A not-so-happy meal

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:[1]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.[2] Americans consume approximately one billion pounds of beef (approximately 8 billion hamburgers) at McDonald’s alone. [3] [4]

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.[5] [6] 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. [7] 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


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Student comments on A not-so-happy meal

  1. Several team of scientists have been working on lab-grown meat that apparently taste almost exactly as normal livestock meat. As of today those are still extremely expensive to produce, but as technology is moving forward the cost will be dropping significantly. Should McDonald’s invest in those researches and be the first-mover to get into lab-grown meat so that they can still serve their famous burgers while being sustainable in the long term?

    1. I am cautiously optimistic about some of these new meat replacement products. For example, Impossible Foods is leveraging an ingredient called heme to create a plant-based replacement for hamburgers (see: http://www.businessinsider.com/impossible-foods-burger-heme-secret-ingredient-2016-10). While I am hopeful about some of these products, I also would note how challenging it can be to build a sustainable supply chain. Startup Hampton Creek was launched with the intention to replace chicken eggs with a plant-based substitute, but when a research institute examined the sustainability of the company’s entire footprint, the company was disappointed to see a much more negative view of their sustainability than they had previously believed (see: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-hampton-creek-just-mayo/).

  2. Really interesting post! I had no idea cow-produced methane was such a contributor to the climate change problem. I agree with the questions posed in the comment about the potential for lab-grown meat to serve as a less-environmental damaging but I’m also interested in the potential for McDonald’s to incentivize customers to switch to less-damaging meats like chicken or fish. Do you see a future for McDonald’s where the Big Mac isn’t its calling card? I’m also curious to see what effect methane-capture technology can have on reducing the impact of cows on the environment. Can McDonald’s redesign its operational structure–from suppliers to customers–to meet the challenges of climate change?

  3. Very interesting article! What I find most interesting about this piece is the fact that 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to livestock and their byproducts. While it is inevitable that regulations to mitigate this fact will indeed impact burger restaurants such as McDonalds, my concern is for the 1.3 billion people around the globe who call livestock their livelihood. How could these regulations impact those people and the greater economy?

  4. Carolyn – the figures you noted are staggering. I didn’t realize that 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock and their byproducts. However, is it reasonable to argue that livestock consumption will decrease? With the proportion of the world capable of affording this relatively expensive source of protein rising, how can we expect people to give it up? Additionally, given how much people enjoy meat, I imagine it would be tough for governments to push any regulations through that limit the supply.

  5. Carolyn, thanks for the interesting post! I’m very surprised by the high greenhouse gas emissions for livestock and their byproducts, but the fact that producing a hamburger requires 660 gallons of water really struck me. I feel that as long as the actual market price for a hamburger remains low and does not reflect all the true costs, such as environmental costs, it will be hard to motivate the public to change their meat-eating habits. If beef patties become more expensive like shrimp or fish, I think that will also become a strong motivator for McDonald’s to adapt its menu.

    In addition, I think it would be difficult to see more governments intervening in people’s food habits like China did, as people in other countries would be less used to the government telling them what to do in their daily lives. Even in China and many developing countries, eating meat is a sign of an improving quality of life.

    I am also curious whether most of the emissions is coming from manufacturing processed meat or also the cuts of meat sold at grocery stores? If it’s the former, I think more education to consumers will help reduce demand for processed meats, but for fast food companies like McDonald’s, they may not be able to change their menus and business models quickly enough.

  6. I reluctantly agree that the barbecue I love may not be sustainable. It’s tough to take. While I understand pricing’s role in this matter, I hope there’s a world where low-quality commodity McD’s beef is phased out over time. This way connoisseurs of beef can use it in top quality preparations such as carpaccio, yakiniku, and of course smoked brisket.

  7. Great article, Carolyn.

    “Producing 1 hamburger requires 660 gallons of water, which is enough water to shower for 2 straight months!?” I was shocked to read that statistic. Unfortunately, I expect it to only get worse. More and more people, particularly in emerging markets, are going to be able to afford hamburgers from fast-food restaurants like McDonalds over the foreseeable future (this is due to rising incomes and movement into the middle-class). Accordingly, McDonalds is going to be highly incentivized to keep its offerings the same as they are today. Assuming there is little regulatory action and/or changes in consumer awareness, the only way I see McDonalds changing its reliance on beef is higher beef prices or the introduction of high-quality, low price lab grown meet.

    Interestingly, McDonald’s has a considerable R&D budget each year. Do you think they should be investing heavily in developing lab-grown meat solutions or diversifying their menu away from beef?

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