In full disclosure, I love a good hamburger. I have wonderful memories of eating hamburgers fresh off the grill in the summer with ketchup and mustard dripping down my hands.
I stumbled across a documentary the other day that presented some depressing facts about hamburgers, the livestock industry, and climate change. To my dismay, I can’t look at hamburgers in the same way.
Here are two facts that really stuck with me:
- 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock and their byproducts. Road, rail, air and marine transport only contribute 13% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Producing 1 hamburger requires 660 gallons of water, which is enough water to shower for 2 straight months.
These facts are difficult to believe. Environmental advocacy efforts rarely talk about the livestock industry when they talk about our global greenhouse gas emissions or about our water usage. The conversation usually focuses on eco-friendly transportation or on shorter showers. I had no idea something as delicious as a hamburger could have such hidden negative consequences for our environment.
After watching this documentary, I started to think more about our consumption of hamburgers and other animal products in the United States. According to the North American Meat Institute, the total livestock industry accounts for 6% of US GDP or approximately $860 billion. Americans consume approximately one billion pounds of beef (approximately 8 billion hamburgers) at McDonald’s alone.  
As a leading supplier of hamburgers in the United States, McDonald’s must be one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters today. If McDonald’s doesn’t feel the impact of climate change on its operations today, it will likely feel it in the future. Citizens, advocacy groups, and government organizations will likely push for stricter regulation of the livestock industry. McDonald’s will likely feel pressure from climate campaigns to reevaluate their supply chain to avoid a sustained detrimental impact on the environment.
There is nascent evidence of advocacy efforts and policy change in this direction already. Though the National Center for Biotechnology Information claims that only 6% of Americans are aware of the impact of livestock on the climate, the conversation is growing.  Documentaries like Cowspiracy and Meat the Truth have attracted attention. The Chinese government recently announced a plan to reduce Chinese citizen’s meat consumption by 50% to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030.  Climate campaigners have applauded the Chinese government’s statement as an example for other global leaders to follow. We can expect government regulation and reduced consumer demand for hamburger meat to be a future concern.
If hamburger production and consumption is more strictly regulated, McDonald’s will need to reevaluate its product offering and potentially refocus on more vegetable-based options. Simply switching to more vegetable-based food products will not be easy for McDonald’s or for its customers. McDonald’s customers love their greasy burgers. Maintaining popularity among customers while redesigning its menu to be less meat focused would be a challenge.
McDonald’s faces more than just the threat of regulation and reduced customer demand. McDonald’s supply chain for hamburger meat and other ingredients is vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns and natural disasters. As climate patterns become less predictable agricultural yield for ingredients and for cattle feed becomes sub-optimal. Increased temperatures, more frequent drought, and increased salinization of water from rising sea levels could also limit access to clean water for agriculture yields and for cattle. The unpredictable impact of climate change on McDonald’s supply chain could significantly increase the cost of inputs and limit supply.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without McDonald’s hamburgers. They are a staple of the American diet. But when it costs 660 gallons of water and high volumes of greenhouse gas emissions, can we afford to take a bite of that happy meal?
(1) Infographic. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from http://www.cowspiracy.com/infographic
(2) The United States meat industry at a glance. (2015). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465
(3) Lubin, G., & Insider. (2012, April 30). 13 disturbing facts about McDonald’s. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/04/30/13-Disturbing-Facts-About-McDonalds
(4) Retrieved November 4, 2016, from http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/whatmakesmcdonalds/questions/food/portion-sizes/how-much-does-your-beef-burger-weigh-in-grams.html
(5) de Witt, A. (2016). People still don’t get the link between meat consumption and climate change. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/people-still-don-t-get-the-link-between-meat-consumption-and-climate-change/
(6) de Boer, J., de Witt, A., & Aiking, H. (2015). Help the climate, change your diet: A cross-sectional study on how to involve consumers in a transition to a low-carbon society. Appetite., 98, 19–27. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26673412
(7) Milman, O., & Leavenworth, S. (2016, June 22). China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/20/chinas-meat-consumption-climate-change
PHOTO: Hamburger HD wallpaper. (2013, July 8). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from http://www.wallpapervortex.com/wallpaper-31582_food_hamburger.html#.WBzDOvkrI2w