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.