Burger King’s Reduced Methane Beef is a Green-washing Gimmick
Deconstructing the environmental claims in Burger King’s new commercial
On July 14, Burger King reported it would begin using meat from cows that (allegedly) release 33% less methane. Burger King claims that introducing lemongrass in the cow’s diet improves digestion, and therefore reduces methane emissions. This was announced along with a commercial, which has already generated millions of views:
I hate to break the news, but the singing cowboy is trying to pull a fast one on you.
Beef farming is extremely greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive and is one of the driving forces of climate change. A 2018 Science article estimated that producing 100 grams of beef releases the equivalent of 50 kilograms of carbon dioxide on average. This number is far higher than any other common food. Pork is estimated to release an equivalent of 4.6 kilograms CO2 per 100 grams of meat, chicken is responsible for 2.4 kilos, and only 1.0 kilo is released per 100 grams of tofu. Why is beef so high? As the commercial explains, methane plays an important role. Methane is a GHG like CO2, but is over 20-times as powerful, meaning that cow burps and farts are responsible for an incredible amount of global warming. It is estimated that 3.5% of GHG emissions since 1990 have been methane from cows and sheep. If cows and sheep had their own country, it would be the 5th largest emitter of GHGs in the world.
To address this problem, Burger King has developed a lemongrass feed for their cows which they claim leads to a 33% reduction in methane emissions. How do we know this new diet works? Well, we don’t know. Burger King has shared a summary of their research, but their study is undergoing peer-review at the moment. For those not familiar, peer-review is a process where qualified researchers analyze a new study to see if the results are scientifically valid. Once the review is complete it will be possible to probe the science behind Burger King’s claims more fully, but for now the details are not public.
To be clear, we don’t yet have any reason to believe that their science is bad. It could be fine, but it is bad practice to publicly broadcast results like this when the work is still being peer-reviewed. It would be like announcing a pregnancy on social media before consulting a doctor. Discussing unpublished research within the scientific community is not that uncommon, but scientists will make it clear that the findings are not final. And we certainly don’t cut 2-minute commercials about the results and post them to Twitter.
Even if we assume that the 33% reduction in methane emissions is valid, there are some important qualifications that the little cowboy didn’t work into his song. If you dig into Burger King’s write-up, they explain that the lemongrass diet is only given to cows during the last 3–4 months of the cow’s life. Beef cows typically live about 18 months before they are slaughtered, meaning they are fed the lemongrass diet for less than a quarter of their life. I wasn’t able to find a detailed breakdown of cow methane emissions by age, but the available research clearly shows that cows younger than 15 months still release plenty of methane. In total, methane emissions reduction is probably closer to 5–10% when viewed over the cow’s entire lifespan.
But wait, there’s more! Beef production is not just bad for the environment because of methane emissions, it is also impactful due to land use change. One of the leading causes of Amazon deforestation is demand for pastures. When companies clear-cut rainforest to make way for cow farming, the overall ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is lowered. According to research, roughly 24% of the GHG impact of beef comes from land use change effects. I guess Mr. Burger King just forgot these land use change emissions. Like he forgot the emissions involved in producing cow feed. And manure emissions. And transport…
Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, this reduced methane beef is only coming to a few select stores. You didn’t catch that from the cute tune? Yeah, only five stores in the world have this special beef right now. Five. In the entire world. Burger King’s write-up explains that they plan to expand the reduced methane beef program in the future, but there is very little detail. Unless you live in Miami, New York City, Austin, LA, or Portland, you are stuck with eating full-methane burgers for now. This is mentioned in the fine print at the 1:50 mark, but this detail somehow didn’t make it into the song. Oh well.
Overall, Burger King’s new beef probably does have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional beef, but the reduction is likely closer to 5% than 33%. Remember, beef’s GHG emissions are absolutely insane. Even if the GHG savings were a full 33%, a beef burger’s climate change impact would still be more than six times higher than an Impossible Burger, which is already served at Burger King! Not only that, plant-based meats do not rely on the suffering of animals, increase the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID spreading into humans, or support the callous cruelty of animal agribusiness.
You may be saying to yourself “At least Burger King is trying! Some GHG savings are better than nothing!” but that is not the point. If Burger King had announced this new beef on an investor call, that would be fine. I may not agree with the ethics of Burger King’s business model, but I would rather they use reduced methane beef all things being equal. Instead, Burger King launched a marketing campaign claiming they are “doing their part” when in reality they are barely doing anything at all. Like many companies, they care far more about the appearance of being environmentally conscious than actually improving their GHG emissions.
Green-washing is the practice of creating an appearance that a company or product is more environmentally friendly than it is. The company doesn’t have to lie — many cases of green-washing involve exaggerated claims, or questionable marketing. This commercial is designed to give the impression that all of Burger King’s beef has 33% less GHG emissions than conventional beef, which is not remotely true. While Burger King is careful not to lie, the ad is deeply deceptive.
Gimmicks like reduced methane beef are not about “doing their part” — they are providing cover for the devastating environmental impact of the beef industry. Until Burger King wants to get serious about climate change, they can keep their cow farts to themselves.