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Five climate myths promoted by the US beef industry are \”hot air,\” according to Beef

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

But for the corporate titans who stand atop the nearly trillion-dollar global meat industry, this modest change represents an existential threat, which is why they’re spinning the truth about the full climate impacts of animal agriculture.

In the Guardian’s review of dozens of industry-aligned articles, op-eds, fact sheets, blog posts, informational videos, educational assets and social media messages, several themes repeatedly surfaced. Taken together, this vast body of industry-funded messaging works to perpetuate five myths to suggest that beef production is not a problem for the climate, and cutting consumption will not help – and may even hurt – environmental progress.

“What we eat matters environmentally to some degree, but it pales compared to what we drive or how we use energy,” Frank Mitloehner, a UC Davis animal scientist, who works with the beef industry on research and messaging, said in a 2018 article for the industry publication Meatingplace. “So, have the burger. Just make sure you walk to the restaurant.”

The implication – made repeatedly in Mitloehner’s blog posts and public comments and reinforced through industry marketing materials – is that the impacts of energy use so far outweigh agricultural-related emissions that we might as well not worry about what we eat.

It’s true that fossil fuels have been the primary driver of the climate crisis. According to most estimates, all of agriculture – not just livestock – is responsible for one-quarter to one-third of global emissions, while energy consumption for transport, industry and heating contributes the bulk of the rest. For that reason, some experts, like University of Pennsylvania climatologist Michael Mann, argue that we should laser-focus on transforming the energy sector. Once we’ve done that, Mann has said, we can argue about food.

But other experts disagree.

While fossil fuel consumption has done the most to put us on our dangerous path to climate catastrophe, a widely cited 2020 study in the journal Science argued that we can no longer avoid the worst of the climate crisis by cutting fossil fuels alone. Staying below the average global temperature rise of 2C – a threshold that scientists say will lead to systems collapse, mass extinctions, fatal heat waves, drought and famine, water shortages and flooded cities – will require “rapid and ambitious” changes to food systems.

The single most impactful food-related change we can make, according to their findings, is not increasing yields, ramping up agricultural efficiency or cutting food waste, though those approaches all would help. It’s adopting a plant-rich diet.

While building out energy infrastructure can take years, changing our diet is something we can work toward today.

“Whenever you model out having the world manage massive climate change, you pretty much have to build in dietary moderation for people in wealthy countries,” said Tim Searchinger, a senior research fellow at Princeton who studies the climate costs of agriculture. “No one can get there without that.”

Methane – the greenhouse gas cattle emit in their belches – is highly potent. Since its warming potential is 28 times higher over 100 years than carbon dioxide’s, every ton of methane emitted impacts the climate over two dozen times more than a ton of carbon dioxide. When measured in a shorter time frame, over the course of just 20 years, methane’s impact is even more dramatic, causing about 85 times more warming a ton than CO2.

But industry messaging works to systematically downplay this impact, mostly by pointing out that methane only persists in the atmosphere for about a decade. In contrast, every ton of CO2 emitted sticks around for generations.

“Every time you’ve ever driven a car, or burned coal or gas,” Mitloehner said in an interview published by the trade group Dairy Farmers of Canada, “you’ve put out CO2 into the atmosphere and that gas is still there throughout your entire lifetime – and that of your parents, and that of your grandparents, and so on.”

Sara Place, a former executive of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and a student of Mitloehner who is now a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, has told audiences that carbon dioxide builds up like water in a tub when the faucet is set to the max – overwhelming the drain’s ability to clear out – while methane is like running the faucet at a flow speed low enough to drain right away. As long as emissions stay constant, we lose methane about as fast as we pollute with it; therefore, cattle aren’t actually adding net emissions, she argues.

But using that argument to dissuade people from eating less beef makes no sense. If we reduce the overall number of cattle being raised worldwide, the climate gains from that reduction are more or less immediate, thanks to methane’s short half-life. To use Place’s metaphor, it’s like slowing the faucet’s rate of flow while keeping the drain open, so that the water seeps out faster than it comes in. Significantly reducing global cattle stocks through a shift to other nutritious foods, then, could lead to rapid cooling – one of the most powerful levers available to slow climate crisis right now, this moment.

Responding to questions from the Guardian, Mitloehner said he could not recall “ever downplaying methane”. Mitloehner said: “I have gone on record many times about the problems associated with methane and the great need we have to reduce it. I stress this each time I speak to or work with agriculture groups. However, I go beyond just informing members of the agriculture sector that they need to reduce their emissions; I work with them to get it done.”

He added: “Let me say this clearly. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and managing it appropriately will limit warming.”

Still, beef advocates frequently use his statements about methane to minimize the potency of cattle emissions – and suggest only fossil fuels are worth worrying about. But other climate scientists warn that we shouldn’t take methane reduction off the table.

As University of Melbourne researchers put it: “Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale.”

In 2019, researchers from the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) published the first cradle-to-grave life-cycle analysis of emissions from US cattle, factoring in everything from the climate costs of feed production to the methane emitted by the animals themselves. (The study was funded, in part, by the beef checkoff.) Their central finding: beef production contributes only 3.3% of the nation’s overall climate footprint.

In a press release published by ARS, Alan Rotz, the study’s lead author claimed that the findings showed US cattle are “not a significant contributor to long-term global warming”. The study didn’t actually make that judgment, only Rotz’s public comments did. But that didn’t stop Mitloehner and other industry advocates from using this number to suggest that cattle aren’t really the problem.

“To those who think beef consumption must be lowered to protect the climate: the 3.3% GHG LCA figure for beef stands in sharp contrast to over 70% of all US GHG emissions stemming from the nation’s fossil fuel sectors (i.e. power, transportation, and industry),” he wrote in a 2019 tweet. Elsewhere, Mitloehner has suggested that the number is so vanishingly small that it’s not worth worrying about. In comments to the Guardian, Mitloehner said: “Livestock impacts on the environment are absolutely important and it’s reflected in the work I do.”

Why is it wrong to suggest cattle’s 3.3% impact is insignificant? Because a small percentage of a big thing is still a big thing. And considering that America’s net emissions are the second highest in the world, the fact that a single food product could take up 3.3% of that disproportionately large pie is still staggering. For context, 243m tons of CO2 equivalent gasses – the total amount generated by US cattle each year, according to ARS – is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gas footprint of the entire 47-million-person nation of Spain.


It’s true that well-managed ruminant populations can be a helpful, symbiotic relationship with grassland ecosystems, where their manure and migration patterns help to restore soil. In these environments, raising cattle can be much better for the environment – if they’re not allowed to overgraze – than plowing to grow crops. This isn’t an argument for cattle, necessarily: deer, elk, bison and other species can also provide these ecosystem services, while also being a source of human food.

And yet millions of cattle are grazed in places that are not native grasslands. All over the world, forests, wetlands, woody savannas and other ecosystems have been cleared to make room for cattle or growing cattle feed. In those cases, grazing livestock tends to have a much more destructive impact because of what experts call “the opportunity cost of land”, in other words, factor in the carbon we’re not capturing by letting these ecosystems be.

“The overwhelming greenhouse gas costs from agriculture comes from our land use,” says Searchinger, who is also the technical director of the food program at the non-profit thinktank World Resources Institute. “There’s a huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere because it’s no longer in the land that was entered into agriculture.”

Searchinger says that roughly a third of grazing land worldwide was once forested or heavily wooded – and could still be today. Forests are a key ally in the climate fight, and the lost opportunity to store carbon in forests should be factored into the carbon cost of cattle production.

Thanks to advances in technology, genetics and other factors, the US cattle industry feeds more people with fewer animals than it did decades ago. Mitloehner argues that this trend line is the only one that matters.

“Foregoing meat once a week is not enough to make a significant difference in global warming. In fact, even if the world went 100% vegan tomorrow, that would fall short of making a sizable dent in greenhouse gas emissions. By a long shot,” he wrote in a 2021 blog post. “That isn’t to say we shouldn’t reduce animal agriculture’s climate contributions, but impactful solutions are likely going to come on the farm.”

These on-farm solutions – from reducing cow burps with feed-additive seaweed to using bio-digesters for methane-polluting manure – are the focus of UC Davis’s new research and extension program under Mitloehner’s direction – the Clarity and Research for Environmental Awareness Center, or Clear Center, which has taken millions of dollars in funding from animal agriculture interests. But no solution can be as effective as reducing the overall number of cattle worldwide, a solution that Mitloehner and his industry allies tend to suggest is impractical or otherwise off-limits.

“If cattle aren’t a problem, but seaweed is a solution to the problem, which is logically impossible,” said Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor at New York University who studies agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions impacts, “then we’re blinded to the fact that just taking the meat off the table is technically the option that could accomplish the most mitigation.”

The Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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