an ever expanding network of asphalt arteries.

Obviously, the fast food industry depends on the motorist for survival. When a new highway bypassed Sanders’ original restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, it closed, and the Colonel literally took his show on the road, marketing his product to establishments along the main thoroughfares. One wonders if the reverse might also be true—the emergence of the auto culture might in some way depend on fast food. Throughout the early history of our highway system, as roads were paved to accommodate the cars, quick stop restaurants emerged to accommodate the motorists. With each new road/restaurant combo, life behind the wheel became more convenient . . . and more commonplace.

Perhaps it is unfair to implicate the fast food industry in creating an automobile society. As detailed in this issue’s cover story, many factors came into play, some more compelling than the promise of a quick meal on the road. Whether this particular road to ruin could have been constructed without drive-through windows is academic now. It is worth noting only that fast lanes and fast food emerged together and now exist in a symbiotic relationship that encourages the survival and expansion of both.

Beefed-up Planet
Although fast food menus have expanded, the burger is still the mainstay of most establishments, and Kroc’s original 1/10 pound version has been supplanted by the quarter pounder as the industry standard. McDonald’s, of course, has gone from a one shot California burger shack in 1955 to a vast empire, a chain of burger restaurants upon which the sun never sets. With nearly 25,000 restaurants in 114 countries, McDonald’s is now the largest food service organization in the world. A new set of golden arches pops up somewhere on the globe every four hours according to the company’s 1997 annual report. And of course, McDonald’s is but one chain among many now.

Which brings us to another recent phenomenon for which the fast food industry has acted more as principal than mere accomplice: along with a nation of motorists we also have a planet of cows. According to United Nations statistics from 1989, 1.28 billion bovines walk the earth, their combined weight exceeding that of the human population. A hefty percentage of them are destined to become all-beef patties.

Despite a certain docile charm, all those cows weigh heavily on the planet. The environmental problems associated with beef production are many and varied, but can be grouped under a common heading: inefficient use of resources. Simply put, the resources necessary to make a cow could be put to better use by some of the planet’s other inhabitants, humans included. Robert Goodland, Senior Environmental Advisor to the World Bank and author of several books on ecological economics, offered this blunt assessment:

Cattle have arguably caused or are related to the most environmental damage to the globe of any non-human species (e.g. overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, tropical deforestation for ranches).1

Cows are conspicuous consumers of water, food and space. Beckett and Oltjen (1993) estimate that 108 gallons of water is funneled into each quarter pound of beef, counting what the animal drinks and what goes into its feed. (Other estimates range much higher. Ryan and Durning (1995): 616 gallons; Pimental et al (1997): 3000 gallons.) Meanwhile, range cattle in the Western U.S. trample and pollute sensitive riparian areas, while feedlots are responsible for fouling groundwater drinking sources.2

In Central and South America, where millions of acres of rainforest have been cleared to make way for pastureland, the effect on global biodiversity has been disastrous:

It is estimated that for every quarter pound hamburger that comes from a steer raised in Central and South America, it is necessary to destroy approximately 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of living matter, “including some of twenty to thirty different plant species, perhaps one hundred insect species, and dozens of bird, mammal, and reptile species.”3

Livestock Working Against the Grain
Cattle also represent a huge drain on the world’s grain supply. For cattle raised in feedlots, it takes roughly seven pounds of grain to add a pound of live weight to the animal.4 USDA statistics tell us that 70% of the grain produced in the U.S. and 40% of the world's supply is fed to livestock—primarily cattle. Channeled directly to humans rather than diverted to cattle, this grain would represent a huge surplus. Even if the goal is protein production, land use efficiency dictates farming for humans rather than farming for cows. One acre of cereals can produce twice to ten times as much protein as an acre devoted to beef production; one acre of legumes ten to twenty times as much.5 According to the Worldwatch Institute, “Perhaps the greatest potential for increasing food use efficiency lies in reducing consumption of meat, a grain intensive food...[R]educing consumption of [livestock], especially beef, could free up massive quantities of grain and reduce pressure on land.”6

Americans: The Big Beefeaters
Americans are among the world leaders in meat consumption. In 1990, we consumed over 250 pounds per capita—a daily rate of one quarter pound burger plus seven ounces or so of pork, chicken and other meats.7 On this point I cannot afford to be too sanctimonious, however. Despite a recent conversion to a largely vegetarian diet, I spent a good deal of my prior existence beneath various arches and buckets, a dedicated carnivore. In college, it was not unusual for me to follow my fast food breakfast with a fast food lunch, rounded off by a fast food dinner. Even now, on long car trips I feel the odd Pavlovian urge to pull off upon sight of the familiar cluster of signs beyond the exit ramp—always the same four or five restaurants denoting a burger oasis for the weary traveler. Though I no longer give in to the urge (driving less helps), it is an indication of the pull these establishments have on the American psyche—especially that of the American motorist.

Many Americans, in fact, are cutting back on meat consumption. For me, the decision was based on consideration for my personal health, without much real understanding of the environmental factors. As I become more and more cognizant of the environmental costs, however, a return to the burger shacks seems less and less likely. Learning to actually cook meat-free meals for myself has been a long and at times arduous process, but not without rewards—for my taste buds, my health, and ultimately, for the planet.

–Dave Tilford is Special Projects Director for the Center for a New American Dream


  1. Goodland, R., Environmental Sustainability in Agriculture: Bioethical and Religius Arguments Against Carnivory in Lemons, J. Westra L. and Goodland, R. (eds) Ecological Sustainability (Kluwer Academic 1988), 235 - 265.
  2. Id at 235.
  3. Rifkin, J., Beyond Beef, (dutton 1992) 96, quoting Denslow, J. and Padoch C., People of the Tropical Rain Forest (University of California Press 1988), 168.
  4. Brown, L., Full House (W.W. Norton & Co. 1994), 66.
  5. Goodland, R. unpublished manuscript, 1998, citing statistics from FAO/WHO/UNICEF Protein Advisory Group.
  6. Gardner, G., Shrinking Fields: Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion (Worldwatch Paper 1996), 46.
  7. Brown, L. Full House (W.W. Norton & Co. 1994), 64

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