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Put Down the Burger to Stop Climate Change, UN Argues

Cheeseburger

People need to cut back on burgers because they're contributing to climate change, the United Nations said this week.

The United Nations Environment Program said research shows that Americans eat about three burgers a week, and if one of those was swapped for "a plant-based alternative burger for one year, it would be like taking the greenhouse gases from 12 million cars off the road for a year."

The World Economic Forum blames the beef and dairy industries for churning out more greenhouse gas emissions than oil companies or some countries like Germany. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association argued that environmental regulations imposed under the Obama administration were "federal requirements on cattle producers that discourage innovation and impose rigid requirements that do not work on cattle operations and, moreover, defy common sense."

The industry group noted last year that the EPA had said cattle production was responsible for 1.9 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2014, while the same year transportation and electricity accounted for 25.8 percent and 30.6 percent of emissions.

But the UN says the growth of the beef industry -- the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization projects a 76 percent increase in meat consumption worldwide by 2050 -- is a recipe for environmental disaster.

Beef production depletes water resources, the global body states, and is responsible for 80 percent of Amazon deforestation while globally providing 18 percent of calories though taking up 80 percent of agricultural land. The UN also says beef contributes to antibiotic resistance when the drugs given to animals to keep them healthy wind up ingested by humans.

“We need to be realistic. Cutting meat out of the diet entirely is for many people just not an option,”  James Lomax, Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture Programme management officer at UN Environment said in a statement this week that warned "we will pay the environmental and human price—unless we make a change now."

“Livestock production is a really important source of vitamins and protein—and income generation—for the world’s poor. And, small organic husbandry operations have a very different environmental footprint compared with industrial type livestock production,” Lomax said, adding that "at the core of the environmental issue is the way meat is produced and, crucially, consumed."

Eating chicken, the UN says, "can be more environmentally friendly," though they highlighted "a small but growing trend for meat-free 'meat.'”

Beef and climate change is expected to be on the agenda at the 2019 UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March.