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Is This Burger Bad for the Planet?

Cars and factories get most of the blame for polluting Earth. But should you also be paying attention to the food on your plate?

Fh Photo/Shutterstock.com; Svietlieisha Olena/Shutterstock.com

    Picture this: A car and a herd of cows stand next to each other on a farm. 

    Let’s say the car is a pickup truck. It uses 5 gallons of gas just driving to the mall and back. It spits out smoke wherever it goes. The cows, on the other hand, are doing what cows do. They stand around in a big green field. They eat grass. They moo.

    Which does more damage to the planet, the car or the cows? The answer might surprise you. 

    Earth is warming at a dangerous rate. It’s a process called climate change. Cars and factories cause a lot of the problem. But scientists say that other industries also play a big role. And animal agriculture is one of them.

    Imagine that you have a pickup truck. You drive it to the mall and back. That takes 5 gallons of gas. The truck spits out smoke the whole trip.

    Now picture cows on a farm. The cows are doing what cows do. They stand around in a field. They eat grass. They moo.

    Which hurts the planet more—the truck or the cows? The answer might surprise you.

    Earth is warming very quickly. The warming is called climate change. It is dangerous to the planet. Cars cause the problem. So do factories. Other industries play a role too. Animal agriculture is one of them.

    Imagine an old pickup truck parked next to a herd of cows on a farm.

    The pickup truck uses 5 gallons of gas just driving to the mall and back, and it spits out smoke wherever it goes. In contrast, the cows are just roaming around a big green field. They’re eating grass and mooing—just like cows everywhere.

    Which is more harmful to the planet, the truck or the cows? You might be surprised by the answer.

    Earth is warming at a dangerous rate, and the process is called climate change. Cars and factories are a huge part of the problem. But scientists say that other industries, including animal agriculture, also play a big role in the planet’s warming.

A Gas Problem 

    How can a cow pollute the environment? It’s all about gas. Right now, climate change is happening because we produce gases—mostly by burning fuels like oil and coal. Those gases are called greenhouse gases. They collect in Earth’s atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat close to the planet’s surface. This is called the greenhouse effect. 

    Cows contribute to the problem in two ways. First, they burp a lot—and that is not a joke. When cows eat grass, their stomachs produce a gas called methane. A typical cow makes about 220 pounds of methane a year. 

    When cows burp, all that gas goes into the atmosphere. It adds to the greenhouse effect.

    That’s not the only way cows add to climate change. It takes a lot of grass to feed a herd of cows. To create grasslands, forests must be cut down. Every year, farmers clear more than 10 million acres worldwide. That’s an area bigger than the state of Maryland. The trees in those forests contain a gas called carbon dioxide. When they are cut down, that gas is released into the atmosphere.

    Right now, climate change is happening because we produce gases. Mostly we produce them by burning fuels like oil and coal. Those gases are called greenhouse gases. They collect in Earth’s atmosphere. Then they trap the sun’s heat. That warms the planet. It is called the greenhouse effect. 

    Cows contribute to the problem. How? They burp a lot. That’s not a joke. When cows eat grass, their stomachs produce a gas. The gas is called methane. One cow makes about 220 pounds of methane a year. Cows burp the gas out. It goes into the atmosphere. It adds to the greenhouse effect.

    Cows add to climate change in another way. A herd of cows eats a lot of grass. Forests are cut down to make grasslands. Every year, farmers clear more than 10 million acres around the world. That’s an area bigger than the state of Maryland. The trees in those forests contain a gas. It’s called carbon dioxide. When trees are cut down, that gas is released. It goes into the atmosphere.

    What do cows have to do with pollution and climate change? It’s all about gas. Right now, climate change is a result of the gases we produce—mostly by burning fuels like oil and coal. Those gases—called greenhouse gases—collect in Earth’s atmosphere, where they trap the sun’s heat close to the planet’s surface. This is called the greenhouse effect. 

    Cows contribute to the problem in two ways. First—and this is not a joke—they burp a lot. When cows eat grass, their stomachs produce a gas called methane. When cows burp, the gas goes into the atmosphere. A typical cow makes about 220 pounds of methane a year—and all that gas adds to the greenhouse effect.

    Cows also contribute to climate change through the amount of grasslands they need in order to eat. To create grasslands, forests must be cut down. Every year farmers clear more than 10 million acres worldwide—which is equivalent to an area bigger than the state of Maryland. Trees contain a gas called carbon dioxide. That gas is released into the atmosphere when trees are cut down.

Cutting Back on Cows

    Cows aren’t the only farm animal hurting the planet. Pigs and sheep don’t use as much land as cows do. But they still make greenhouse gases. Animal agriculture produces about 15 percent of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

    Scientists are working on a solution to the problem. Changing what farm animals eat could make them burp less. But some scientists say what we really need is fewer cows. Americans eat a lot of beef—about 74 million pounds a day. At any given time, there are more than 1 billion cows being raised for food worldwide. 

    That’s why activists like 18-year-old Nadia Nazar are urging people to stop eating meat. She’s a vegetarian and one of the founders of the climate action group Zero Hour. “I’m proud that I’m not contributing to the effect that meat has on the climate,” she says.

    Other farm animals hurt the planet too. Pigs and sheep don’t use very much land. But they make greenhouse gases. About 15 percent of greenhouse gases come from animal agriculture.

    Scientists are working on a solution to the problem. One idea is to change what farm animals eat. Then they might burp less. But some scientists say fewer cows is the solution. Americans eat about 74 million pounds of beef a day. At any given time, about 1 billion cows are being raised for food worldwide. 

    Nadia Nazar wants people to stop eating meat. She’s 18 years old. She’s a vegetarian. She helped start a climate action group. It’s called Zero Hour. “I’m proud that I’m not contributing to the effect that meat has on the climate,” she says.

    In addition to cows, pigs and sheep also cause harm to the planet. While these farm animals don’t use as much land as cows do, they still produce greenhouse gases. About 15 percent of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere come from animal agriculture.

    Scientists are working on solutions for lowering that percentage. Changing what farm animals eat could make them burp less, but some scientists say that fewer cows would be more effective. Americans consume a lot of beef—about 74 million pounds a day. At any given time, about 1 billion cows are being raised for food worldwide. 

    That’s why some activists are urging people to stop eating meat. Nadia Nazar, 18, is one of them. She’s a vegetarian who co-founded the climate action group Zero Hour. “I’m proud that I’m not contributing to the effect that meat has on the climate,” she says.

Art by Brown Bird Design

Eating Less Meat

    But you don’t have to give up steak in order to help the planet. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a research group that is working to protect Earth. It just wants us to cut our meat eating in half. For most people, that means 6 burgers a month instead of 12. 

    If you’re trying to eat less meat, it may be getting easier. Thousands of schools across the country don’t serve meat on Mondays. And some fast-food restaurants are adding vegan foods to their menus. At Burger King, you can now order an Impossible Whopper. It’s a burger made completely from plants. 

    Does it taste exactly like a juicy hamburger? That’s up for debate. But it’s probably better for you—and the planet.

    You don’t have to give up meat to help the planet. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a research group. It works to protect Earth. It wants people to eat half as much meat as they do now. For most people, that means      6 burgers a month instead of 12. 

    Eating less meat is getting easier. Thousands of schools don’t serve meat on Mondays. And some fast-food restaurants are adding vegan foods to their menus. At Burger King, you can now order an Impossible Whopper. It’s a burger made only from plants.

    Does it taste like a hamburger? That’s up for debate. But it’s probably better for you—and the planet.

    Are you interested in helping the planet but not quite prepared for a life without steak? That’s no problem. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a research group that’s working to protect Earth. According to this group, simply reducing our meat consumption by half will have a significant positive effect. For the average person, that translates to eating 6 hamburgers a month instead of 12. 

    The good news is that eating less meat may be getting easier. Thousands of schools across the country have stopped serving meat on Mondays. And vegan options are appearing on the menus at a number of fast-food restaurants. For example, Burger King now offers an Impossible Whopper—a burger made completely from plants.

    Does the Impossible Whopper taste exactly the same as a juicy hamburger? That’s  debatable. But it’s probably better for you—and for the environment as well.

ACTIVITY: 
5 Questions About
Meat and the Planet

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

What are greenhouse gases? 

What are greenhouse gases? 

What are greenhouse gases? 

How does raising cows produce greenhouse gases? 

How does raising cows produce greenhouse gases? 

How does raising cows produce greenhouse gases? 

Who is Nadia Nazar? 

Who is Nadia Nazar? 

Who is Nadia Nazar? 

Why do some people think we should eat less meat? 

Why do some people think we should eat less meat? 

Why do some people think we should eat less meat? 

Where is it getting easier to find meals that don’t contain meat? 

Where is it getting easier to find meals that don’t contain meat? 

Where is it getting easier to find meals that don’t contain meat? 

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