The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers

1 Aug 201207:51


TLDRLivestock, particularly cows, significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, rivaling transportation in environmental impact. The U.S. beef industry's vast scale leads to extensive land and water use, deforestation, and pollution. Cows' digestion produces potent methane, and their manure generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. The modern feedlot system, reliant on corn and soy, exacerbates these issues. Reducing meat consumption, opting for grass-fed beef, and improving agricultural practices can mitigate the environmental toll, highlighting that individual choices have a collective impact on the planet's sustainability.


  • 🐄 Cows significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to the impact of cars, planes, and trains.
  • 🌎 Livestock, including cows, occupy 30% of Earth's land and use extensive resources, exacerbating deforestation and pollution.
  • 🍔 Americans consume a staggering 48 billion hamburgers annually, with the average individual eating three burgers per week.
  • 💧 Producing beef is water-intensive, requiring about 1,800 gallons of water for one pound of grain-fed beef, far exceeding the water needs for chicken or wheat.
  • 🌱 Shifts in agricultural policy in the 1970s led to cows being fed corn and soy instead of grass, impacting their digestion and increasing methane production.
  • 💨 Methane from cows, a potent greenhouse gas, has 21 times the climate-changing power of CO2, with American cows producing more greenhouse gases annually than 22 million cars.
  • 🏭 Slaughterhouses and beef processing are also major sources of contamination, contributing significant pollutants like nitrates and ammonia to the environment.
  • 🍴 The hidden environmental and health costs of beef production are substantial, with estimates suggesting an additional cost of $1.51 per burger in terms of greenhouse gases and other factors.
  • 🔬 Studies link high red meat consumption to various health issues, including heart disease and diabetes, indicating both environmental and personal health risks.
  • 🌱 Reducing beef consumption even slightly, such as by eliminating one burger per week, can significantly reduce one's environmental impact, akin to reducing car usage.

Q & A

  • What is the main environmental threat discussed in the transcript?

    -The main environmental threat discussed is the contribution of livestock, particularly cows, to greenhouse gas pollution and their impact on climate, land, and water due to beef production practices.

  • How does the beef industry contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?

    -The beef industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through the methane produced by cows during digestion, the nitrous oxide from cow manure, and the carbon footprint from the transportation and processing of beef.

  • What is the significance of cows being ruminants in terms of environmental impact?

    -Cows, being ruminants, produce methane gas when they digest food. Methane has 21 times more climate-changing power than CO2, making it a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

  • How does the shift in cow feed from grass to corn and soy impact the environment?

    -The shift to corn and soy as cow feed, which is a result of government subsidies, has led to increased land and water usage for growing these crops. It also causes issues as cows are naturally built to digest grass, and corn can lead to increased methane production due to bloating.

  • What are the hidden costs associated with beef production that consumers do not pay for directly?

    -The hidden costs include the environmental damage from land usage, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and health care costs associated with the negative health impacts of high meat consumption.

  • How much land do livestock use globally?

    -Livestock use approximately 30% of the Earth's entire land area, including pastures and land used to grow grain for feed.

  • What is the comparison between the amount of land used for feeding animals versus humans?

    -About eight times more land is used for feeding animals than for feeding humans.

  • How much water is required to produce a single pound of grain-fed beef?

    -It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of grain-fed beef.

  • What is the impact of fertilizer runoff on aquatic ecosystems?

    -Runoff from fertilizer and manure can lead to the creation of huge algae blooms in water bodies, which consume oxygen and create dead zones where no life can survive.

  • What are some alternatives to reduce the environmental impact of beef consumption?

    -Alternatives include cutting down on meat consumption, such as eating no meat or cheese one day a week, and choosing grass-fed beef which has a lower environmental impact.

  • How does reducing beef consumption affect greenhouse gas emissions?

    -Reducing beef consumption can significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, with estimates suggesting that cutting out one burger per week could remove as much pollution as driving a car 350 miles less.



🌍 The Environmental Impact of Livestock

This paragraph discusses the significant environmental threat posed by livestock, particularly cows, which contribute to greenhouse gas pollution comparable to transportation. It highlights the increase in beef consumption since World War II, leading to the United States becoming the largest beef producer. The paragraph emphasizes the hidden costs of beef production, including land usage, deforestation, water consumption, and the adaptation of cows to new feed systems. It also addresses the methane emissions from cows, the pollution caused by cow manure, and the environmental effects of fertilizers used for growing feed crops. The paragraph concludes by pointing out the health risks associated with excessive meat consumption and the potential for E. coli contamination in processed beef products.


🍔 The Consequences of Beef Consumption

This paragraph focuses on the environmental and health consequences of high beef consumption in America. It starts by quantifying the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a single hamburger and then scales up to the national level, comparing it to the emissions of coal-fired power plants. The paragraph explains that the problem lies in the system of mass-producing beef and not with the cows themselves. It also discusses the recommended daily diet versus the actual American diet, which is high in meat, grains, fat, and sugar, and low in fruits and vegetables. The health risks of excessive red meat intake, such as heart disease and diabetes, are mentioned, along with the financial costs of these dietary habits. The paragraph concludes with suggestions for reducing environmental impact, such as reducing beef intake and choosing grass-fed beef, and it raises awareness of the global implications of meat consumption.



💡Greenhouse gas pollution

Greenhouse gas pollution refers to the release of gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere that trap heat and contribute to global warming. In the context of the video, it highlights the significant contribution of livestock, particularly cows, to this form of pollution, which is comparable to emissions from transportation. The script emphasizes the environmental impact of beef production and consumption, noting that cows in America produce more greenhouse gases than millions of cars do annually.


Livestock refers to domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting for labor, food, or other purposes. In the video, the focus is on cattle, which are a major component of livestock and a significant source of meat, particularly beef. The script discusses the environmental challenges associated with livestock, such as land usage, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, which are all linked to the global environmental crisis.

💡Beef production

Beef production encompasses the processes involved in raising cattle and processing their meat for consumption. The video underscores the detrimental effects of beef production on the environment, including deforestation, water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. It also touches on the health implications of high beef consumption, suggesting a connection between diet and public health issues.


Cows are large domesticated animals commonly raised for their meat, milk, and labor. In the video, cows are specifically discussed in relation to their role in environmental issues, particularly as a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The script also explains how cows' natural diet and digestive systems are not compatible with the modern feedlot system, which relies heavily on corn and soy.

💡Meat consumption

Meat consumption refers to the intake of animal-derived food products, with a focus in the video on beef. The script highlights the high levels of meat consumption in the U.S. compared to other countries and discusses the environmental and health impacts associated with this dietary habit. It also suggests alternatives and changes that could reduce the negative effects of meat consumption on the environment and human health.


Sustainability in the context of the video refers to the ability to maintain environmental balance, economic viability, and social equity over the long term without depleting resources or causing harm to ecosystems. The script emphasizes the need for sustainable practices in beef production to mitigate the environmental damage caused by the current system.


Deforestation is the process of clearing forests, often for agricultural or developmental purposes. In the video, deforestation is discussed as a harmful practice resulting from the need to create more land for livestock and grow feed crops, which in turn contributes to pollution and the loss of natural habitats that absorb carbon dioxide.

💡Water usage

Water usage refers to the consumption of water resources for various purposes, including agriculture and domestic use. In the video, it is emphasized that the production of beef, particularly grain-fed beef, requires a significant amount of water, which has implications for water scarcity and the sustainability of water resources.

💡Nitrous oxide

Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. In the video, it is associated with the environmental impact of beef production, particularly from cow manure and the use of nitrogen fertilizers in growing feed for livestock. The script explains that nitrous oxide is a significant contributor to global warming and environmental degradation.


A feedlot is a concentrated animal feeding operation where livestock are raised in a confined space and fed a diet primarily composed of grains. In the video, feedlots are depicted as a part of the modern livestock industry that has shifted from a grass-based diet to one focused on corn and soy, which can lead to health issues for the animals and environmental problems due to the high gas emissions.

💡E. coli

E. coli is a type of bacteria that can cause foodborne illness when ingested. In the context of the video, it is mentioned as a potential contaminant in processed beef, highlighting the risks associated with the industrialization of meat production. The mixing of beef from different sources at processing centers increases the possibility of widespread contamination.


Livestock, particularly cows, are a major contributor to greenhouse gas pollution, on par with transportation.

The global beef production is harmful to the climate, land, and water resources.

Americans consume three times more meat than people in other countries.

The U.S. is the largest beef producer in the world, with a $74 billion industry.

Despite a shift towards chicken, pork, and plant-based alternatives, beef remains a significant part of the American diet.

Americans consume over 48 billion burgers annually.

The hidden costs of beef are not reflected in the price at the counter but impact the environment and health in other ways.

Livestock uses 30% of the Earth's entire land area, including land for grazing and growing feed.

It takes eight times more land to feed animals than humans, leading to deforestation in places like Brazil.

Producing a pound of grain-fed beef requires approximately 1,800 gallons of water, significantly more than chicken or wheat.

Cows are ruminants and produce methane, a gas 21 times more potent than CO2 in terms of climate change.

American cows produce more greenhouse gas than 22 million cars per year.

Cow manure and the use of nitrogen fertilizer contribute to nitrous oxide pollution, with severe environmental consequences.

Slaughterhouses and meat processing centers contribute to pollution and potential health hazards like E. coli.

A single quarter-pounder burger results in about 6.5 pounds of greenhouse gases.

The environmental and health costs associated with beef consumption amount to over $72 billion annually.

Reducing beef consumption, even by one burger per week, can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Grass-fed beef is less environmentally damaging than corn-fed beef.

A global shift towards increased meat consumption, as seen in China, poses a significant challenge to the environment.



It’s time to confront a major threat to our global environment: cows. Yup – turns


out that livestock are a major contributor to greenhouse gas pollution. Right up there


with cars, planes and trains.


And at the rate we’re producing beef worldwide, emissions from cows – along with other harmful


practices in beef production – threaten to mess up our climate, land and water. Big




On average, Americans eat three times more meat than people in other countries. From


the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, beef consumption per person doubled. The U.S.


is now the largest beef producer in the world. Our beef industry is a powerhouse worth $74


billion a year and providing millions of jobs.


Today, more and more Americans are choosing chicken and pork, even tofu. But much of the


meat we eat is still beef.


Let’s look at an all-American food: the hamburger. On average, we eat about three


burgers per week. So let’s see: If all 313 million Americans eat three burgers per week,


that’s 156 burgers per person per year. All together, that’s more than 48 billion


burgers every year.


A quarter-pounder at a fast food joint costs 3 or 4 bucks. That’s pretty cheap. But what


we don’t pay for at the counter, we end up paying for in other ways. What are the


hidden costs?


First of all, cows take up a lot of space. Worldwide, livestock use 30 percent of the


earth's entire land area – that’s counting pastures and land used to grow grain for feed.


We use about eight times as much land for feeding animals as for feeding humans. And


in places like Brazil, acres of forest are still being cleared for livestock – which


creates pollution and also removes a perfect sponge for absorbing carbon dioxide.


And did someone mention water? It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to make a single pound


of grain-fed beef – that’s about four times the amount for chicken and more than


10 times the amount for a pound of wheat.


Why does it take so much land and water to feed cows? Well, for one thing, cows eat a




During the first six months, a calf eats and eats and eats. When it’s about 700 pounds,


it’s sold at auction – usually to a feedlot, which is like a very crowded cow city.


At the feedlot, the cow continues to eat and eat and eat. At most feedlots, cows eat a


mixture of soy and corn.


This whole feed system’s pretty new. Before the 1970s, cows ate mostly grass. Then Congress


passed a farm bill that changed everything. The government started paying farmers to grow


feed crops like corn and soy. It also helped pay for more fertilizer. So, voila: Now corn


is in everything from sodas to cereal. And most of the country’s 90 million cows now


get corn for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Unfortunately, cows are built to digest grass. Corn can make them bloat with gas, and cows


make a lot of gas.


This is no joke.


See, cows are ruminants – meaning they create methane gas when they digest food. Chicken


and pigs don’t. Methane has 21 times more climate-changing power than CO2. In America,


cows produce more greenhouse gas than 22 million cars per year.


America’s cows create about 500 million tons of manure in a year. That’s three times


as much as we humans do. Cow manure also creates nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the global


warming effect of CO2. Cow manure is responsible for two-thirds of all the nitrous oxide pollution


in the world.


There’s another source of nitrous oxide in a cow’s life cycle: fertilizer. We Americans


use 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to grow feed for our cows.


When runoff from fertilizer and manure flow into rivers, and then to the ocean, they create


huge algae blooms, which suck the oxygen out of the water and leave dead zones where no


life can survive.


Anyway, back to the feedlot. Once the cows are fattened up, they head to the slaughterhouse.


Slaughterhouses create about 30 million pounds of contaminants a year – mainly nitrates


and ammonia used to disinfect meat.


From the slaughterhouse, the beef is shipped to big processing centers, where California


beef is mixed with Texas beef and Colorado beef. One burger patty can contain the DNA


of more than a thousand cows. That means a single case of E. coli could easily spread


to thousands of burgers. Trucking all that beef around creates pollution, too.


This isn't an exact science, and the numbers vary depending on how the cows were raised.


But a single quarter-pounder clocks in at about 6½ pounds of greenhouse gases. That


might not sound like much, but with Americans eating three burgers per week, that’s more


than 158 million tons of greenhouse gases per year – about the same amount of greenhouse


gas as 34 coal-fired power plants.


It’s not the cow’s fault. It’s the system we’ve created to mass-produce beef that’s


the problem. Too many burgers take a toll on the environment. They can take a toll on


your body, too.


This is the recommended daily diet. And this is how most Americans actually eat. We eat


way too much meat, grains, fat and sugar, and not enough fruits and vegetables.


Many studies show that eating too much red meat can lead to heart disease, high blood


pressure and, in some cases, diabetes. The hidden costs add up.


One research group figured the cost just in greenhouse gases, water for growing cattle


feed and health care at about $1.51 for every burger. Multiply that by the 48 billion burgers


Americans eat every year, and that’s more than $72 billion. We don’t pay it at the


store or at the fast food joint. But we pay it in other ways.


So what can we do?


Well, we don’t have to give up meat to change our impact. Cutting out just one burger per


week would remove as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking your car off the road for 350 miles.


If all Americans ate no meat or cheese one day a week, it would have the same climate-change


prevention effect as taking 7.6 million cars off the road for one year.


And while it's more expensive, grass-fed beef does less damage to the environment.


Even the smallest choices make a big difference – to the environment, to our neighbors,


to our health. In the U.S., people are starting to eat less meat. But the rest of the world


is eating more. Just imagine: What if all 1.3 billion people in China ate three burgers


a week – like we do?


Could our planet keep up?

Rate This

5.0 / 5 (0 votes)

Related Tags
Beef IndustryClimate ChangeSustainabilityEnvironmental ImpactMeat ConsumptionGreenhouse GasesDeforestationHealth RisksEco-Friendly ChoicesFood Industry