‘Climate-Friendly’ Meat Is a Myth

6 minute read
Kateman is a co-founder and the president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable and compassionate world. He is the author of “Meat Me Halfway” — inspired by a documentary of the same name — and the editor of “The Reducetarian Cookbook” and “The Reducetarian Solution.” He is an adjunct professor of environmental science and sustainability at Kean University and teaches environmental communications at Fordham.

Meat eaters are about to have a new option in the beef aisle. Along with cuts of meat labeled as organic, GMO-free, grass-fed, or what have you, consumers will now be able to buy beef that’s certified “climate-friendly.” In late 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a verification program that allows meat producers to label their product “low-carbon” if it meets certain environmentally-conscious criteria. And just last month, Tyson Foods and Schweid & Sons, in partnership, began selling the first burger to earn that designation.

The Brazen Climate Friendly Ground Beef Burger was developed under Tyson’s own Climate Smart Beef Program, supported by taxpayer funds. On its face, this might give the impression that the beef industry is finally doing its part to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing emissions. But frustratingly, the whole scheme is more about marketing magic than science-backed solutions. It’s a classic case of greenwashing—using language that intentionally misleads the public into believing that something is environmentally friendly.

The USDA is the agency that oversees the agricultural industry and determines which products can use labels like “organic” or, now, “climate-friendly.” Their climate-friendly certification program, however, operates via private third-party companies contracted by the USDA. These companies evaluate candidate meat producers’ agricultural practices to determine the emissions output. If that measurement is at least 10% lower than an industry benchmark set by the auditing company for emissions, the producer gets USDA approval to label their products “climate-friendly” and use related language in packaging and marketing.

Ten percent probably doesn’t sound terribly impressive, and actually, it’s even worse than it seems. When the USDA first launched the “climate-friendly” certification program (which initially used the label “low-carbon”), it quickly became subject to criticism. Matt Reynolds, a senior writer at WIRED, pointed out in January 2022 that the criteria for earning the certification isn’t very high: for example, the benchmark used by Low Carbon Beef, one of the third-party companies that performs evaluations for companies seeking this label, is 26.3 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions per kilogram of carcass weight. In other words, beef producers must emit no more than 23.67 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions per kg of weight (the equivalent of the emissions released by driving 60.7 miles in an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle) to earn the right to call their product climate-friendly.

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But that benchmark does not actually indicate below-average CO2 equivalent emissions. A 2019 study found that the U.S. average for this metric is only 21.3 kilograms, already well under the benchmark of 26.3. Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, points out that this means that even products with higher-than-average emissions outputs will qualify for the “climate-friendly” label. On top of that, the third-party verification process isn’t as rigorous as it sounds—it runs on the honor system, allowing companies to report their own calculations, as if there were no obvious conflict of interest.

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And in the case of Tyson Foods’ Brazen Burger, it’s a complete and utter mystery how this product qualifies as “climate-friendly.” Although we know a company called Where Food Comes From is the third-party auditor, journalists have been unable to obtain any information about what baseline that company used, instead being instructed by the USDA to submit a Freedom of Information Act request. What this means is that there is a total lack of transparency, and none of this nuance is required to be presented to consumers.

Another problem with the new certification program is that CO2 emissions may not be the best or only proxy for planetary harm. The initiative is a perfect example of carbon tunnel-vision: the tendency to focus on CO2 emissions to the exclusion of all other environmental impacts. Yes, greenhouse gasses are directly linked to climate change, and reducing emissions is an important goal. But carbon emissions are far from the only way industrial animal agriculture negatively impacts the environment. Waste from livestock farms pollutes water and makes people sick. Livestock farming also uses a massive amount of water, such that a single 4 oz serving of beef takes, on average, 463 gallons of water to produce (only serving to further exacerbate climate-linked water scarcity issues). By contrast, a single 4 oz serving of potatoes (basically a small potato), uses nine. In fact, the industry harms the environment just by taking up space. Some of the richest ecosystems on the planet are consistently wiped out to make room for cattle operations; livestock farming is a known threat to biodiversity and a cause of species extinction. With all of this in mind, focusing exclusively on carbon emissions seems wildly myopic for a federal program that certifies products as climate-friendly.

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The program isn’t just useless; it could even harm the environment further. The low bar to certification could de-incentivize producers from making bigger changes and leading consumers to complacency. And even if the requirements for certification were better than average for beef products, the label “climate-friendly” would still be seriously misleading. Beef is by far the least climate-friendly food a person can eat due to its levels of greenhouse gas emissions; according to one study, producing a kilogram of beef contributed over 22 times more to the climate crisis than producing a kilogram of rice, and 63 times more than a kilogram of wheat. Not to mention the myriad other ways it negatively impacts the environment. And since brands generally aren’t required to print the relevant numbers, shoppers can’t even compare products to figure out which are the lesser of the evils.

Tyson’s description of their Climate Smart Beef Program, predictably, is also a big fat nothingburger. Within a thousand words, they manage to avoid any specifics. They talk about implementing and incentivizing “climate-smart practices” through “advanced technology” and “agricultural intelligence,” but they don’t specify what even one single “climate-smart practice” actually is.

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It’s unsurprising that an industry would spin the truth to position itself as being on the right side of the climate crisis, but it’s a little galling that a government agency would not just allow this, but facilitate it. The USDA isn’t serving the American people in any legitimate way, despite the government’s ostensible purpose. This program only serves the beef industry, at the expense of misleading (and likely up-charging) the customer. It’s unethical and calls the agency’s very purpose into question.

The truth is that anyone who is legitimately interested in lowering their environmental impact should cut back on or skip beef altogether, opting instead for plant foods like fruits, grains, vegetables, and legumes. If anything, the “climate-friendly” labeling program is a cynical reminder that customers shouldn’t believe all the claims made in advertising, even when the ads are government-sanctioned. And remember: there is no such thing as climate-friendly beef. At least, not yet.

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