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Tag: Greenhouse Gas

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 (

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.

Carbon Emissions from Amazon Fires Pale in Comparison to Burning of our Fossil Forests

While the world is focusing on the burning of the immense above-ground Amazon forest, no one is mourning the loss of the (fossilized) forests that lie below the surface of the earth. The ones we are churning through at an unprecedented rate are our ancient forests, commonly referred to as “fossil fuels”, with enormous impact on greenhouse gas emissions.


Fossil fuels are plants and animals that inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and that are now unleashed, promising their minions untold comforts and riches. But the gifts come at a price far dearer than anyone could have imagined. Once freed from the “vasty deep,” they wreak havoc on the planet and the very people who set them free, calling into question their ability to survive the invasion.


It sounds like a science fiction movie, but sadly, it’s rooted in fact. Our seemingly endless obsession with the burning of fossil fuels is doing more than any other human activity to add excess carbon dioxide (CO2) to our atmosphere. As a matter of fact, the use of fossil fuels accounts for almost 37 gigatons of the total 49 anthropogenic (human-caused) gigatons of greenhouse gases (GHG) entering our atmosphere each year. In other words, most of them.


The Amazon is big, but the behemoth lies below

As the fires in the Amazon continue to burn, it’s more important than ever to remember where the lion’s share of our CO2 is coming from. Many have warned that the potential demise of the world’s largest rainforest will mean a disastrous release (as far as global warming is concerned) of the carbon that is naturally stored in the plethora of plant life that lives there.


In addition, it would affect the short-term carbon cycle, whereby plants and animals (including us) exist in a wonderfully symbiotic relationship involving oxygen and CO2. We not only exist together; we exist because of each other, using each other’s nutrients to sustain life. As magical as the short-term carbon cycle is, however, it is woefully inadequate when it comes to making a dent in the glut of CO2 hanging in our atmosphere from fossil fuels.

It bears emphasizing that the Amazon wildfires are tragic for many reasons, including the fact that they are now acting as a smokescreen for the biggest burn of all. While the world is focusing on the demise of this immense above-ground forest, no one is mourning the loss of the ancient forests that live below the surface of the earth. The ones we call fossil fuels and which we are churning through at an unprecedented rate.


The world beneath us

Few have said it more colorfully than Peter Brannen in his recent article in The Atlantic:

“Underneath West Virginia and England are vast sleeping jungles, over 300 million years old, filled with centipedes the size of alligators and scorpions the size of dogs. Under West Texas is a tropical coral reef from a 260-million-year-old ocean, visited, in its day, by sharks with circular saw teeth. Under Saudi Arabia are whole seas of plankton that pulsed with the seasons and sunbathed under the waves in the age of dinosaurs,” he says. “This is what we are burning at Earth’s surface today. We’re not just burning down the Amazon. We’re burning down all the forests in Earth history that we can get our hands on.”

Simply put, fossil fuels are the plants and animals that avoided decay and instead, slowly but surely morphed into oil, gas coal and rock under extreme pressure and with the luxury of millions of years of being left alone.


They were once living things, which means they’re largely made up of carbon. When they’re brought to the surface of the Earth and burned, the carbon combines with other gases, with the major byproduct being CO2. After water vapor, CO2 is the most plentiful greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. As such, it serves as a ceiling that prevents the sun’s heat from dissipating into the atmosphere. A healthy amount makes our planet habitable. More than we need makes Earth too warm.


The story of climate change

Of the major greenhouse gases CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), CO2 has the lowest potency (i.e. global warming potential per molecule). Yet, its life span is much longer. As the EPA points out, some of it is absorbed very quickly by the ocean, but “some will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years ….”


It’s more than a story of climate change. It is THE story of climate change. In less than a century, we’ve churned through what many believe to be half of the fossil fuels that reside in the Earth’s crust, effectively turning the natural carbon cycle into a one-way street that dead-ends in our atmosphere. Consider that our greenhouse gases consist of more than 80 percent CO2.


And yet, we continue to hear that we have to take personal action to affect climate change. There’s an oft-heard battle cry that if we give up meat, we’ll save our planet. That’s far from the truth. In reality, in the US, 80 percent of all GHG stem from fossil fuel using industries. In contrast, all of animal agriculture contributes to 3.9 percent (all of agriculture is 9 percent) of GHG emissions and overall, agriculture and forestry combined, reduce (i.e. sequester) more GHG than they emit.


To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that livestock and other factors don’t contribute to greenhouse gases. They clearly do. In the case of animals, some give off methane, which has 28 times the global warming potential of CO2. Even so, methane behaves very differently than long lived climate pollutants such as CO2, and thus, we have less to fear than some would have us believe. (Stay tuned for a future blog post about the difference between a short-lived gas like methane and CO2.)


Is anyone listening?

Indeed, there is a long list of activities that are turning up the heat on our plant. The problem I see is that some of them – meat consumption and deforestation, for example – while not innocent bystanders, are often put forth as scapegoats. The major problem by far – the 800-pound gorilla, as it were – is the burning of fossil fuels. Michael Mann and Jonathan Brockopp recently said as much in their op-ed that appeared in USA Today, America’s most widely circulated newspaper.


I wonder if anyone heard them. I wonder if anyone wants to.


It seems as if we will do whatever we can to avoid pointing a finger at our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. And until we do, we’ll never be able to see the forest for the trees.

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