Meat claims are driving me round the bend

Shock campaigns that link food choices to climate change are great but some of the messaging is just confusing. By David Burrows.

"One hamburger pollutes more than your car." This massive billboard advert by Heura Foods, a plant-based start-up, located in central Madrid was taken down after the Spanish meat industry sued. They claimed it was inaccurate and misleading. The courts recently decided it wasn't. I am not so sure.

“Heura’s advertising messages have a scientific basis and are extracted from scientific reports and studies issued by prestigious publications and organisations, such as Science, Nature or FAO,” noted Barcelona’s commercial court.

That’s fine. Heura sent me a snippet from the report and data they used to evidence their claims. This is good business practice for any environmental claims (as Footprint has reported). This showed that it takes 55kg of CO2e to raise 110g of beef. A petrol car emits 4.92kg per day, based on an average of 34km of daily driving. So, it would take over 11 days of driving around at the average rate to emit as much CO2e as a beef burger.

Does that make the burger or the car more polluting, in terms of climate change? I suppose it depends on how many burgers you have in that 11-day period (and you will of course need more sustenance than a single burger in that period). Not to mention how the cattle were raised and what they were fed on. Start to look at this and you can quickly lose the thread.

Hardly surprising, then, that an Ipsos Mori poll recently found that public understanding of relative impact of meat and miles is low: 86% globally couldn’t guess how far a car would need to drive to match the carbon emissions of making one beef burger. Of those who tried to answer, the mean response was 43km. “Depending on car efficiency data from the International Energy Agency, the true journey length is between 38-119km, putting most answers at the lower end of the range,” Ipsos noted.

Heura’s figures suggest it is closer to 374km, so the beef is actually more damaging than they thought. And yet, data from a University of Oxford study in 2018 showed that a kilo of beef emits 60kg of CO2e. A burger of 110g would therefore be around 6kgCO2e, whereas Heura cites 55kgCo2e for that portion. Perhaps I am biting off more than I can chew here?

But back to the ad. I understand why Heura has done this: to raise awareness. "We must empower consumers, and the best way to do that is by giving them information. They must know the great power they have in building a more sustainable planet with each meal,” said Heura cofounder Bernat Añaños.

Food, by recent calculations published in Nature Food, is responsible for 34% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The system must change and so too diets. It is, as the University of Oxford’s professor Susan Jebb put it recently, “inconceivable we can achieve net zero without changing what people eat”.

Jebb was talking during a brilliant discussion to launch a new exhibition at Oxford Museum of Natural History called ‘Meat The Future’ (the recording of which will be available very soon and I’d recommend listening to it as an hour well spent). She also noted that we have to be careful not to position plant-based foods as the “height of nutritional perfection”.

Our food choices involve complex trade-offs between human health and environment impact that aren’t easily captured in pithy comparisons between burgers and cars. Awareness. Debate. Publicity. Shock. It’s all needed. But I wonder if in reading this kind of billboard message that some people will take a meat-free Monday so they can drive care-free, when what we actually need are car-free and meat-free Mondays (at the very least).

I am all for clever marketing that makes us think twice. We are all being fed myriad messages on the actions to take to help save the planet. But piecing these together is nigh on impossible – especially when we start looking at the devilish complexity in the detail.

1 Response

  1. The primary causes of global heating are the burning of fossil fuels and degenerative agriculture with the consequential degradation and loss of ecosystems. UK Met Office.

    A few questions answered.

    Why all beef is not equal!

    Why are pasture-fed cattle and sheep different?

    Pasture-fed cattle and sheep should be seen as part of the solution and not the problem:

    Sheep and cattle convert grass and other herbage that humans can’t eat into meat and milk. They do not need cereals to grow so in a country such as the UK where 60% of land is grass, it makes sense to graze sheep and cattle to provide protein for humans.
    In order to maximise the benefit of their grass and herbage, Pasture for Life farmers manage their land so they;
    build organic matter in their soils,
    enhance their capture of carbon and so mitigate global warming,
    contribute to biodiversity and rural landscape,
    mitigate drought and flooding, and
    produce grain-free meat and dairy products.

    But don’t ruminants produce carbon and methane?
    There has always been a large biomass of ruminants on the planet and this did not induce the phenomenon known as anthropogenic climate change. It is human activity based on the use of energy resources that has done this.
    Ruminants do produce carbon and methane but so does the exploitation of fossil fuels, transportation, rice production, organic waste in landfill, burning biomass etc.
    Methane has a short life in the atmosphere of only around 12 years, breaking back down to water vapour and carbon dioxide. This means that it only adds to global warming if there is an increase in methane: If it is at a constant rate it does not add anything and if it declines, it helps with global cooling. Carbon dioxide on the other hand remains in the atmosphere for between 200 and 1000 years continuing to add to global warming for the whole of that time.
    For grazing animals producing methane is part of the natural carbon cycle in which the animals are taking in carbon from the plants and then emitting it back as fertility building directly into the soils. Building our soils and managing agricultural land to maximise carbon capture is a key element in combatting climate change and ensuring productive soils for future generations.

    Haven’t I seen that ruminants produce more GHG emissions than ALL transportation?

    This was a figure put out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2006. It did not compare like with like so considered the Life Cycle Emissions (LCE) of livestock production with just the direct emissions of transport – two very different things. This has now been corrected with only 5% of direct emissions being put down to ALL livestock (including intensively produced) compared to 14% for transport. The LCE of transport is not known.
    Emissions from grazing ruminants are part of a closed loop pasture system with very few, if any, LCEs.

    Why are pasture fed ruminants better than grain-fed?

    Intensively reared, grain-fed livestock consume one-third of all cereal production. It takes 7-8kg of cereals to produce 1kg of beef, a very inefficient use of resources.
    Intensively produced beef relies heavily on fossil fuels and energy production through cereal based feed, fertilizer, electricity and transportation. In contrast, Pasture for Life farming is low input with a reliance on existing grasslands and very little use of fossil fuels.
    Animal welfare outcomes are high under PfL farming methods.
    Grain free meat and dairy products have proven health benefits.

    But don’t intensively reared livestock use less land and produce less greenhouse gas emissions? Aren’t chickens and pigs the answer to sustainable food production?

    “An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating Findings from the Ten Years For Agroecology (TYFA)” shows how, if we stop feeding ALL animals with cereals we can feed the growing population of Europe in 2050 on organic farming methods. This mirrors a report produced by the FAO in 2013 which shows how this could also be achieved at a global level.
    In an Appendix to the Eat Lancet report poultry is shown to have a higher environmental footprint than cattle for land and water use, and is a cause of nitrate pollution because of the amount of grain used globally to feed poultry. This shows how feed conversion rates are misleading as a guide of true efficiency of resource use. Under a full life-cycle analysis of pasture systems versus intensively reared livestock systems (chicken, pigs and cattle), the intensive systems have high fossil fuel derived inputs (feed, fertiliser, transport, electricity etc) and therefore high greenhouse gas emissions.
    Intensively grown cereals have resulted in significant soil degradation with some claiming there are less than 60 harvests left on farms in the East of England. This can be remedied by growing grass and cover crops in the rotation and with livestock grazing the soil organic matter will recover and regenerate. This is practiced by many PfL farmers who also grow cereals, often under no till systems which further contribute to reduced carbon loss.
    Or this land could be converted back to agroforestry/silviculture and significantly contribute to carbon removal, increase biodiversity, and still produce food.

    And what about biodiversity?

    The UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1950s. These can be successfully restored but need grazing animals to do so effectively. Other rare grassland habitats need grazing animals to sustain them.
    Many PfL farmers take an agroecological approach to their farming and introduce diversity to support wildlife through planting trees, hedges and tree crops, all of which are good at sequestering carbon.
    Rewilding has benefits for increasing biodiversity and reversing the harms of historic land use change but in itself does not produce food. So, this can be part of the solution and in particular where livestock is used to restore good ecological balance and provide protein for humans to eat.

    So, I can still eat beef, lamb, and cheese, and drink milk with a clear conscience if it is labelled pasture or grass fed*?

    Yes, if it’s produced to PfL standards
    No, if it has come from a system where land use change has meant destruction of forests or other established, biodiverse habitats (recent or historic) such as the rainforest.
    And if you choose to eat PfL certified products there are associated human health benefits in doing so.

    *not all grass-fed meat is grain free, the PfL certification is the only guarantee that it is. March 2019/DRAFT

    References and further reading:

    International Livestock Research Institute
    Climate Metrics for ruminant livestock, Oxford Martin School
    Eat Lancet Report, supplementary Appendix 2, Willett 2019
    An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating Findings from the Ten Years For Agroecology (TYFA)
    Feeding the Problem: The dangerous intensification of farming in Europe
    “Wilding” by Isabella Tree
    The animal welfare and environmental benefits of Pasture for Life farming
    The human health benefits of Pasture for Life meat

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