Can beef be climate-friendly?

Meat eaters may now feel that they can eat beef without worrying about the impact on the climate.  In late 2021, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a verification program that allows meat producers to label their product “low-carbon” if it meets certain criteria. They have subsequently renamed the “low-carbon” designation “climate-friendly.” Just last month, Tyson Foods and Schweid & Sons, in partnership, offered the first burger to earn that designation for sale.

This is a classic case of greenwashing – using language that intentionally misleads the public into believing that something is environmentally friendly.  The USDA’s climate-friendly certification program is run by third party companies contracted by the USDA to evaluate meat producers’ agricultural practices to determine the emissions output.  If that measurement is at least 10% lower than an industry benchmark set by the auditing company for emissions, the producer gets USDA approval to label their products “climate-friendly”.

The problem is three-fold. First of all 10% is not much of a reduction in emissions.  But even worse, the benchmark is set so high that even average beef producers will qualify.  The benchmark is set at 26.3 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions per kilogram of carcass weight.  Reducing that by 10% means that beef producers must emit no more than 23.67 kg of CO2 equivalent per kilo of weight. But a 2019 study found that the US average for this metric is only 21.3 kg. In addition, the third-party verification process relies on the honor system, allowing companies to report their own calculations with a total lack of transparency, creating an obvious conflict of interest.

Not only are these problems enough to make the “climate-friendly” designation meaningless, but they don’t take into account all the other ways that raising beef causes harm to the environment such as the water and air pollution from manure, the massive amounts of water needed to raise crops to feed the cattle, the biodiversity lost through monocrops and cutting down the rainforest to raise cattle and grow crops.

This new program is particularly harmful because it leads producers and consumers to think they are doing something to benefit the environment, when in fact beef is by far the least climate-friendly food a person can eat. Don’t be fooled by these new labels.