Creative math can’t deny U.S. beef is a climate catastrophe
As the clock runs down on avoiding catastrophic climate change, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging America’s burger habit.
Beef gets a bad rap for good reason. There is no sustainable method of producing beef at current levels of consumption. Industrial agriculture is an environmental nightmare, from feed crop to slaughterhouse. And a Harvard study determined that current pastureland could only support 27% of the beef supply if we switched to a grass-fed system — the number would be even smaller if we were assessing a regenerative system. There’s no mathematical way out of this problem but to eat less beef.
And there’s nothing regenerative about single-crop mono culture grown for cattle feed. More than half the grain in the U.S. goes to feeding livestock. Meat production is responsible for 80% of antibiotic use and 37% of pesticides.
Furthermore, a recent article in Wired points out that though little evidence supports the idea that grazing cattle could help slow climate change, the livestock industry is trying to present climate-friendly beef as a way to impede the market success of plant-based alternatives.
Beef isn’t bad for the environment, these pro-beef foodies claim. But what gets lost in pro-bovine argument are the wildlife impacts caused by American beef.
It is a leading harm to endangered, threatened and vulnerable species like gray wolves, bison, Tule elk, bald eagles, red band trout, the southwestern willow flycatcher, bees and butterflies, badgers and prairie dogs, foxes and coyotes, frogs and salamanders, as well as biodiverse habitats, clean water and fresh air. Beef production is literally draining the Colorado River dry.
To hide this, animal agriculture proponents use creative math to dismiss some of the biggest impacts of the U.S. beef industry. Recently, ag industry guru Frank Mitloehner suggested cattle account for less overall emissions in the U.S. than elsewhere. Mitloehner argues that if methane is magically “backed out” of greenhouse gas calculations, then U.S. beef has a negligible impact on climate change. However, the lower percentages in the U.S. he mentions are due to skyrocketing American fossil fuel emissions.
This type of math fails to account for the realities of less-than-optimal production systems and diminishing returns on carbon sequestration (which has limited potential even in the best of circumstances). As climate change worsens droughts, crop yields and unpredictable storms, beef production is likely to demand more land and energy rather than gain efficiencies.
Mitloehner is right, when he says his numbers don’t begin to tell the whole story of U.S. beef.
We only have 10 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half to mitigate climate change. Americans eat 2 to 3 times more beef than the global average. And according to the EPA, methane stays in the atmosphere for 12 years and the global warming potential for methane is 84 to 87 times that of carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale. Every year of action — or inaction — counts.
We can’t meet climate targets without producing less beef. A 2018 study determined that Americans may need to reduce beef consumption by a whopping 90%. And we can’t assume herd sizes will remain constant over the next decade, especially if exports continue to increase. Reducing the planet’s cattle load would unquestionably reduce methane emissions, at a pivotal moment in the unfolding climate catastrophe.
Business as usual — and burgers as usual — is an outdated model matched more by industry greenwashing than by the science. We can either get a head start on the emissions reductions with fewer cattle or we can continue to let our beef addiction push us closer to the tipping point.