Is It Possible to Make a Hamburger Greener?

Plastic bags, SUVs and hamburgers: No right-thinking tree-hugger would endorse them, at least not in public. But here's the thing: While we can replace plastic bags with reusable ones, and we can electrify our SUVs, the world's consumers will almost surely demand more, not less, beef in the years ahead.

Which is why the World Wildlife Fund has begun a conversation about, of all things, sustainable beefThe WWF, led by Jason Clay, its iconoclastic senior vice president for "market transformation," last fall convened a Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, bringing together environmentalists, academics and industry giants including McDonald's, Walmart, Cargill and JBS, a Brazilian company that calls itself "the largest animal protein processing company in the world" and owns U.S. brands Swift and Pilgrim's Pride.

The goal? To improve sustainability within the beef industry.

The surprise? That one solution may be -- may be -- to encourage beef producers around the world to behave more like those in the U.S. and Europe, which rely on much-maligned Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to produce more beef while using less land, water and feed than producers elsewhere. The issue, Jason says, is whether it is better to have animals on pasture for four years (as in Brazil) and producing a lot of methane, or whether it's better to slaughter animals in two years or less, including some time in a CAFO to increase the weight to acceptable levels.

Needless to say, this is likely to be a controversial undertaking.

Still, one thing we can agree upon is this: There's lots of room for improvement in the beef biz.

In his presentation (available for download, here), Jason says beef production generates about 1.3 percent of the world's calories but uses 60 percent of all the land used to produce food. Beef production also consumes disproportionate amounts of water and energy, and is a leading cause of deforestation in Brazil.

It's hard to imagine a less efficient way to feed people. An oft-quoted but sometimes disputed 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that livestock raised for meat or milk production cause more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport industry -- between 14 and 22 percent of global emissions.

That U.N. report also said: "Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes." People tend to consume more meat as their income grows.

To feed a growing population on a finite planet, Jason says: "We need to freeze the footprint of food ... We need to use resources more efficiently and intensify production."