By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Getting serious about mitigating climate change means demanding companies that benefit from selling products that accelerate the problem clean up their acts.
This necessity isn’t limited to fossil fuel companies.
Another source also looms big: beef production. Beef may account for about a quarter of food-connected emissions, which themselves comprise about one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Although there’s debate over whether some beef production can be designed in such a way to be sustainable, there’s no dispute that the current system of large-scale industrial farming of beef is not. (I’ll leave the partisans of each position to duke it out in comments. Those members of the commentariat with an interest in such concerns can lay out the arguments better than I can. So please do. I always learn much from these debates.)
Consider this recent article about McDonald’s, Hold the beef: McDonald’s avoids the bold step it must take to cut emissions, which provides details about the sheer size of emissions the company’s activities generate:
Each year, McDonald’s buys as much as 1.9bn lb of beef that it packs into patties for millions of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders, Big Macs, Triple Cheeseburgers and other popular beefy sandwiches served across the globe.
The staggering volume of meat requires the company and its suppliers to slaughter north of 7 million cattle, according to some estimations, and that comes at a steep cost to the environment: the more than 53m metric tons of greenhouse gas McDonald’s produced in 2020 exceeds several European nations’ emissions.
Beef is particularly problematic because cows release high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in their burps and manure. The amount of feed, water and land that cows require to produce a pound of meat is much higher than other animals, and that inflates their carbon footprint. Raising cows exacts a “multidimensional burden” on the Earth, [Gidon Eshel, an environmental and urban studies research professor at Bard College] said, because the industry also pollutes, consumes water and spurs deforestation.
The Guardian article – which isn’t paywalled – is well worth reading in full, as it discusses McDonald’s shameless use of sleight of hand techniques, e.g., public relations and greenwashing, to convince the public – particularly those who don’t want to follow the math – that the company is sincerely pursuing important sustainability goals. But it’s not, and has not moved to adopt measures necessary to reduce its emissions substantially.
What the company needs to do is implement major menu changes. Now, that needn’t necessarily mean McDonald’s gives up on selling beef burgers entirely – nor indeed, in dealing in meat. But rather than market bigger and better beef-based packages at lower prices, McDonald’s needs to charge more for less, making their prices reflect the true costs of beef production. Other things the company could do: offer more plant-based options, as Burger King and White Castle have done; promote smaller burgers; and serve more chicken and other options in place of beef.
And dare I say it, why not drop selling beef entirely? Or at least consider such a move. Indeed, McDonald’s has already done so in certain markets. Take India, where the company eschews beef entirely. Rolling out its Indian approach more widely would represent a meaningful shift.
I’ve myself partaken of more than a few McDonald’s meals while traveling in India. In fact, during the last decade and a half or so, I’ve probably eaten more Indian McDonald’s food than American. Mind you, I never myself choose to dine at McDonald’s. There’s always a better, more tasty local option. Always.
Yet during the course of conducting research on my textile book, I’ve visited many Indian producers, in the smallest villages and in urban settings all over the country. Many of them think that all Americans disdain spicy food. That’s certainly not so in my case. And they believe that when we’re on the road, we seek out what they regard as the taste of our home and hightail it to any McDonald’s we can find. Mickey D’s food is relatively expensive for all but the Indian urban elite, and I understand just what my Indian hosts have to sacrifice to treat me to a meal they think I’ll enjoy. So, when they pull out the local equivalent of a Happy Meal, I respond enthusiastically to my host’s intentions in treating me to a McDonald’s dinner – and never let on about what I actually think of the food.
McDonald’s has quite a way to go in developing sustainability policies that offer more than the chance of kick the climate change can down the road – again.
We’re running out of both time and road, and boldly announced plans that offer timid realities will no longer suffice. When will our governments recognize this fact, and DO SOMETHING. Anything.
Three Supermarket Chains Drop Brazilian Beef Over Deforestation Concerns
Earlier this week – Wednesday – the FT featured a story on Brazilian beef, which slanted in a completely different direction. Seeing it, I was cautiously optimistic. I don’t know much about the Brazilian beef situation, so I’ll hew closely to the FT’s account, Supermarkets drop Brazilian beef products linked to deforestation, which reports that three European supermarket chains have stopped selling Brazilian beef, over deforestation concerns. This move represents a move to flesh out anti-deforestation initiatives in the wake of last months Glasgow COP26 climate summit:
European supermarket chains J Sainsbury, Carrefour and Ahold Delhaize will stop selling several Brazilian meat products after an investigation found they contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Pressure to halt deforestation has ratcheted up since last month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
It resulted in more than 100 countries pledging to end by 2030 meat production supported by livestock reared on land where rainforests and savannahs had been cleared — a main source of carbon emissions.
Brazil’s current beef exports represent roughly double those of each of the world’s runners up, Australia and the United States:
As the world’s biggest beef exporter, Brazil’s meat’s processing industry has long faced scrutiny over its supply chain and its impact on climate change. The decision by Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second-largest supermarket chain, the Belgian stores of Carrefour, the French retailer, and Albert Heijn, the biggest chain in the Netherlands and part of Ahold Delhaize, follows an investigation by environmental campaigners Mighty Earth and NGO Repórter Brasil, which was published on Thursday.
The report highlights the risk of supply chain contamination by processed meat, where cows from deforested areas are sent to suppliers to be fattened and eventually slaughtered by processors such as JBS, Marfrig and Minerva. This meat ends up in European supermarkets as products, such as beef jerky, corned beef and prime cuts.
The FT account lays out the details of exactly what each chain has decided to do. Corporate purchasers, such as these supermarket chains, can act quickly when they want to especially as in this case, when they were faced with evidence, in the form of a report they couldn’t ignore.
The outcome of the Glasgow COP26 summit was well and truly depressing. Despite the impending climate crisis, governments either cannot – or will not – act. So private initiatives such as that of the supermarkets are the best that’s now on offer. Will that be enough to mitigate our climate change future. Not a chance. But it’s all we’ve got at the moment.
And that seems to be better than the smoke and mirrors McDonald’s promotes. A company big enough and with potential, if it wanted to, to blaze a new trail