Climate Change: Where’s the Beef?

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.

Or else.

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

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  1. Cocomaan

    There’s definitely some ways to improve the beef supply chain. I recall a paper by the UN food and ag office that said if best practices were implemented in places like Brazil, cattle emissions would drop significantly, something like forty percent.

    But I was surprised to learn a month ago how little ag contributes to the overall carbon picture: 10% of emissions are ag, with the rest split between industry and transport and so on. It turns out we can’t eat our way out of a climate crisis. I think some of the preoccupation with diet as an overwhelming concern is misplaced. There’s bigger steaks to cook.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Figures like that are somewhat deceptive as much depends on how you allocate emissions. In terms of direct emissions from soil and animals, agriculture is around 10%, but when you factor in deforestation, the use of chemical inputs, etc., it works out significantly higher.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Yes, that’s correct – I just added back in some figures to the text above, which I’d mistakenly omitted when editing.

      2. cocomaan

        I think that’s why the UN link is so important. There’s just no BMP’s being implemented in places like Brazil for beef and China for pork. All hack and slash agriculture. Makes the US methods/regs/practices look incredibly virtuous.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Some agricultural product from Brazil comes from places that were long-since deforested, some as long as several centuries ago. Other agricultural product from Brazil comes from places being actively deforested right now; today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

          And since Brazil ( and the relevant businesses in Brazil and downstream from Brazil) sell product from actively deforesting and legacy deforested places both, the supply chains are all set up to launder ex-rain forest beef, soy, etc. through non-recent-ex-rain forest supply chains.
          Which means that the cynical bad actors ( every actor in the business) will launder all the jungle beef/soy/etc. through the non-jungle beef/soy/etc. supply lines in order to lie and pretend that all of it is non-jungle product and none of it is jungle product.

          So the only answer is to boycott all beef/soy’/leather/ etc. coming from Brazil to strip away the laundry infrastructure under which the jungle product can hide and lie about its origin. And if that does not torture Brazil into freezing its deforestation in place, then extend the boycott to all Brazilian sugar, coffee, tourism, and manufactured goods until those industries are forced into a contest of wills with the Jungle BurnDown Mafia in Brazil to see who is stronger. If the Non Jungle Burndown business sector is brute-force stronger, it will eventually take hold of the Brazilian government/army/security/police functions and use them to put down the Jungle BurnDown Business Sector with whatever brute force is required. Maybe extend that boycott to tourism, music, citrus and every other industry in Brazil which should be recruited into the project of putting the Jungle BurnDown Bussiness sector to sleep.

          And on the Smiley Face Side of things, “friends of the Rain Forest” all around the world should make a point of buying and using those products which are harvested wild by poor or poorish rainforest inhabitants for sale. Things like Brazil nuts, acai berries, and so on. Here, for example, is an article about the Babassu nut harvesting/processing women of Brazil who make a living by gathering and processing wild-growing Babassu nuts for sale into the Babassu nut product supply chains.

          Eco-tourism specifically in Brazil should be patronised by people from all over the world because it helps the Rain Forest earn its keep AS rain forest. And in the reality-based non-dreamworld which we actually live, any rainforest which is worth more dead than alive will be killed despite all the boycotts in the world. Whereas any rainforest which is worth more alive than dead has a chance of survival along with the people who make their livings from the rainforest being alive, not dead. And a killing torturecott against every other business in Brazil until those businesses decide it is in their own non-extinction survival interest to drive the jungle beef/leather/soy/etc. business sector extinct in order to save themselves at its expense would tilt the balance further towards rain forest survival.

          And in fact, now that I think about it, that boycott will have to extend to every producer of beef, soy, etc. everywhere in the whole world as much as possible until they too are recruited into the drive to exterminate the Jungle BurnDown business sector. And the boycott can be lifted once the Jungle BurnDown business sector has been provably seen to be well and truly extinct for all time.

  2. Joe Well

    >>Another source of greenhouse gas emissions also looms big: beef production. Beef may account for about a quarter of these emissions, which themselves comprise about one-third of the total.

    I feel like something is missing from this paragraph, probably a reference to methane?

  3. Eloined

    The “Indian approach” is confounded by Hinduism’s sacred cow. Counting water buffalo meat (so-called carabeef), India this year is expected to produce about 4 million metric tons, exporting roughly half. It became briefly the world’s largest beef exporter in 2014 and is now 4th, similar to its rank in total production. Very true that per capita consumption is low, just as its all-source per capita emissions are low, to some degree — e.g. not eating cows — by choice.

    Do not have an FT subscription (and various paywall workarounds failed) but am curious to know if Paraguayan beef, for example, is off the supermarket shelves for the same reasons, which would apply. Pretty much all now broadly known about the nastiness of rainforest destruction from meat production was obvious enough 10 years ago, but at that time the global export market had fewer reliable competitors to South American beef.

    I see that voluntary disinterest in eating beef — i.e. not coerced by poverty — seems to be on the rise, which so far as I can grasp is a positive development.

    1. TimH

      I have a “voluntary disinterest in eating {US} beef” which includes the reasons that make it not importable into EU.

  4. MT_Wild

    In my day job I’m heavily involved in sagebrush conservation efforts. The sagebrush ecosystem is one of (if not) the largest terrestrial ecosystem in NA, encompassing roughly 1/3 of the USA. It is also experiencing dramatic loss, primarily driven by invasive grasses, conifer encroachment, and human modification/conversion. Other factors like climate change are certainly influencing the biome as well.

    For managing invasives grasses, which degrade the ecosystem through competition and changing fire regimes, we will likely need to rely on targeted grazing. By this I mean late-winter and early-spring sattelite mapping of invasive grasses and widespread use of GPS collars to direct the movements of cattle to graze those infestations. This will need to be done at a landscape scale, maybe initiated as a condition of grazing permits on public land when the technology matures.

    I’m not sure non-cattle like bison will work, because the grazing needs to be targeted. Bison do what bison want to do, so I’m doubtful they can be used as a tool. It’s a similiar scenario to re-introducing fire on a landscape after an extended absence. While at some point in the past it was adapted to it, its current state is so degraded it no longers behaves in a historical fashion.

    This does not negate the negative impacts of cattle production. But just pointing out that there are potential beneficial impacts as well.

    1. lordkoos

      In your opinion, what impact do rising warmer temperatures in the American west have on the sage? I live in a place where sagebrush is ubiquitous — ranching and farming only being possible because of massive irrigation projects built from the 1930s onward.

      1. MT_Wild

        I’m not sure because I haven’t seen the data on that yet. There are multiple species of sage that all co-occur to varying degrees across the environmental gradient of precipitation, temperature, soil, and elevation. I would not be at all surprised to see that these niches are changing with climate.

        My guess is that giving how long lived individual sage plants are, we would see the impacts in recruitment first. That research is probably out there, but I just have not seen it. It’s a good question and I’ll look around.

        1. MT_Wild

          And I should say that’s referring to the direct climate impacts on sage. Obviously climate change is Contributing to the invasive species expansion and the changing fire regimes among other things that definitely have secondary impacts on sage.

  5. Pelham

    Deforestation for meat production is a terrible problem, no doubt. But here’s a question. I saw a chart recently (of course, I can’t find it now) that noted the amount of US land devoted to grazing and to crops, most of which was devoted to grains that in turn are used to feed livestock. Adding the grazing and grains-for-livestock percentages together, the proportion of land devoted to meat was absolutely ginormous.

    The problem? An enormous portion of that land is not suitable for food crops that could directly feed human beings. Without unsustainable irrigation and other measures, that land can support only grasses, nothing more. In other words, we need herd animals that convert inedible grasses into human consumable meat and milk to keep us fed. To what degree, I don’t know. But it MAY not be a simple matter of switching from meat to plants to support human populations — although it’s clear there’s an unhelpful imbalance in favor of meat today.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Any land which can grow grain for livestock can also grow grain for direct human consumption. Then again, it could also grow agroforestry/ silviculture mixed landscapes which grow all kinds of food for direct human consumption and then also on the spaces between the trees/shrubs/bushes, it can grow grazable multispecies grass/non-grass non-woody perennial plant mixtures for carbon-biocapture grazing by managed herds or flocks of livestock for meat among the fruits, nuts and berries . . . as well as carbon capture under the grass under the meat.

      In my purely amateur hopeful layman’s opinion.

    2. Joe Well

      But grass-fed beef is so much more expensive than corn-fed, let alone feed lot, that I don’t think it can account for very much of total consumption. So the issue of what to do with grasslands is a much lower priority.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The point would be to stamp out feed-lot beef consumption entirely, one way or another, so that grass fed beef is the only beef left to consume. Grasslands is very important for grassfed beef. Which will be very important if feedlot beef can be stamped out of existence.

        And there will be integrated pasture rotation beef coming from the rotating integrated pastures as part of Gabe Brown-type systems. And there will be some agroforestry and silviculture beef coming from grassland strips and dots in among the concurrent uses of that land.

  6. JE

    More than 90 million acres are planted in corn in the US, with about half of that going to feed livestock. ~40% is for ethanol which is a terrible shame, but a topic for another day. The BLM manages about 150 million acres of public land used for animal grazing for example. Certainly the land being used to raise corn to feed beef cattle (and the ethanol monster) can be used to grow crops for feeding people. The 150 million acres of public land may not be suitable for food crops, but the idea that we “need” meat and milk or this public land for it is completely specious. We like meat and milk, but consume far too much of it and can easily thrive on none. But by eating the corn currently fed to livestock directly we can improve the caloric efficiency of our cropland by a factor of 8-ish and leave the BLM land completely to nature and still feed everyone we currently do handily. Better yet, reintroduce bison across the BLM land and manage the land for these roaming herds and cull them for food as needed and sustainable.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Cull the bison for food? Well, that’s what the Indian Nations did. And it was sustainable for thousands of years.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          How many less were there? BeFORE the Great Manifest-Destiny Germocaust of the European Diseases?

          And also, ten times more people today would mean ten times less bison meat per person today. That would not affect the viability of the carbon capture eco-management thereby achieved.

    2. liam

      I can barely remember any of the details of a program I once watched, regarding fish stocks off the Peruvian coast. It struck me quite profoundly that the closing line of the program, given by a marine biologist from Peru was, “please eat more fish.” Of course the corollary of that was, “please eat less meat.” The point being made was the sheer volume of fish stocks harvested to create fishmeal to feed to corn, to feed to cattle, to feed to….

      An example closer to home:

    3. MT_Wild

      The issue with just returning bison to BLM land is that relative to the scale bison need to be free ranging a lot of the BLM land is to discontinuous or adjacent to private land to really do this effectively. The other issue as I mentioned up thread is that a lot lot of these range lands are currently not in a state that would allow them to handle free ranging bison without pretty active management in the way that cattle are currently rotated across the alottements. Adding difficulty to this is the fact that the 3 strands of barb wire that currently serve to restrain cattle will not work for bison so it would need an entirely different infrastructure to allow bison grazing.

      Not a perfect analogy, but since this is an economic blog I’ll use it. Saying just return bison to the land and it will restore our range lands is akin to someone saying just deregulate the market and let free market principles restore the economy. It just fails to take into account the state of the economy, and all the issues like corruption, regulatory capture, monopolization, etc. that are discussed on this blog.

  7. farmboy

    Pelham, approximately 46 million acres in the US are devoted to wheat on an annual basis with production from those acres in the 1.7 to 1.9 billion bushels range. Just around 4% of that is animal feed. Corn is grown on nearly 96 million acres in the US with the total production of corn in the US for the year 2019 reported to be 13.016 billion bushels, of which the major use is for manufacture of ethanol and its co-product (Distillers’ Dried Grains with Solubles), accounting for 37% (27% + 10%), or 4,845 million bushels (3,552 +1,293). 9% of total production goes to beef cattle and 6% attributed to diary. Soybeans are grown on about 83million acres in the US with over 4billion bushels produced. 53% was crushed in oil and meal with 12% of that going to cattle feed. Some sources…

  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    About eco-support carbon-capture livestock on range and pasture . . . ” the truth is out there” and ” I want to believe”, as they used to say on The X Files.

    Eventually, in-disputable ways will have to be found to measure the level of carbon capture within the plant-soil systems under livestock-included management so we can all know for sure whether the case for ” these cows save the planet” is a reality-based airtight case or not.

    Gabe Brown, Gary Zimmer, Mark Shephard,and so few others that they can all be individually named, have offered hopeful supporting evidence which I have not yet seen debunked, but we are really going to have to find out for absolute sure in an undisputable way.

    Of course, a Full Metal Hansen FeeTax-Dividend plan designed to drive the fossil fuel industry extinct within the borders of the US over relatively few years would push the whole system towards sustainable eco-beef on pasture and range, and no other beef permitted at all. And if America were to defect from the Free Trade System and build itself a Big Beautiful Wall of Agricultural Protection, we would stand a chance of actually being able to deploy these systems in the teeth of carbon dumping agricultural import aggression from our trading enemies.

    National Greenism in One Country.

  9. ranchsteward

    Clearly, we will shrink the global livestock population as climate change degrades agricultural productivity. The active media campaign against beef while ignoring things like the waste of biofuels, the climate impacts of air travel, oversized cars, energy use of air conditioning, and energy use of bitcoin seems to reflect an effort by billionaires to gain tighter control over food supplies and buy additional time for the negative climate impacts of more favored uses. Also, there are many indigenous human foods that can be grown on unirrigated low quality land that many people say can only be used by livestock. Most of the land in California was used to grow human food, there were probably relatively few grazing animals and people got much of their dietary and protein fats from fish. Cattle were used to destroy native foods and starve native people. As a beef rancher trying to reintroduce native human foods on the land, I can say information and knowledge on all these topics is very poor quality.

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