An animated short produced by the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) that’s not afraid to address the climate-altering effect of cow farts may do more for the Meatless Monday campaign than any blundering by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Readers may recall that the USDA recently pulled the plug on an inter-office memo that suggested employees could cut their environmental impact by choosing vegetarian options once a week.)

“The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers“, which launched last week on the non-profit’s new I Files channel, takes a detailed look at the real price of cheap beef — and we’re not just talking about Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines. The video also explores the environmental and economic costs of raising cows for industrialized meat production in a country where the average person consumes three burgers a weeks. This fast-food nation, the piece also notes, chows down on three times more meat than any other country.

In its first week live, the video has been viewed more than 58,000 times. The cartoon on cows — which got picked up by outlets from “Marketplace” to Mother Jones — follows on from CIR’s previous animated short, the award-winning “The Price of Gas”.  A 7.5-minute short, “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers,” combines entertainment and journalism to deliver an abstract, data-heavy subject for the YouTube crowd.

The take-home message of this mini-movie: tucking into too many quarter pounders takes a toll on the planet and people. The stats say it all: it takes 1,800 gallons of water to make a single pound of grain-fed beef. Thirty percent of the world’s land is used to raise livestock. And cows — who, if left to their own devices, would munch grass instead of corn (hello Big Ag subsidies) — are major producers of methane gas. Indeed, these animal produce more climate-changing greenhouse gases than 22 millions cars a year. And don’t forget there’s all that manure, tons of fertilizers, and toxic contaminants used in slaughterhouses around the country to contend with as well.

So what’s a steak-loving chowhound to do? “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers” doesn’t advocate that all Americans become vegetarians pronto, but it does make a case for cutting red meat consumption. If Americans skipped meat and cheese for just one day a week, the environmental impact would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million pollution-producing cars off the road for a year, according to CIR’s report.

The video also mentions that grass-fed (versus grain-raised) beef is a more environmentally friendly option, though more expensive — at least at the cash register. Of course, the cost of raising cows for meat consumption is a heavily government-subsidized affair in the U.S., though the video doesn’t explore the role politics play in how factory-farmed meat finds its way into those cheap burgers in the first place. Territory for another time, perhaps.

CIR’s Carrie Ching
CIR’s Carrie Ching

Berkeleyside checked in with the director-producer-reporter of “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers”, Berkeleyean and CIR staffer Carrie Ching, to find out more about the cartoon concept behind this serious short on mass-produced meat.

What’s the goal with this video aimed at YouTube viewers?

We wanted to present a big-picture look at the environmental and health impacts of excessive meat — particularly beef — consumption. Based on the available data, we attempted to calculate what those “external costs” might be — both in land, water, greenhouse gas, health statistics, and financial costs.

Is there any new reporting here or is this a case of packaging existing information in a way that is, ah, palatable for the average consumer?

Most of the reporting was already out there in various studies and reports. The only truly new and unique data points are the figures on greenhouse gas emissions per burger (about 6.5 lbs) and the estimated external costs per burger (about $1.51). My co-reporter, Sarah Terry-Cobo, worked through those figures with environmental impact and climate change science experts.

What kind of reaction have you received to the video?

It’s been incredibly popular online. It has certainly struck a nerve on both sides of the food politics spectrum — if you read the comments on various sites, there is a vigorous debate going on between vegans, vegetarians, beef lovers, liberals, conservatives, and every shade in between. A main goal for this kind of feature is to open up a dialogue and conversation about the issues covered. We’ve done that.

How does “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers” fit into CIR’s Food for 9 Billion project?

The goal of that project is to explore the challenges we all face in feeding the world during a time of social and environmental change. Many of the stories look at the problems with producing enough food to feed growing populations abroad. “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers” looks at ramifications of industrial beef production in the U.S., and how the growing demand for meat, internationally, including beef, might impact the global environment.

Did working on this video change your own eating habits?

I’m not a vegetarian, but I have to say that working on this piece really opened my eyes to the specific issues surrounding beef production. I approach beef a lot more carefully and cautiously now. I haven’t given it up, but I do eat less beef, and I try to be more conscious of the origin and production method behind the beef that I do eat. And that’s really the end-goal of the piece — to get people to think critically and consciously about their food choices.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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