Low carbon beef and net-zero dairy are in the mix as the livestock sector fights back with facts about footprints. But is it greenwash? David Burrows reports.
In 2019 I wrote an article about how the meat and dairy sectors could begin to counter criticism about their role in climate change. I cited a frank report by Kite Consulting that warned that: “If UK dairy doesn’t find ways to markedly reduce carbon equivalent emissions then a decline in consumption is the only alternative.” It was also “dangerous to presume dairy products should simply continue to sell themselves: proactivity rather than reactivity is a necessity”.
Three years on and we have started to see dairy and meat respond proactively, as companies begin to make carbon claims on their products and make plans to achieve net-zero.
One initiative that should pique the interest of farmers, campaigners and food companies alike is the low carbon beefcertification scheme that’s up and running in the US. The idea, according to Colin Beal, CEO and founder of Low Carbon Beef, is to “provide better information” on the environmental impact of beef. “[…] if we can produce beef with less greenhouse gas emissions, we should,” he told me recently. The scheme certifies beef from cattle that are at least 10% below the average emissions from cattle in the US (26.3kgCO2e per kilo). Life cycle assessments are regularly reviewed and updated, he says, and as the science progresses in areas such as anti-methane feed additives, manure management and soil carbon sequestration the programme may be extended to require 30% or 50% reductions below that baseline (worth noting, too, is that more extensive systems are finding it trickier to reach the scheme’s current 10% benchmark).
In time the certification could be seen in fast food joints on burgers but it’s unlikely that foods will be tagged ‘low carbon beef’; rather it’ll be something along the lines of ‘produced with methods that reduce GHG emissions’. Neither is likely to satisfy some critics: the latter is too vague and the former is seen as impossible. “There is no such thing as low carbon beef,” noted Irina Gerry, chief marketing officer at dairy alternative maker Change Foods, recently. ‘Lower’ carbon beef might be a better bet.
Carbon cow claims
Such climate claims are also being scrutinised by regulators. Arla has been footprinting the farms of thousands of its producers to show how its milk results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the average. Such moves chime with more recent calls for producer passion to be replaced with environmental evidence. “We are all very passionate about what we do, but passion isn’t going to win this subject,” Professor John Gilliland of the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast told beef, sheep and pig producers at the Royal Highland Show in 2022.“Many people don’t understand what our sector does and the benefits it delivers for human health. We also need to engage about how we deliver environmental health and reduce our footprint.”
That is easier said than done. There are traps and pitfalls aplenty when communicating footprints. Arla has suffered unwanted headlines of late with its use of the phrase ‘net-zero climate footprint’ when marketing some of its products, attracting the ire of both the consumer watchdog in Sweden and the country’s Patent and Market Court: they both felt the claim gave the impression that “the product does not give rise to any climate footprint at all”. Arla is now banned from using it. “It was never our intention to mislead anyone,” said Victoria Olsson, head of sustainability at Arla Sweden, adding that the ruling “confirms that sustainability is a complicated topic to communicate on and that clearer guidelines are needed”.
It’s a fair point, and just as the livestock sector starts to fight back on its climate footprint, the safe spaces for talking about it are shrinking. Meat protein giant JBS has just been ordered to “discontinue claims relating to its goal of achieving ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2040”. The BBB National Programs national advertising division (NAD), an independent body overseeing truthfulness of advertising in the US, concluded that JBS had started to think about its climate impact but there was no plan being implemented today in order to achieve its target. JBS is appealing the decision but campaigners see it as a major blow to meat company communications around net-zero. CEOs at firms attempting such “greenwash”should expect them to “keep blowing up [in their faces]”, noted Mighty Earth founder and CEO Glenn Hurowitz. Instead they must “actually work to reduce their footprint”, he added.
Fellow animal protein behemoth Danone has just committed to do just that: a target to reduce methane from its fresh milk by 30% by 2030 has been tentatively welcomed by some NGOs – like the Changing Markets Foundation which recently calculated that methane emissions from 15 of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies (including Danone) equate to 83% of the EU’s total emissions of methane. The gas is short-lived but potent in terms of global warming and must be a focus for immediate emission reductions.
Action on methane adds “urgency”, says the foundation’s campaigns director Nusa Urbancic. And by this she means an urgency to implement technical fixes but also to look at cutting livestock numbers – consumption cuts are too often seen as “the last thing we’re going to do”, she explains. “You have to be talking about meaningful reductions, like 50%, because that’s what the science [and dietary guidance] says.”
Companies tend to avoid c-words like ‘cut’ and ‘consumption’ but in recent weeks Lidl and Ikea have both done so. The boss of the discount supermarket has announced that he wants to replace more animal products with plant-based ones (further details are due soon, according to Vegconomist, a website). Meanwhile, the retail chain known for its furniture and increasingly food, said in its 2022 sustainability report, published last month, that it “continues to explore where and how we can remove or replace dairy in our range (without compromising on taste) to further reduce the climate impact of our food ingredients”.
Could the success of efforts to market lower carbon meatballs and cheese rest on businesses acknowledging the need for reduction? WWF head of consumption Joanna Trewern certainly thinks so. She feels companies are “missing a trick” here. “I know that it's always going to be difficult for companies because they don't want to recognise that they might need to sell less of something. But I think where they could really gain some legitimacy when talking about better [meat and dairy is if] they acknowledge the need for less.” It’s a hard sell but it might just be the secret to selling sustainable meat and milks.