There’s No Such Thing as Sustainable Beef

Despite industry hype, burgers are still eating up the environment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s no such thing as sustainable beef with our current rates of consumption and its impact on the planet.

Don’t believe the hype: there’s no such thing as “sustainable beef.” (Credit: Pixabay)

Yet there’s a lot of hype from the industry these days to revamp beef as the new eco-friendly food. Environmental scientists don’t buy it and neither should you, because it’s nothing but greenwashing.

What’s my beef with this common food staple? And as I reported last year, we simply can’t meet global climate goals without reducing meat consumption, especially beef. There are too many people eating too much of it, putting production pressure on an already polluted and maxed out ecosystem.

The average American’s annual hamburger appetite adds up to 1,050 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (C02e) 2, 2.13 acres of habitat, 66,300 gallons of water and 1,530 pounds of manure.

But the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, an industry-sponsored organization with members including McDonalds, Taco Bell, Walmart and Costco, wants you to believe the fairy tale that you can have all the burgers you want and a healthy planet.

The USRSB has released a new framework for sustainable beef production. The proposal is vague and doesn’t hold individual producers accountable to any standards or address the larger impacts of the industry as a whole. It lacks the transparency and teeth needed to hold beef producers responsible for the damage they do to our land, water, air and climate.

The facts about the impact of beef production on the environment and wildlife are in. (Let’s call them what they are, Extinction Facts.)

Beef is one of the most wasteful, inefficient foods to produce. It takes thousands of gallons of water to produce a hamburger. To gain a pound, a cow has to eat about 6 pounds of feed, which is a very inefficient way to put food on your plate.

Grass-fed beef is better in some ways, but worse in others. (Credit: NASA)

Grass-fed beef, which is trending in the more privileged sectors of society, is no better. While there may be some benefits over the concentrated pollution of factory farms, it takes about five times more water to produce than industrial beef, and we simply don’t have the land resources available to meet society’s current demand for burgers.

And although grass-fed beef may seem like a more palatable option for being more humane, it might be more aptly called “habitat-fed” beef given the amount of wildlife displaced or exterminated to protect grazing cows.

The only “sustainable” option is to eat less beef and reduce beef production to lighten the carbon footprint of the U.S. food system.

Yet the USRSB has made it clear they’re not interested in talking about that. The framework uses the term “sustainable” as a smokescreen to keep pushing carbon-intensive beef production under the guise of being eco-friendly. They know Americans want more sustainable food, but rather than addressing the root of the problem, the industry just wants to slap a buzzword on their business-as-usual.

And it’s not just the USRSB standing in the way of sustainability. The industry as a whole has been fighting against environmental protections. They are pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate rules like the Clean Water Rule that would hold factory farms accountable for pollution of our waterways and supporting bills that would strip requirements to report dangerous air pollution.

The beef industry is also trying to keep Earth-friendly alternatives from being competitive in the market. The industry has filed petitions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent producers of plant-based foods from using the words “meat” and “dairy” on their products.

Industry lobbyists claim that people are confused by the labels, despite evidence that consumers are consciously seeking out plant-based substitutes (and no evidence that people are actually confused by the origin of almond milk).

They’re fighting so hard because market pressure via consumer choice has enormous power to change our food system — and current trends are not in their favor.

There’s a lot that can be done to make meat production less destructive to the climate, clean water and wildlife. If the U.S. roundtable actually made sustainable certification a requirement in order to produce meat, like the Canadian version of the organization does, it could actually influence the nature of production and the characteristics involving more sustainable methods.

But to make the beef industry truly sustainable, they first have to be honest about the need to eat less and produce less beef.