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.
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.
The heatwave that gripped the country recently wreaked havoc in southwest Kansas, where temperatures reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Kansas is one of the US’ biggest cattle farming states, with a population of more than 6.5 million. As if being a farmed cow isn’t hard enough, thousands of cows died as cattle struggled to acclimatize to the sudden change in temperatures. Shocking footage of thousands of dead cows has emerged during the intense Kansas heatwave.
Heat stress is caused by a combination of high temperatures, humidity, and wind speed, and results in negative impacts on both animal welfare. It was early enough in the year that many of the cattle had not yet shed their winter coats making the heat stress even worse. As forecasts point to a warmer-than-average summer, and climate change turns up nighttime temperatures, heat stress among the state’s millions of cattle continues to be a growing concern. The amount of water cattle drink doubles from winter to summer. On a hot day, a 1,500-pound steer could drink up to 30 gallons — roughly enough to fill a bathtub.
Extreme heat doesn’t just impact farm animals, either. Last year, more than one billion of Canada’s marine animals, including mussels, snails, and clams, died in a heatwave. By cutting back on your consumption of animal products, you are saving these creatures from suffering in a changing climate, at the same time as reducing the emissions as a result of animal agriculture, which helps to reduce the severity of that change.
Save our forests! During the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP26), 105 countries signed a pledge that aims to end deforestation by the year 2030. Leaders worldwide have banded together behind the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, which will dedicate billions of dollars to ending deforestation and promoting reforestation efforts. The declaration says, “…to catalyze further progress on eliminating commodity-driven deforestation.”
We know which commodity they should start with, raising meat! For example, in the Amazon rainforest, raising cattle is the prime cause of the burning down the forest with fires so massive the astronauts can see them from outer space. The land is cleared not only for direct use by the cattle but also to grow feed for the cattle. In fact, the UN’s 2019 IPCC report concluded that nearly 80 percent of global deforestation could be directly attributed to agricultural production – significantly tied to the production of animal feed for livestock.
As climate change activists narrow in on the animal agricultural industry, governments worldwide are initiating programs to cut down emissions across the entire market. Recently, eight countries announced pledges to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent over the next ten years. The United States and European Union just announced the Global Methane Pledge to reduce worldwide methane emissions ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this year. The European Commission has declared that reducing methane emissions, across every industry, is the “single most effective strategy in reducing global warming.”
Methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and is largely driven by raising meat. Cows, in particular, are potent methane producers. Cows produce between 250 and 500 liters of methane every day. That’s a lot of gas! The number of livestock in the world keeps rising and livestock is grown to a larger size than before, all to meet the growing worldwide demand for meat and dairy products.
We can all do our part in reducing methane emissions by simply not eating meat. We’ll also be helping to save the forests and other environmental problems such as water pollution. Going veg is a powerful move to help make a sustainable environment for the planet we all live on.
Rising methane levels may be thwarting climate change efforts. A 2017 study attributes about half of the increase to cows and other ruminant livestock which produce methane as they digest food.
These animals host microbes in their stomachs, gut filling hitchhikers that help them break down and absorb the nutrients from tough-to-digest grasses. Those microbes produce methane as their waste, which wafts out of both ends of cows. The manure that cattle and other grazers produce is also a site for microbes to do their business, producing even more methane. Now consider that there are 1.4 billion cattle in the world. You can see why so much of the methane being produced is from livestock.
“Methane emissions are a big deal. About a sixth of the warming that we’ve had since the start of the Industrial Revolution has been caused by methane,” said Stanford University professor Rob Jackson, who chairs the international emission tracking organization known as the Global Carbon Project.
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a molecule of methane will cause 28-36 times more warming than a molecule of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Recent data shows that methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen from about 1,775 parts per billion in 2006 to 1,850 parts per billion in 2017.
So, one way to reduce that is to just stop eating beef, right? That’s what researchers near and far believe, including Paul West at the University of Minnesota.
“As an individual, one of the biggest effects that we can have [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture] is changing what we’re eating to eating a smaller amount of beef,” said West.
Why stop there? we ask. To have the greatest impact, we all need to cut out animal products from our diets as quickly as possible. We can’t afford to only take small steps anymore.