There’s no such thing as Low-Carb Beef

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Notes from the Frontlines of the Sustainable Food Movement – ​​A new opinion column by Irina Gerry

There’s been a lot of talk about “Low Carbon Beef” lately, but does the climate math keep up?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently approved the Low Carbon Beef label that can be placed on meat products in the United States to distinguish “More Sustainably Raised Beef” from conventional options, as well as to justify higher price premiums. . To qualify for this label, cattle farmers must demonstrate greenhouse gas emissions that are at least 10% lower than industry standard baselines. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Besides, there’s a problem with that. On average, the production of 1 kg of beef emits about 100 kg of CO2e, the highest emission of any food product.

For perspective, producing 1 kg of chicken emits about 10 kg of CO2e, while 1 kg of peas emits only 1 kg of CO2e. This is 100 times less.

So does a 10% reduction make a meaningful difference to warrant a Low Carbon Beef label? Definitely.

It’s an attempt by the cattle industry to respond to consumer concerns about the climate footprint of beef, as more and more consumers try to align their climate concerns with their food purchases. This is a pure form of greenwashing.

At scale, livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions today, with livestock accounting for 65%.

While politicians avoid any talk of reducing meat consumption like the plague, and don’t consider it a political initiative, there are a number of initiatives that are trying to reduce the climate footprint of livestock. According to the UN FAO, there are several ways to reduce emissions from livestock:

  1. Improving feed quality, precision feeding and methane-reducing additives (seaweed feed additives only reduce livestock methane emissions by about 9%, but add the potential environmental impact of large-scale algae farming, which is far from a panacea)
  2. Animal genetics, breeding and animal health (faster growing cows, cow vaccines)
  3. Enhancing recycling (waste products as feed) and minimizing losses for a circular bioeconomy (manure as fertilizer, manure as biogas)
  4. Using nature-based solutions to increase carbon offsets (soil carbon sequestration through regenerative grazing)

However, even if we apply all available strategies to reduce livestock emissions, we only achieve a 30% reduction.

We still get an average of 70kg of CO2e per 1kg of beef, which is still much higher than any other food.

There is no such thing as Low Carbon Beef, only Reduced Carbon Beef if you will.

While proponents of restorative grazing passionately defend beef, calling it a “climate savior” and even calling for more cattle to be grazed than today to restore degraded land, the reality on the ground remains starkly different from the future. to be”. Regenerative grazing holds promise for carbon sequestration by implementing adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing practices to offset livestock waste through soil carbon sequestration, but most of the research presented to support the argument consists of small-scale experiments with inconsistent methods and findings. with little consensus on net climate benefit among high-quality peer-reviewed studies after decades of experimentation, and many doubts about the scale, sustainability, and extent of soil carbon sequestration of such systems outside of highly specific conditions.

Most regenerative grazing benefits focus on the conversion of previously degraded cropland to pasture, which implies a temporary improvement in soil carbon sequestration during the conversion process. However, many such studies lack appropriate control variables for the conversion of the same degraded lands to forests, wetlands, or orchards and the restoration of wildlife instead of livestock, or the application of other restorative agricultural practices such as reduced tillage and cover crop rotations.

Even the poster child of multi-species pasture rotations, White Oaks Pastures, can sequester enough carbon in the soil to create a 66% lower carbon footprint than conventional beef, while requiring 2.5 times more land and costing 70% more. more (price per pound of ground beef before shipping). Don’t get me wrong, a 66% reduction in emissions is admirable and the overall system looks more robust while providing higher returns to farmers, but that doesn’t make it Low Carbon.

In general, as unappealing as feedlots are to those concerned about animal welfare, industrialized systems are more efficient at turning animals into food products. Advocates of regenerative grazing, regardless of method, are left between a rock and a hard place to promote a more sustainable and kinder food system as they grapple with the vast resources required to produce livestock-based products. On the one hand, trying to farm animals in a way that is more compatible with natural grazing sounds attractive, but grass-fed beef requires 40-150% more land, increases methane emissions from gut fermentation by 43% (grass-fed cows emit more methane) than grain. compared to feedlot cows on their diet) and produce 30% less meat as a system (grass-fed beef takes longer to grow). Organically and regeneratively grazed beef fares no better. Given the increasing land and resource demands of an animal-based system that already occupies 77% of all agricultural land, the shift to regenerative grazing only works if we are willing to eat less beef and pay more for it.

Does that mean we can’t eat beef?

Not necessarily. I know most people won’t accept it, no matter what. There are also some arguments in favor of limited regenerative grazing by cows to restore some of the degraded land. In addition, farm animals play a crucial role in some of the poorest countries, providing income and serving as the main source of food for smallholder farmers. A 100% cow-free world is neither possible nor necessary to build a sustainable and just food system.

I hope that a clear understanding of the environmental impact will lead many of us who care about the future of our planet to significantly reduce our beef consumption (50-70% in the US and 25-50% in other developed countries). nations) and if we choose to eat it occasionally, choose the “better farming” option. Because if we stay at the status quo with a growing global population and a projected increase in meat demand, we have no hope of meeting the +1.5C global warming targets.

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