05/05/2015 04:02 pm ET Updated May 05, 2016

A Move to Sustainable Beef


Have our carnivorous ways become too much for Planet Earth?

The short answer is yes. No matter how you slice it, red meat is not environmentally friendly.

As a study out of Bard College found, beef produces 11 times more greenhouse gases per calorie than staples like wheat and potatoes. James McWilliams, author of "The Politics of the Pasture" noted in a New York Times op-ed last year how much water cattle require as well. Just replacing half of all meat we consume with fruits, nuts and vegetables would reduce our "water footprint" by 30 percent.

Here in the U.S., beef consumption actually is on the decline. Demand is rising mostly in developing countries with a rising middle class and a still-growing population. As a result, beef consumption globally is going up about 1.2 percent a year according to the United Nations. By 2050, there will be a need for nearly double the livestock we have today, as well as more land and feed.

Many are divided on how to approach this issue with regard to the environment. One answer is something that people might not like to hear: "Feedlots are better than grass fed, no question," WWF food expert Jason Clay told National Geographic. "We have got to intensify. We've got to produce more with less."

Not grass-fed? You heard that right. It turns out that grass-finished cattle (all cattle eat grass to begin with) is only slightly healthier to consume according to the latest studies, and it's definitely no better for the planet.

Grass-fed cows produce twice as much methane as grain-finished, and they take up more land for longer. Already, grass-fed can't match the demand of the U.S., let alone the world. Meanwhile, feedlots with tight quarters and higher use of antibiotics -- things the health-conscious, green-minded consumer likes to avoid -- have been found to emit less greenhouse gases. In either case, a lot of a herd's ecological impact depends on how well the pastures or feedlots are managed.

So can you have your burger and save the planet too?

Once the stuff of science-fiction, lab-grown "cultured beef" is quickly becoming a real possibility. Dutch scientist Mark Post who grew and served up the first $330,000 lab-burger in 2013, recently estimated that prices could drop to $30/lb. in 20 to 30 years. Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is also experimenting with culturing meat and leather (Its research team also founded Organovo, which uses 3D printing technology to "bioprint" human tissue).

Sustainable-meat company Belcampo has an economic idea:produce super-high-quality beef, but at luxury item prices. The price tag would lead us to regularly eat less beef, reducing its carbon footprint. But when we do crave a burger, we know that the high-price also means a healthier burger and that it comes from a cow more humanely-raised.

CEO Anya Fernald knows Belcampo's humanely and sustainably raised beef can cost four times as much, but the demand is there, and she believes it will grow.

As she said in a New Yorker profile: "I live in a bubble and I'm trying to create a bubble.... I recognize that we're creating a product that is financially non-viable for a lot of people. But I'm also prepared for when the health impact [of eating too much beef] becomes undeniable and people decide to reprioritize their budgets. I think my bubble's going to get bigger."