Beef is the largest food based culprit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
To counteract the effects of cattle farming, California startups are increasingly targeting carnivores with plant burgers so beef-like they bleed–and new research is breaking down food’s impact on climate change, and potential solutions are emerging to cut down on a potent greenhouse gas that cows emit.
Beef, responsible for roughly 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, is the single biggest food factor when it comes to climate change, according to a 2013 United Nations report.Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when they burp and pass gas. This accounts for nearly half of beef’s greenhouse gas emissions. This includes cattle manure that emits a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, how cattle graze on pastures and deforestation, particularly in Brazil.
Global beef demand is projected to nearly double by 2050, fueled by booming populations in China and India, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
Given that anticipated growth, two avenues are emerging to limit associated rise in greenhouse gas emissions: Make real beef more environmentally friendly, or convince people to eat something else.
On the “something else” side, the hottest trend today is beef-like burgers from plant material. One kind, called the Impossible Burger, is targeting carnivore eaters. It looks, tastes and feels like a real burger. It even bleeds and sizzles like one. It has its share of controversies, though, including how its main plant-derived ingredient is genetically modified and that its nutritional content is comparable to real beef, canceling out any health benefits.
On the real beef side, Elm Innovations, a nonprofit founded in 2016, is working with researchers at University of California, Davis, to feed cattle a supplement of particular kind of seaweed.
“The seaweed very dramatically reduces cow-burped methane to the tune of 50% or greater, which is extremely large,” said the group’s founder, Joan King Salwen, whose family had a cattle and sheep ranch.
The beef industry itself and companies that sell it, like McDonald’s, are increasingly realizing the importance of addressing the issue.
Earlier this year McDonald’s announced its first-ever target cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, with beef as its largest challenge. “The biggest focus for us is how do we feed those animals using less land,” said Robert Gibbs, an executive vice president with the fast food chain.
McDonald’s works with companies that own live herds through the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, whose members include the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
“We recognize that we of course have a significant carbon footprint so we want to work to improve that,” said Ashley McDonald, the industry group’s senior director of sustainability.
What could be next: The World Resources Institute is working toward reducing the projected global growth in beef demand over the next 30 years. The U.S. cattle industry has among the most sustainable practices in the world, so the group suggests exporting more American beef and reducing production elsewhere.
“If we were to cut back on U.S. beef consumption by half, that doesn’t mean put half of U.S. beef producers out of business,” said Rich Waite, an associate at the World Resources Institute’s food program. “It could just mean expanding exports to countries where beef consumption is going to be doubling.”