As Beef Comes Under Fire for Climate Impacts, the Industry Fights Back | Civil Eats

As Beef Comes Under Fire for Climate Impacts, the Industry Fights Back

In at least two states this year, the beef and dairy industries have gone on the offensive to beat proposed government food initiatives linking livestock to global warming.

Japanese Beef cattle. Photo by
This article was originally published by InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment.

In California, a state legislator introduced a bill called the California Climate-Friendly Food Program, with the goal of promoting plant-based foods in schools and reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to livestock.

Within a few months, references to climate change were stripped out of the text and title. The bill instead became the California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program.

On the other coast, in Maryland, the state’s Green Purchasing Committee launched the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee to study which foods have the largest carbon footprints and to steer the state away from buying those foods. The administration of Gov. Larry Hogan disbanded the committee months later.

In both cases, the states’ farm and beef lobbies got their way.

Over the past year, as landmark reports advised consumers to eat less meat and dairy because of their climate impacts—and as plant-based alternatives gained traction—the American beef and dairy industries have been pushed further into defensive mode.

“It is astounding, the level of fear and pushback from the meat industry on our efforts to address the very real, substantial climate impacts of meat production,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the food and agriculture program at Friends of the Earth, which helped develop the California legislation and is behind other legislation intended to expand state-level spending on plant-based foods.

“They don’t want to cede an inch on climate change,” Hamerschlag added.

a chart showing livestock based methane emissions


Early this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission, in a major scientific report, urged a “comprehensive shift” in the world’s diet. In July, the World Resources Institute, the United Nations and other groups released a massive report finding that the world needs to produce 50 percent more food without expanding the food system’s carbon footprint. And in August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report calling for a major overhaul in the global food system.

All of them recommend lowering consumption of meat, dairy and carbon-intensive foods, especially in developed countries.

Stripping Mention of ‘Climate,’ Disbanding a Committee

California Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian introduced a bill in February that would allocate $3 million to give schools a rebate for increasing the number of plant-based meals they serve. The original bill contained language that said beef and dairy production released more greenhouse gases and had the word “climate” in the title.

But the state’s powerful beef and dairy industries opposed the bill, largely because of the explicit connections it made between livestock production and climate change. Lawmakers removed the language, the lobby withdrew its opposition—and the bill moved forward. It now awaits further movement in a state committee.

“We were opposed early in the process but removed our opposition in the Assembly Education Committee after substantial amendments were taken to the bill removing the involvement of the Air Resources Board [California’s climate regulator] in the school lunch program, among a handful of other issues with the bill,” said Justin Oldfied, vice president for government affairs with the California Cattlemen’s Association, in an email to InsideClimate News

“The changes they wanted weren’t about the substance,” said Kyle Ash, director of government affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for vegetarian diets. “It’s about whether they look bad or not because the bill adds legitimacy to the fact that animal-based diets are higher in carbon emissions.”

In Maryland, the state’s Green Purchasing Committee, an interagency government group charged with “promoting environmentally preferable purchasing” by state agencies, launched the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee to study which foods released higher amounts of greenhouse gases.

After the group produced a list of carbon-intensive foods, which included beef and dairy, the executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Beef Association called it a “hit list of foods,” according to a trade media publication. The association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent a joint letter to Gov. Hogan, a Republican, asking him to disband the committee because, they said, it was operating with a political agenda.

The following month, in August, state officials said they were disbanding the committee, writing that “it has become very clear that these are complicated issues that require solutions beyond the scope of the subcommittee.”

“After much review, we have jointly determined that the goals of this subcommittee are similar to those of other state programs, and have decided that our resources would be better focused on bolstering those efforts,” they added.

Message From Scientists Is Clear

Emissions from livestock account for about 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, globally, and roughly two thirds of those emissions come from cattle—mostly from methane burped by cows, growing feed and clearing land for grazing and feed crops.

In October of last year, the journal Nature published a study, saying that, in order to feed the expected 9.7 billion people on the planet in 2050—and meet the Paris climate accord goals—the world will need to shift toward plant-based diets, in addition to reducing food waste and adopting new farming technologies.

“We find that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures,” the authors wrote.

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But the message to the world’s eaters was simple: Eat less meat and dairy.

At the Five Rivers cattle feeding operation in Kersey Colo., nearly 100,000 cattle are fed to market weight. The U.S. is the world's largest producer of beef, and Five Rivers is the world's largest cattle feeding company, with nearly 1 million cattle across six states. (Photo credit: Georgina Gustin, InsideClimate News)

At the Five Rivers cattle feeding operation in Kersey Colo., nearly 100,000 cattle are fed to market weight. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef, and Five Rivers is the world’s largest cattle feeding company, with nearly 1 million cattle across six states. (Photo credit: Georgina Gustin, InsideClimate News)

The following month, the EAT-Lancet Commission published its study coming to the same conclusion. That was followed by the sweeping report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying that a shift toward less carbon-intensive food presented “major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions.”

“Examples of healthy and sustainable diets are high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds; low in energy-intensive animal-sourced and discretionary foods (such as sugary beverages),” the report said.

“Staying within a 2-degree trajectory—it won’t happen if you don’t bring down animal sources of food globally, and in most regions and places where beef is produced, and that includes the U.S.,” said Marco Springmann of Oxford University, the lead author of the Nature study and and one of the authors of the EAT-Lancet Commission report.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef. In 1960 it produced 16 billion pounds of beef and in 2018, 27 billion pounds. This year, the U.S. could produce more than 27.4 billion pounds—a record. The average American consumes nearly three times the global average, at 57 pounds per capita.

Industry Wants Supply-Side Solutions

The American beef industry says that the headlines over the past year that blare recommendations to cut beef consumption oversimplify the issue.

In a recent study published in Agricultural Systems, researchers did a full life-cycle analysis—the gold standard for determining a product’s greenhouse gas emissions—and found that beef cattle produce about 3.7 percent of the United State’s total greenhouse gas emissions, nearly half of total agricultural emissions, which are about 9 percent. That analysis includes emissions from birth to slaughter. Most of that comes from methane from cow belches.

“Methane is our biggest challenge,” said Sara Place, a co-writer of the study and senior director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which funded the research. “This industry is interested in solutions.”

Place says there should be more emphasis on the industry’s potential to cut emissions, rather than just recommending people cut back on their beef consumption for climate-related reasons. “There’s this argument that we can’t improve the supply side—that we have to cut demand,” Place said. “That’s our challenge: How can we as scientists cut emissions and bend that curve back down.”

The American beef industry points to Place’s research, which was done with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as evidence of how the U.S. cattle industry has become more efficient, producing more meat with fewer cattle. In other countries, emissions from cattle are higher, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Some researchers also note that the number of cattle in the U.S. has fallen from 97.8 million in 1960 to 88.5 in 2014, while the number of pounds produced has risen over the same time—a figure that shows how relatively efficient the industry has become.

“Maybe—just maybe—American farmers and ranchers deserve some credit for efficiencies that for decades have decreased greenhouse gases,” wrote Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science at the University of California at Davis, a staunch industry defender, in a recent blog post.

Meat Production Has Skyrocketed

Still, critics say, 3.7 percent of emissions is a relatively high number because overall U.S. emissions are so much higher than most countries. And, they note, that total methane emissions from U.S. livestock have risen by nearly 20 percent from 1990 to 2016.

Chart showing methane emissions from livestock


“People say: Oh, it’s not a big number. But if you divide it by total greenhouse gases in the U.S., which you can argue are very high and should be much lower, it is,” Springmann said. “The U.S. system produces the fourth-largest amount of greenhouse gases in the world. It’s a high number if you put it in a global context.”

Beef’s carbon footprint is well established. For every gram of beef produced, 221 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted, compared to 36 for pork. And for every calorie from beef, 22 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted, compared to 3.5 from pork.

Global meat production has skyrocketed—by more than 370 percent — since 1960, straining resources and consuming land. With demand for beef and dairy expected to soar, feeding the world—and staying within a safe carbon budget—will be impossible without major shifts in consumption patterns.

Tim Searchinger, author of another report this year advocating for lower animal protein consumption, agrees that the emissions intensity of U.S. beef is lower than in other countries. But, he says, the demand for livestock-based foods from consumers in the U.S. and other high-income countries has major climate impacts nonetheless. (Among developed countries, the U.S. consumes more beef, per capita, than any other country, after Argentina.)

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Searchinger has pointed out that most life cycle assessments (LCA) of beef production don’t account for land-use change and deforestation—to make way for grazing and growing grains—in other places.

“If your LCA doesn’t take into account land use, then your LCA is leaving something pretty important out,” he said. “The amount of carbon we lose from vegetation and soils to produce a kilo of beef is much higher than the emissions from even methane and nitrous oxide from producing beef.”

chart asking how does land use contribute to ghg emissions


He says that any land devoted to food could store more carbon if left as forest or restored to its native vegetation. So every acre of land is critical for carbon storage, given growing global food demands.

“We need to have land available to reforest. We need to avoid clearing land. Every time we consume less beef, that provides—at the very least—the opportunity to use less land,” he said. “Each of us has the power to avoid that land-clearing. So if I don’t eat beef, the next guy can eat more without clearing land.”

Pressure Coming From Consumers, Too

These latest attempts by the industry to beat back initiatives linking livestock to climate impacts are only the most recent. During the development of the influential 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are reviewed and revamped every five years, the meat industry, along with its allies in Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, successfully tamped down nutritionists’ recommendations to eat less red meat for environmental reasons.

Much of the pressure on the industry is also coming from consumers as dietary choices are starting to shift.

The number of vegans and vegetarians, especially among millenials, is small but rising, and many American consumers say they’re choosing to eat less meat.

An Impossible burger with fries at Gott's Roadside in Napa, California. (Photo CC-licensed by Sarah Stierch)

An Impossible burger with fries at Gott’s Roadside in Napa, California. (Photo CC-licensed by Sarah Stierch)

Plant-based alternatives—from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat—are jockeying for shelf space in the meat sections of grocery stores and landing on the menu at fast food chains. Industry analysts have said the market for these plant-based burger alternatives is enormous, potentially reaching $100 billion in 15 years.

The industry has started fighting off attempts to market plant-based alternatives as “steak” and “burger.”

This year, at least two dozen states considered bills to limit those terms to products that come from animals.

“The issue in the legislative debates is whether or not consumers are being deceived,” said Dan Colegrove, a lobbyist for the Plant Based Foods Association, which fought the bills. “We contend, no, that consumers know exactly what they’re doing.”

Colegrove said he was unaware that any particular lobby was behind these bills, or that any “model” legislation was developed by an interest group.

“You don’t see this kind of growth in retail sectors. Clearly something’s going on,” Colegrove said, noting that the lobbying push was being driven by the significant interest in plant-based alternatives. “I think this issue is not going to go away next year.”

Top photo: Japanese Beef cattle CC-licensed by japanexterna.

Georgina Gustin is a Washington-based reporter who has covered food policy, farming and the environment for more than a decade. She started her journalism career at The Day in New London, Conn., then moved to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she launched the "food beat," covering agriculture, biotech giant Monsanto and the growing "good food" movement. At CQ Roll Call, she covered food, farm and drug policy and the intersections between federal regulatory agencies and Congress. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and National Geographic's The Plate, among others. Read more >

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