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No, Four Pounds of Beef Doesn’t Equal the Emissions of a Transatlantic Flight

Cattle graze on rangeland.

 

By Frank Mitloehner and Darren Hudson

A story in The New Yorker came out this week about Dr. Pat Brown, the founder of Impossible Foods. If readers scan the headline and subhead, they’ll get the gist of what author Tad Friend is trying to say: “Can a plant based burger help solve climate change? Eating meat creates huge environmental costs. Impossible Foods thinks it has a solution.”

That’s unfortunate. It might even be dangerous. In the article, Mr. Friend writes that Every four pounds of beef you eat contributes to as much global warming as flying from New York to London – the average American eats that much each month.

If only.

For the record, since it’s not noted in the article, Mr. Friend is citing from the work of Tim Searchinger of Princeton University and the World Resources Institute. It suggests all one needs to do to hop on a transatlantic flight with a clear conscience is to forego a few weeks’ worth of burgers. Professor Searchinger asserts that reforesting all grazing lands and giving up three-quarters of beef and dairy would reduce total global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

It’s yet another example of misleading data that is misinforming readers and even worse, perhaps affecting public policy in a way that is detrimental to us and our planet.

Since the story came out this week, we shudder to think how many people have bought into the 4-pounds-of-beef argument that is stated upfront, incidentally. So, let’s dissect that number and try to set the record straight.

Four pounds of beef in the United States DOES NOT equate to the greenhouse gas emissions (per passenger) of a flight from New York to London.

Per passenger, a one-way flight from NYC to London causes 1,980 lbs (898 kg) of COequivalent emissions (https://co2.myclimate.org/en/flight_calculators/new).

U.S. beef produces 22 kg of COequivalent emissions per kg. Thus, 4 pounds of U.S. beef would result in approximately 40 kg of emissions, less than 1/20th of the emissions per passenger of the plane ride in question.

So how come that the New Yorker estimate is so far off reality? A premise in Professor Searchinger’s work is that beef yields 188 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg. But that’s his global number, and we’re talking to an audience of American readers. If you live and work in the United States and are in the market for a car, would you look at emissions from the global car-fleet average or from those in the United States? Of course, it’s the latter.

The most comprehensive cradle-to-grave (i.e. life-cycle) assessment for U.S. beef was recently conducted by a USDA Agricultural Research Service team led by Dr. Alan Rotz at Penn State. The team found that U.S. beef is responsible for 3.7 percent of total America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Using a global number to represent U.S. animal agriculture is a disservice to American farmers – the most efficient in the world – and members of the American public who are making lifestyle choices based on the research they come across, whether it’s correct or not. It is also a disservice to Americans who expect that meaningful changes are being implemented to reduce climate pollutants. It is unquestioned by most experts, as well as by the Environmental Protection Agency, that fossil-fuel-intensive sectors, such as transportation, power and industry, emit approximately 80 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. The plastic-straw-light-bulb-burger discussion that is frequently touted as a meaningful climate change solution seems to be a smokescreen to sidetrack from the major polluters.

Professor Searchinger, whose work is the foundation of the above mentioned assertion in The New Yorker article, has created a model of global marginal land use change and greenhouse gas emissions for beef. The core of his argument is that beef consumption anywhere will lead to global expansion of production and therefore puts pressure on, say, Brazilians to deforest in order to establish pasture. In a broad sense, supply must rise to meet demand. Taken a step further, he suggests if Americans stop reaching for beef as often as they do now, farmers and ranchers in the United States will turn to exporting more of their product, which will keep cattle producers in foreign countries from deforesting their homelands.

But Americans have already cut back on consumption, and companies have shifted to exports. In 1970, Americans consumed about 80 pounds of beef per person. Today? About 57 pounds. And in 1970, the U.S. exported less than 1 percent of its production but over 11 percent in 2018. Americans have long been doing their part according to this model. So, why is Brazil expanding its grazing area?

In short, they are different products serving different markets. Beef from Brazil is not the same as beef from the U.S., which specializes in producing well-marbled, grain-finished beef. Conversely, Brazilian beef exports tend to be grass-finished, leaner and in general lower-quality products. As a result, these two countries are producing beef for very different consumers – the U.S. is targeting higher-income countries for exports, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where demand growth is slower, whereas Brazilian beef is headed to lower-income consumers in countries such as China, Chile, Egypt and Iran, where demand growth is much faster. In short, any potential gains by U.S. consumption have been swamped by growing demand elsewhere.

Would increased U.S. beef exports eventually displace Brazilian beef exports in lower-income countries? Maybe, but it would take a considerable change in consumer choices and income in those countries. We have no evidence to indicate that would occur anytime soon, if at all. The predictions of the huge benefits of reducing U.S. beef consumption are, then, just based on unsupported assumptions.

Indeed, we live in a globalized world, but the beef market realities fly in the face of the globalized consumer model put forward by Professor Searchinger and the World Resources Institute. It’s just not that simple. Ultimately, a U.S. consumer eating less meat has not and will not displace consumption of Brazilian beef in Iran or China and therefore, decrease land expansion into the Amazon. That’s not how global beef markets work.

Solving the world’s climate change crisis is a weighty topic, and it is highly improbable (if not “impossible”) that an imitation beef burger is our savior. It is also a dangerous assertion, because it takes away focus from major polluters and our progress toward climate solutions.

Maybe – just maybe – American farmers and ranchers deserve some credit for efficiencies that for decades have decreased greenhouse gases while improving food production at unprecedented levels.

In short, for doing what the fossil fuel industry hasn’t figured out yet.

Frank Mitloehner is a Professor and Air Quality Specialist. Director, CLEAR Center. Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis. You can follow him on Twitter at @GHGGuru.

Darren Hudson is a Professor & Combest Endowed Chair. Director, International Center for Agricultural Competitiveness. Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX. You can follow him on Twitter at @CompetitiveAg.

EAT-Lancet’s environmental claims are an epic fail. And the Commission knows it.

The EAT-Lancet Commission’s attempt at establishing a “global planetary health diet that is healthy for both people and planet” was much-anticipated. With a promise like that, it should come as no surprise that the recommendations captured international attention when the study was published in mid-January 2019.

But the excitement around its environmental considerations has fallen flat, at least in circles that rely on science-based evidence to support their conclusions.

By way of background, the “universal healthy reference diet” proposed by the EAT commission drastically reduces the amount of meat – especially red meat – and animal products, giving us something that is about as close as one can get to veganism without being all-out vegan. But it’s not the panacea for environmental  health (and quite possibly a far cry from a nutritious diet) that its authors say it is and that it was tooted to be by much of the media.  Even more, they know it.

Though published in the esteemed journal “The Lancet”, the article – some  50 pages long – plays on the myth that changing what we eat can drastically affect the environment. Note to the commission: We’ve been down this road before, and it’s a dead end. Professors Hall and White, among others, have proven that. As I’ve pointed out previously, the disservice of the EAT Commission’s work – the downright danger – is that it leads the public to believe that food choices will drastically affect the climate and the environment overall. It surely has some effect, but nothing close to the impact of burning of fossil fuels! The science behind the environmental claims in the EAT report is sketchy at best and numerous info- and clarification/correction requests have stayed unanswered.

When the study was published, I delved into the report to analyze the science behind the environmental claims. I found numerous incorrect references, and both the methodology and conclusions to be flawed. I raised some questions and finally received this email from Fabrice DeClerck, science director of the EAT-Lancet Commission:

I applaud Dr. DeClerck’s honesty, but it’s a glaring example of too little too late. The much-awaited study of the EAT Commission makes environmental claims that are misleading the public into thinking all one has to do to halt climate change is opt for a veggie burger. It’s a claim that has no basis in science, not even the brand employed by the commission in the recently released report.

Publicly, despite knowing there are errors in the report, the commission is standing by its assertions

Privately, it’s a different story. The correct one. When will they open up and set the record straight publicly as they have done for me?

Frank

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