The United Nations made a polite request to the Western world last week: Could you please stop scarfing so much meat? If we could all just cut back a bit on the burgers and lamb chops, a U.N. panel of climate experts explained, millions of square miles of grazing land could be reforested. Those trees would then suck carbon from the atmosphere, effectively reducing CO2 emissions by up to 9 billion tons a year. As an added bonus, by shrinking herds of cows and sheep we’d also shrink the amount of planet-warming methane these ungulates belch into the atmosphere. To counter climate change, says Timothy Searchinger of the World Resources Institute, big meat consumers such as the U.S. “need to eat less.” To which I can only say: Good luck with that.
This country has had a long love affair with meat. Early European settlers salivated at the sheer abundance of game that was waiting to be eaten: deer, ducks, wild turkeys, hares, and the apparently delicious (and now almost certainly extinct) Eskimo curlew. As the U.S. expanded westward, vast ranches allowed cattle to be farmed on a scale unimaginable in the Old World. Rich and poor alike came to expect beef at every meal by the late 19th century. Infants, says food journalist Nina Teicholz, would gnaw beef even before their first teeth came in. While visiting the U.S., an astounded Charles Dickens wrote that an American “breakfast would have been no breakfast” without a T-bone steak “swimming in hot butter.” That hunger for meat is still going strong today: A typical American eats the equivalent of about 50 chickens or half a cow every year. If health warnings from scientists about red and white meat—both of which raise the risk of heart disease—won’t stop us from eating this tasty stuff, it’s doubtful we’ll give up steaks to prevent the planet from overheating. Perhaps our only hope lies with the researchers who are now working to make lab-grown meat a palatable possibility. So, who’s up for a petri-dish Whopper?