Environment's Beef with Beef

While 1997 had many important events such as the Mars Pathfinder landing and Hong Kong's Independence of China, my mom’s fondest memory (hopefully besides my birth year) is that it is the Year of the Ox. I grew up deep into Chinese culture because of my mom and with it came the many Chinese zodiac signs. While I generally don’t believe in horoscopes or any other forms of zodiac signs, I’ve held a strong connection to specifically the Ox. It symbolizes a strong sense of work ethic and reliability while working from behind the scenes; Something I think I encompass as a person both in social and work environments. Yet the Ox holds a more active role in my latter years of life: Food. 


Beef has been a huge stable in the American diet for much of recent history. Fast-food, restaurants, and many other sectors in the food industry have catered to this diet (pun intended) by large portions of their menu having some beef or beef-derivatives. But the last couple of decades, the meat and dairy industry has been under heavy fire by many environmental groups due to its huge contribution to CO2 emissions into the atmosphere (Carrington 2014). This has caused many advocates for both environmental sustainability and animal rights to call out to the public for smaller contributions to their meat consumption. Yet the market has been steadily growing with the 70s, and with it, so has the size of cows. While the ethical argument of the treatment and development of these animals is still a highly debated topic, the environmental pressures the industry is beginning to apply have been investigated and deemed a huge factor in the current global warming crisis. 


Figure 1: Statistical data representing carbon-dioxide emission for each food category, in gram per kilocalorie 


While the consequences of the beef industry have been stated by the research community, it’s US market value of $67 billion means it has no means of stopping anytime soon (Shahbandeh 2019). But value has taken a huge hit ever since the arrival of the COVID-19 crisis. With the lack of demand, food suppliers have had only a fraction of their normal shipments and an estimated loss of $13.6 billion has been calculated due to the pandemic (Drovers 2020). The only comparable market loss in this industry in recent memory was the mad-cow ban on US cattle exports, which grossed an estimated $11 billion from 2004 to 2007 (Doering 2008). Yet these market dips show potential for alternative meat-market that may begin in the shortcomings of the beef industry. 

Figure 2: Bar graph showing the U.S. market value of cattle production from 2010 to 2020, showing consistency.


The meat-substitute market has been growing slowly for the past decade. With this change, huge US market meat suppliers such as Tyson, Perdue, and Smithfield have been releasing their own variations of meat substitutes (Yaffe-Bellany 2019). By using plant-based proteins and fats, this market is close to replicating the texture and taste of beef. The meat-substitutes are not without fault though. While they do resolve a large chunk of the carbon emissions their predecessor had caused, their nutrition values have had to compensate for it. Many soy-based meat alternatives are higher in sodium and saturated fats while missing micronutrients such as Vitamin B and iron. 


Figure 3: Representation of meat-substitute market growth over the last 8-year span in the U.S. market. 


With the pandemic taking over most of our attention, we should also not forget the problems that we face concurrently. Changes to our physical, financial, and social environments will only continue as time goes on during our quarantine. By the time we emerge from our homes, maybe we should have a different outlook and respect for both our food and environment. 




  1. Carrington, D. “Giving up beef will reduce the carbon footprint more than cars, says expert.” The Guardian. Guardians News & Media, 21 July 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-than-cars

  2. Wilson, L. “The carbon footprint of 5 diets compared.” Shrink That Footprint. http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/food-carbon-footprint-diet. Accessed 17 April 2020

  3. Shahbandeh, M. “Meat sector value worldwide from 2018 and 2023”. Statista. 30 September 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/502286/global-meat-and- seafood-market-value/

  4. Drovers, T. “COVID-19: Cattle Industry Losses Estimated at $13.6 Billion.” AgWeb, 15 April 2020. https://www.agweb.com/article/covid-19-cattle- industry-losses-estimated-136-billion

  5. Doering, C. “Mad-cow ban cost U.S. $11 billion in beef exports.” Reuters. 7 October 2008. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-madcow-beeftrade-exports/ mad-cow-ban-cost-u-s-11-billion-in-beef-exports-idUSTRE4969C120081007

  6. Image taken from https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/market-size/beef- cattle-production-united-states/. Accessed 17 April 2020

  7. Yaffe-Bellany, D. “The New Makers of Plant-Based Meat? Big Meat Companies.” NY Times. The New York Times Company, 14 October 2019. https://www.nytime s.com/2019/10/14/business/the-new-makers-of-plant-based-meat-big-meat-companies.html

  8. Image taken from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/meat- substitutes-market. Accessed 17 April 2020