Updated Jun 18, 2018 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Beef: America’s dinner and a juicy climate controversy

Beef is an American food icon. It’s also the biggest culinary culprit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: California startups are increasingly targeting carnivores with plant burgers so beef-like they bleed, as you'll see in the above video. Plus, new research is breaking down food’s impact on climate change, and potential solutions are emerging to cut down on a potent greenhouse gas that cows emit.

This issue matters to me for personal reasons too. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Washington state, and today I’m among several landowners supporting our third- and fourth-generation family-run cattle operation.

  • Considering my family and financial ties to this industry, some could argue I’m ethically compromised and biased. But after years of reporting on energy and climate issues, I understand my family’s business has an environmental impact that exceeds a lot of others.

The big picture: Scientists agree Earth’s temperature is rising from a host of human activities. Fossil fuels emit roughly three-quarters of global heat-trapping gases. Beef, responsible for roughly 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, is the single biggest food factor when it comes to climate change, according to a 2013 United Nations report.

The two biggest drivers of beef’s climate footprint, per that report:

  1. Burps and farts: Oh, grow up and keep reading. Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when they burp and, to a much lesser extent, fart. This accounts for nearly half of beef’s greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Feed and land use: This includes cattle manure that emits a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, how cattle graze on pastures and deforestation, particularly in Brazil.

The emotional and cultural role beef plays in America also puts it in society’s crosshairs in a way that fossil fuels don’t. That makes it more difficult to convince people to eat less meat than switching to renewable energy, experts say.

“The hamburger and the steak are part of the American culture. It’s wrapped up in childhood memories,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale University professor who studies public perceptions of climate change. “People just don’t have rich layers of meaning wrapped around, say, light bulbs.”

He recommends focusing on the health impacts of eating beef. “There are so many health reasons we should be eating less meat,” said Leiserowitz, adding that cutting carbon emissions would be “frosting on the cake.”

Global beef demand is projected to nearly double by 2050, fueled by booming populations in China and India, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

Given that anticipated growth, two avenues are emerging to limit associated rise in greenhouse gas emissions: Make real beef more environmentally friendly, or convince people to eat something else.

On the “something else” side, the hottest trend today is beef-like burgers from plant material. One kind, called the Impossible Burger, is targeting carnivore eaters.

  • It looks, tastes and feels like a real burger. It even bleeds and sizzles like one.
  • It has its share of controversies, though, including how its main plant-derived ingredient is genetically modified and that its nutritional content is comparable to real beef, canceling out any health benefits.
  • Impossible Foods, the California startup behind the burger, did not make available anyone for comment by publication time.

On the real beef side, Elm Innovations, a nonprofit founded in 2016, is working with researchers at University of California, Davis, to feed cattle a supplement of particular kind of seaweed.

  • “The seaweed very dramatically reduces cow-burped methane to the tune of 50% or greater, which is extremely large,” said the group’s founder, Joan King Salwen, whose family had a cattle and sheep ranch.

The beef industry itself and companies that sell it, like McDonald’s, are increasingly realizing the importance of addressing the issue.

  • Earlier this year McDonald’s announced its first-ever target cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, with beef as its largest challenge. “The biggest focus for us is how do we feed those animals using less land,” said Robert Gibbs, an executive vice president with the fast food chain.
  • McDonald’s works with companies that own live herds through the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, whose members include the National Cattleman's Beef Association.
  • "We recognize that we of course have a significant carbon footprint so we want to work to improve that," said Ashley McDonald, the industry group's senior director of sustainability.

What could be next: The World Resources Institute is working toward reducing the projected global growth in beef demand over the next 30 years. The U.S. cattle industry has among the most sustainable practices in the world, so the group suggests exporting more American beef and reducing production elsewhere.

“If we were to cut back on U.S. beef consumption by half, that doesn’t mean put half of U.S. beef producers out of business," said Rich Waite, an associate at the World Resources Institute's food program. "It could just mean expanding exports to countries where beef consumption is going to be doubling."

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