This summer, Burger King released an advertisement that generated a lot of discussion. A boy dressed up in all-white cowboy gear, strumming an acoustic guitar, strolls out, and launches into a country song about cow farts. Not exactly a traditional marketing strategy, but this attention-grabbing video was promoting Burger King’s reduced methane beef initiative, which aims to decrease the restaurant chain’s carbon footprint. At first blush, this seems like a worthwhile campaign, but the reality is more complicated.
Beef has a terrible environmental record. A 2018 study published in Science found that producing 100 g of beef protein would lead to approximately 50 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Beef’s carbon impact was the highest of any food studied – about ten times the emissions of other meats such as chicken and pork, and twenty-five times the impact of tofu.
This article is one of many recent studies that have highlighted the environmental cost of cattle farming. If cows had their own country, it would be the 5th largest emitter of CO2. In 2019 the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) went as far as advocating reducing the consumption of foods with large carbon footprints, such as beef.
One of the reasons the environmental impact of beef is far higher than other meats is methane. Ruminant animals, such as cows, bison, and sheep, produce large amounts of methane in the course of digestion, which is released primarily as burbs. Methane gas is about 30-times more warming than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. Burger King’s campaign is an attempt to woo consumers who are worried about methane emissions.
While reducing carbon emissions is beneficial, Burger King’s campaign seems to be more about greenwashing than sustainability. Greenwashing is the practice of marketing the environmental benefits of a product in a manner that is misleading or inaccurate. “Low-methane burgers are like clean-coal,” explains Nicholas Carter, an environmental researcher and co-founder of Plant Based Data. “These small ‘less bad’ changes are greenwashing because they trick consumers into thinking they’re making a choice backed by environmental science.”
Looking into the details about the program that Burger King has published, the cattle would only receive the methane reducing diet for the last 3-4 months of their life. Research shows that cattle release substantial amounts of methane from a young age, meaning that the methane reductions over the entire lifecycle would be far less than 33%.
Burger King also ignores a major climate impact of cattle farming other than methane. Clearing forest for grazing leads to an indirect climate impact. This is known as “land use change”. Land use change is particularly influential in beef farming, due to Brazil’s campaign to clear sections of the Amazon to make space for cattle farming. Scientists estimate that for every 100 g of beef protein, the equivalent of 12 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere due to changes in land use. Burger King’s reduced methane initiative does not address this in any way.
Burger King’s program is one of many efforts to greenwash beef. Agribusiness has been working for many years to improve the perception of beef. Take the imagery of cattle farming that is ubiquitous – pastoral landscape, rugged ranchers lovingly tending to their herd, next to a white farmhouse, and a red barn. The reality of modern factory farming is far less sustainable or humane.
Agribusiness is combating this negative image by marketing new types of beef, such as “organic” beef. Though the name might imply a less carbon-intensive product, organic beef is not held to an emissions benchmark. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, beef is considered organic when the cattle are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and their feed has not been treated with pesticides. Greenhouse gases are not considered. In fact, a 2016 study found organic cattle farming led to approximately 30% more greenhouse gases compared to conventional farming, largely due to increased methane emissions.
Grass-fed beef is another product that has gained attention in recent years. As the name suggests, cows are fed a diet exclusively of grass before they are slaughtered. According to Carter, “The movement around buying grass-fed beef is riddled with greenwashing. Environmentally, grass-fed beef uses 4x more methane, exponentially more land, and cannot meet current [consumer] demands.”
Regenerative farming has also attracted attention recently, as a result of the Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground. This star-studded movie covered a range of environmental and climate-related topics but focused on an approach to beef grazing known as regenerative farming. This approach to agriculture is a variation on grass-fed beef but includes low-intensity grazing and no-till farming. Controlled grazing allows the cow’s manure to decompose, building soil quality, and sequestering carbon. Advocates for regenerative farming, such as those featured in Kiss the Ground, argue that this form of agriculture can reverse climate change.
There is some evidence for certain regenerative farming practices, but the science does not support the claim that regenerative farming could stop global warming. “Any carbon sequestered in the soil is time-limited and easily reversible, especially when factoring in potentially detrimental forms of grazing animals,” Carter explained. Scientific reviews of regenerative cattle farming also suggest that many of the benefits of carbon sequestration are offset by increased land usage and methane emissions. Carter wrote a detailed critique of Kiss the Ground, which analyzed the science used in the documentary.
There is a pattern. Beef producers develop a new approach to farming, give it a green-associated label, and make bold claims about the environmental benefits. Eventually, researchers and writers debunk these claims, but this leads to misinformation and confusion among the public. In the mean-time, advertisers continue using these labels to distract from the reality that large-scale cattle farming is unsustainable.
Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment, but it is difficult to have a productive discourse about beef farming when marketing gimmicks mislead consumers. “Our discourse around beef has largely been influenced by greenwashing, and strategies of manipulated data and doubt campaigns,” says Carter. “Not unlike the strategies used in the past to show that smoking was healthy, or that burning oil doesn’t contribute to climate change.”
For the future, Carter says that we need to significantly reduce the land footprint of beef farming, to avoid deforestation. “The best way to do that is to reduce the number of cattle and cows farmed, and reduce beef and dairy consumption.”