To eat the burger or to not eat the burger. Climate guilt unpacked.
Posted: November 07, 2022 | Word Count: 874
By Jeff Simmons, President & CEO, Elanco
Climate neutral farms is the end of the meat eater’s dilemma – giving consumers what they want, the planet what it needs, and promoting a healthier livestock population.
The meat counter is our newest cultural battleground, with guilt and easy-but-incomplete soundbites serving as the sharpest weapons. Beef is painted as the enemy of the environmentally conscious, with well-meaning pundits urging consumers to drop the traditional burger and grab a salad or slide an alternative into its place.
Let’s unpack some of the dogma-over-data thinking that is putting our environment and our health at risk. Data show 44% of people who say they’re avoiding animal protein do so because of its environmental impact. Additionally, 1 in 10 adults avoiding meat think livestock agriculture creates 75 to 100% of U.S. greenhouse gases (GHGs).
In truth, that number is in the single digits. And not all GHGs pack the same punch.
Methane makes up less than a quarter of all GHG emissions. Of that, about 8% is associated with enteric fermentation or ruminant digestion – that’s cow burps and manure. Methane lasts about a decade in our atmosphere versus carbon which lasts about 1,000 years. According to the UN, we have until 2030 – or 8 years – to make progress on reducing climate warming or face irreversible harm.
Now, back to that meat counter. We’re collectively making our desires known with every trip to the supermarket. Global animal protein consumption is predicted to grow by 90 million metric tons (MMT) in the next decade – that’s 50% more growth than the last 10 years. Bottom line, consumers appreciate the taste and nutritional benefits of animal protein. However, the choice for sustainability is a major factor in our decision making – 55% of consumers consider sustainability when grocery shopping. We want burgers, steaks, chicken, fish, eggs, milk and cheese – but want to make the right choices for our planet.
At the same time, 60% of the world’s population is getting the wrong nutrition and food insecurity is on the rise. The number of people facing acute food insecurity has soared – from 135 million to 345 million – since 2019. In the U.S., 1 in 8 face hunger. Some of the most affected? Gen Z. About 30% of young adults are experiencing food insecurity.
Climate, calories and choice are inextricably linked. Animal protein gives consumers what they want and provides protein-rich calories for those in need.
Cattle have been cast as the villain in this story when they’re actually a key piece of the answer.
Because of methane’s potency, about 25x more than carbon dioxide, reductions have a significantly positive impact on climate warming. With just a 20 to 30% reduction in enteric methane emissions, livestock can help reduce climate warming. Further, approximately 86% of agricultural land is only suitable for grazing. Cattle convert grasses and grains inedible by humans into 2.5 times more nutrient-dense, high-quality protein.
The substantial opportunity to address methane is inside the animal. In fact, nearly 90% of methane can be captured inside the cow (enteric methane) versus from the manure. We are already reducing GHG emission in cattle through innovations in nutrition, diet management and digestion optimization. The result? Healthier animals producing more food for a hungry planet with reduced GHG emissions. Farmers are also capturing and converting methane into renewable natural gas and repurposing manure as fertilizer.
The solution to climate change is multi-dimensional. There are new technologies within reach that will further reduce GHG emissions but not yet accessible in the U.S. It’s disappointing and frustrating that we are crippling U.S. farmers in this way. The solution and real change will not be realized by removing cattle, eating crickets or other alternatives being pushed by big voices – the key to real change is working within the system. The cow is the how. Livestock farmers achieving climate neutrality in the next decade is possible if they have a seat at the proverbial table.
Time is our greatest challenge, and we must activate now. We need regulatory policy that supports methane reduction in animals, a more sophisticated carbon market, and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) that is practical and drives value – not mandates. We need the ability to move faster and allow farmers to use innovative solutions as we have them. It takes all of us, coming to the table together, a whole of government, private sector, NGOs, research and education institutions, even us as individuals.
As consumers, we can make the ultimate impact with our food choices and what we put on our plates. Animals are a key part of the answer.
 Elanco Protein Sustainability Survey, April 2021