‘Low carbon’ beef: As nonsensical as ‘low cancer’ cigarettes

The Department of Agriculture has approved a label designating “low carbon” beef, a statement as nonsensical as the Food and Drug Administration calling a cigarette “low cancer.”

That’s because no food produces more greenhouse gas emissions than beef. Even lamb results in half as many emissions, pound for pound, as beef, according to the most recent estimates.

Fertilizing feed for animals like cows and cattle produces nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, or CO2. When cows and cattle eat this feed and burp or produce manure, methane emissions are released – and they’re 80 times more powerful than CO2, making the climate emergency worse.

Plowing up grassland and forest to grow feed for animals, particularly cattle raised for beef, also releases carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. U.S. agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. When emissions from producing fertilizer to grow animal feed are factored in, agriculture’s share of emissions is even higher.

Greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors have fallen since 2000, but emissions from U.S. agriculture have gone up 12 percent. And meat production is responsible for much of that increase. By 2050, emissions from animals and producing their feed could easily account for one-third of U.S. emissions.

The USDA in November approved a low carbon label for beef produced through methods that marginally reduce emissions by 10 percent from the industry baseline. But this label, up for renewal in May, won’t make much difference to the climate, especially if demand for beef doubles, as some predict, and emissions continue to rise.

Even a completely hypothetical 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein would leave beef as the worst climate change choice.

The new low carbon beef standard was developed by the same company that stands to profit from it. So the company that created the standards will also verify those low carbon claims.

But this clear conflict of interest did not stop the USDA from rubber-stamping the low carbon label through the agency’s Process Verified Program. And it won’t stop consumers from being misled. They’ll mistakenly believe beef – and certainly so-called low carbon beef – is better for the climate than chicken, seafood or plant-based alternatives. It’s not.

The good news is demand for other types of protein is growing, especially among consumers who are not vegetarian or vegan. More meat-eaters are occasionally choosing fish and plant proteins, which can help cut emissions.

Consumers don’t need to reject meat altogether. If enough consumers change their diets to reflect a Mediterranean diet or “planetary health diet,” we can still meet our climate goals. A shift to these diets will also reduce the risks of heart disease and other diet-related diseases. Following a planetary or plant-forward diet can also help consumers save money.

But rather than looking out for the health of our planet or people, the USDA seems to be looking out for the needs of the beef industry.

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