Beef isn't the problem

Beef isn't the problem

But the way most of it is produced definitely needs to change.

It's been a while since we've let ourselves off the chain, but something happened last week that really fired us up, so we dusted off the old box and clambered up for a good rant. Off we go...

Meat isn't the problem (or why giving up beef won't solve the climate crisis).

As the world wakes up to the inescapable reality of climate change and the potential for things to get much worse, it's exciting to feel the quickening momentum toward more strategic, holistic behaviour at every level. The horror of drought, fire, flood, plague and the vanquishing of the orange tornado in the US has finally triggered serious global action!

But as climate anxiety mounts, there's an urge to find quick solutions to make us all feel a bit more in control and this offers fertile opportunities for commercial exploitation and divisive, binary thinking. In this landscape, the demonisation of meat production and consumption can feel like a seductively simple way to mitigate climate change and assuage guilt without too much discomfort.

By conveniently avoiding any nuanced discussion about the relative impacts of different livestock production methods or the quantity of meat consumed and lumping the good, the bad and the ugly together, you can produce some pretty spectacular statistics that leave no room for doubt about the fact that eating meat - particularly beef - is about as unsustainable as burning coal. It also offers excellent PR opportunities for companies wishing to do some heavy duty virtue-signalling.

Take Epicurious, the huge digital food brand owned by Condé Nast, that announced last week it would no longer publish recipes using beef due to the environmental impact of cattle production.

It's true that Americans eat way too much beef and it's increasing. It's also true that almost all of this beef is intensively raised and finished in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that are heinous and unsustainable from every perspective. So, if Americans were to eat less intensively-produced beef, there would be a small, corresponding reduction in methane and carbon dioxide emissions. In brief, Americans (and Australians) eat more meat than is healthy and the overwhelming majority of that meat is raised in a profoundly unsustainable way. So all that needs to change. Americans (and Australians) must eat less meat and, ideally, only meat produced in ecologically beneficial systems.

But the Epicurious announcement, masquerading as righteous, corporate advocacy, is riddled with cynicism.

First, the statistics quoted are incorrect and wilfully misleading. Beef, we are told, is BAD because it contributes about 9.4% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (65% of the 14.5% attributed to livestock). In fact, that statistic, taken from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, includes both beef and dairy cattle. But we don't hear Epicurious cutting dairy out of their offering. (And don't get us started on the unsustainable impact of intensive dairy...)

Second, Epicurious goes on to promote 'alt-meats from brands like Lightlife' which sponsor collections of recipes on the site. Lightlife, which claims to be 'on a journey to make a real impact on the planet', makes highly-processed products including a Smart Dog (hot dog) which offers a list of 18 ingredients that would make any food chemist blush with pride, including soy protein isolate, pea protein isolate, xanthan gum, flavourings, colourings and sugar.

What is sugar doing in a hot dog???

I'd like to see the environmental impact of the Lightlife hot dog production line and the energy (fossil fuels) required to isolate those pea and soy proteins and produce all those flavours, colours and extracts. This would need to include the impact of intensive pea and soy production (chemical use, loss of biodiversity, loss of soil fertility) and the cost of transport - are they grown locally or imported? I'd like to see the number of jobs Lightlife creates and the ways in which it builds rural community resilience, and also an analysis of the nutritional profile of that hot dog. I'd be game to bet that the environmental and social cost of the Smart Dog is a lot higher than that of a real hot dog that is simply made with locally-sourced, regeneratively-raised meat and spices - five natural, unprocessed ingredients at most - and a lot less healthy. Lightlife is definitely 'on a journey to have a real impact on the planet', but it's not a journey I'd want anyone I care about to go on.

But the real kicker is that Lightlife is actually owned by Maple Leaf Foods which is a huge, commodity meat production company that is clearly having a cynical bet both ways. Keeping one arm deep in the trough of intensive meat production and the other in the newer but equally unsustainable, ultra-processed alternative meat industry. Maple Leaf Foods aren't alone in this, all the big commodity meat businesses are investing in the alternative meat industry.

But as Sydney academic, Alana Mann, says in her excellent book, Food in a Changing Climate, "We don't need new products, we need a new paradigm."

Because the third and most important point to make about the Epicurious announcement is that, as is so often the case when it comes to demonising meat, they're completely missing the real point. Certainly, we do need to eat less meat, but it's not the cattle - or any other livestock, for that matter - that are the problem, it's people!

Over the last 200 years, we've turned the production of much of our food (meat and plants) into an intensive, energy-hungry, wasteful, planet-destroying, global industry and this must change.

As those advocating for regenerative agriculture often say, it’s not the cow — it’s the how.

We had rather a lot to say about this in our book, 'The Ethical Omnivore'.

'In the intensive system, first we clear forests to grow crops peppered with chemicals designed to accelerate production. Then we transport the grain from these crops huge distances and feed the grain to a herbivore that sickens initially because it isn't designed to eat grain. Then we harvest the animals, often transporting the meat huge distances and we sell it in a market that doesn't value environmental management, animal welfare, species diversity, community welfare or the nutritional profile of the meat. At the same time, some 10% of the omnivorous, grain-eating humans in the world are undernourished and one in four children are stunted from malnutrition.'

Diana Rogers, the American nutritionist, wrote an excellent critique of the Epicurious decision pointing out the lamentably thin understanding of the science around the emissions that are cited as the reason for giving up beef. As she says in her book, 'Sacred Cow':

"...it’s critical to understand that the methane emitted from cattle are part of the natural, or “biogenic” carbon cycle, whereas fossil fuels are not. Fossil fuels come from “ancient” carbon that has been locked underground for millions of years, and when it is extracted, it’s adding new carbon to the atmosphere, which lasts thousands of years. In the case of cattle, they are transforming existing carbon, in the form of grass and other fibrous materials, into methane as part of their digestive process. Methane is then belched out and after about 10 years, is broken back down into water and carbon dioxide molecules. The CO2 and H2O are cycled back to grow more grass and the cycle continues."

A recent article in The Economist about methane emissions recently quoted statistics from The Global Methane Budget, showing that, while livestock methane emissions (from intensive production) are high, the real problem, as always, is the emissions from fossil fuels.

54% of man-made methane emissions come from leaky wells and pipelines and gassy coalmines which are releasing methane that was once locked into the earth. These are new emissions that correspond with increasing fossil fuel energy use across the globe.

By contrast, ruminant methane emissions produced by existing, self-replacing herds have been relatively constant for centuries. The exception, of course, is the expansion of intensive production of beef at CAFO operations mostly in North America and Brazil which also produce high CO2 emissions.

The Global Methane Budget breakdown:
33% fossil fuel emissions (22% oil and gas production, 11% coal extraction)
18% solid and liquid waste handling
3% other (transport, industry etc)
8% fires and biofuels
8% rice paddies
30% ruminants and manure

British consultancy Farmwel does an excellent job of unpacking the impact of cattle methane versus CO2 on global warming.

"Cattle are a key source of methane, an important greenhouse gas (GHG), but they are not a major driver of global warming. A new metric, GWP*, updates GWP100 and is recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. GWP* delivers fresh insight for the delivery of sustainable beef and dairy systems because it accurately characterises the warming impact of methane for the first time. Ruminant methane is largely in a natural cycle after 20 years. GWP* demonstrates that stable ongoing ruminant emissions do not deliver additional global warming. When used for carbon footprinting, GWP* places a renewed emphasis on carbon dioxide (CO 2) and nitrous oxide (N 2O) (both long-lived greenhouse gases), and illustrates the need for a shift to regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture offers the opportunity to embrace new practices and narratives, away from reducing harm, toward actively doing good and helping to meet three of our most pressing global objectives:

  • Ensuring high quality nutrition for humanity,
  • Mitigating and adapting to global warming,
  • Restoring and maintaining valuable ecosystems."

This regenerative approach is the one practiced by all the producers we represent - large and small - and their success in running sustainable businesses that also restore and amplify soil fertility, biodiversity and ecosystem resilience demonstrate that it's possible to grow and sell food in a way that is good for both the individual and the world at large.

The solutions to so many of our problems are so tantalisingly close, if we could only wean ourselves off the addictive, destructive, merry-go-round of intensive food production in favour of regenerative, agroecological systems.

Epicurious had an opportunity to use their significant influence to educate and encourage behavioural change that preferences regeneratively-produced food that mitigates the impacts of climate change and reduces food waste. Instead they've displayed a dismally thin understanding of the agricultural and nutritional science and taken the lazy and divisive option.

But ironically, the most problematic consequence of Epicurious' ham-fisted decision will probably be the galvanising impact it has on the very powerful, profitable and aggressive intensive meat industry. Initiatives like Epicurious' combined with the Biden administration's climate change mitigation agenda will be viewed as a declaration of war and you can be sure that the intensive meat industry will use all of the same dirty tricks that the fossil fuel industry uses to fight back.

We don't have time for wars. There's a planet to save.

So please, wherever you live and whatever you choose to eat, take the time to learn where it came from, how far it travelled to reach you, how it was grown and/or manufactured and who made it. Know that your choices have an impact on the world.

Demand more accountability and transparency from the people selling you your food, spend your money supporting agricultural systems that match your ethical beliefs and ambitions for the planet, eat a little less meat with a lot more provenance and cook together more, sharing knowledge and building resilient and vital communities.

That's how we'll help combat climate change, not simply by giving up meat.

And for dinner...
Epicurious won't give you a beef recipe, but we will. One that celebrates secondary cuts and the meat from two year old, pasture-fed and finished cattle raised on a regeneratively-managed, chemical-free farm. Ben and Reagan's beef short ribs with pickled carrots and noodles from our book, 'The Ethical Omnivore'. We love this dish. Photo by Alan Benson.

Ben and Reagan's beef ribs with pickled carrots and noodles

More of the same?
If you want more of this sort of ranting from yours truly, there's plenty to hand. Peruse our blog or listen to two new podcast interviews, 'Unstress' with Mr Bone and 'Futuresteading' with Mrs Feather and the lovely Jade Miles from Black Barn Farm. Or you can get stuck into our book, The Ethical Omnivore, in which we rabbit on about soil and butchery and biodiversity and give you lots of gorgeous, whole animal recipes from our extended community.

Photo of Gundooee Organic Wagyu calves by Alan Benson.

Comments

Mrs Feather

Thanks for helping keep things in perspective – I found your ‘rant’ very insightful and keeping focus on the key issues.

I do have a question and would love to see a blog post on it – ‘should we be using more kangaroo meat and how does this product fit in the ethical meat landscape?’ What do you reckon?

Mrs Feather

On what basis do you claim we need to eat less meat? Given that in developed countries a decline in red meat consumption has been accompanied by worsening health outcomes, and that there is a clear link between countries with the highest meat consumption also having the highest life expectancy, as well as the fact that iron deficiencies are the most widespread nutritional deficiency, it seems that the claim that we need to eat less meat is based more on ideology than science.

Mrs Feather

Onya Mrs Feather. This is a very clear and helpful explanation.

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