“What do you think about beef?”

This is not a question one gets asked very often. I have become to think about it as I was exposed to such issues taking part in Creative Sustainability as a part of my masters study at Aalto University. What do I think about it? I think beef is interesting and timely subject to deal with as it is much loved by so many all around the world while we are at a critical moment for the sustainment of mankind.

Beef is delicious, but it may not be the only reason for beef being consumed so much today. A cows had been a holy creature for ancient people, a valuable companion in agrarian societies, and has become subject of a gigantic industry in the recent decades. 1 Now in the cities, we do not see cows anymore and conveniently purchase nicely packaged beef in nearby supermarket any time we want, and therefore the detachment between cow as a living creature and beef as a industrial products is more and more prevalent, which has played a crucial role in increasing consumption of beef.

Climate Change
Cattle are a major source of global warming. They emit methane, a potent global warming gas, blocking heat from escaping the earth’s atmosphere. 2 Recent study claims that meat creates half of all green house gases. Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken. 3 In the world where many of us are concerned about the food miles of what we eat, eating less beef appears to be far more effective. GHG is not the only concern. About 1000 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of wheat, but about 15 times as much is required for the same amount of beef.

Cattle raising has also been criticized for its role in the destruction of tropical forests. Hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests in Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras, to name just a few countries, have been leveled to create pasture for cattle. Since most of the forest is cleared by burning, the extension of cattle pasture also creates carbon dioxide, and, according to some environmentalists, contributes significantly to global warming. 4

Let alone manure in burger patty and the consequences of it like E. coli O157:H7, “factory farming” of animals is leading to health problems in the animals when they are so closely packed together. Pressures to cut costs etc are resulting in shortcuts being taken. The increase in things like “mad cow disease” and the “foot and mouth” epidemic, largely starting in Britain but also seen in other places around the world is also a result of taking “short cuts” in agriculture/food production 5 This practice is not completely stopped worldwide and Finland may not be completely safe. Recently over a million animals were buried in South Korea due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Social consequences
The heavy subsidies from the government on corn produce in the US for cheaper beef production can be the source of the unfortunate social consequences for the people in South America according to the films Fast Food Nation (2006) and documentary film Food Inc (2008). Many of those who lost their livelihood due to the ever-cheaper corn from the US are unlawfully migrating to the North, becoming illegal workers in meat process factories. Many die on their way while many get injured working in the harsh environment.

Food security
Today, about one-third of the world’s total grain harvest is fed to cattle and other livestock while as many as a billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. 6 Meat consumption per capita both in Finland and worldwide has been increasing, and so is the world population. If this trend continues we won’t be able to solve the aforementioned problems and will face the food crisis earlier than expected.

Posted by Seungho Lee

I am a designer working in Helsinki, Finland. Currently, I am working for the Creative Sustainability master’s programme at Aalto University.


  1. Rifkin, J. (1993) Beyond beef: The rise and fall of the cattle culture, New York: Penguin Books.
  2. Ibid, p. 1.
  3. Fiala, N. (2009) ‘How meat contributes to global warming: Producing beef for the table has a surprising environmental cost: it releases prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases’, Scientific American Magazine, February.
  4. Richard Robbins. (1999) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  5. Schossler. E. (2001) Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  6. Rifkin, loc. cit.