Stephen Cadogan: Burger King's ham-fisted attempt to explain their role in global warming

Comment: Livestock misinformation from a most unlikely source
Stephen Cadogan: Burger King's ham-fisted attempt to explain their role in global warming

The facts on livestock emissions: It takes nine of these cows (or buffalos) in India  to equal the milk production of one American cow. If the rest of the world’s cattle farms were as efficient as  in the US, 64% fewer cattle could produce the world’s current beef supply.

Burger King, one of the world’s biggest beef retailers, has released an entertaining video to promote a “reduced methane” beefburger.

In selected restaurants in selected cities, customers will be able to buy burgers from cattle that were fed lemongrass, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

It is true that various additives can reduce methane production by cattle, particularly if they are reared indoors.

But, overall, Burger King has only added to the huge amount of misinformation available globally on this topic.

One would have expected them to know more about beef.

Their video shows dairy cows with a flatulence problem from the rear end, so anyone who knows something about the subject won’t expect to be enlightened — because nearly all methane from enteric emissions come from the front end of a cow, and beef is more likely to come from beef animals than dairy cows.

Burger King promised beef from cattle that are 33% less gassy on average, because lemongrass (a plant easily grown in hot climates, with medicinal properties, a favourite ingredient in Asian cooking) was added to their diets to reduce methane emissions.

However, Burger King has jumped the gun, the research behind the claimed methane reduction for lemongrass hasn’t yet gone through the rigorous peer review necessary for scientifically proven findings.

Burger King has particularly annoyed the beef industry in its home country, the United States, by quoting a United Nations figure of cattle globally being responsible for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But animals in the US account for only about 4% of US emissions, according to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (which says US agriculture and land use absorbs more greenhouse gases than it produces).

It is inefficient livestock production in the world’s developing countries that generates most of the 14.5%.

Direct gas emissions from US livestock declined 11.3% since 1961, while livestock production more than doubled.

Livestock numbers are at a historic low in the US, but it produces 20% of the world’s beef from just 6.2% of the world’s cattle, half the amount of India and Brazil.

In Mexico, it takes almost two cows to equal the milk production of one American cow.

In India, nine cows are required.

If the rest of the world’s cattle producers were as efficient as those in the US, 64% fewer cattle could produce the world’s current beef supply.

Scientists say the focus should be on helping developing nations transition to more efficient systems.

Europe scores well, with recent scientific studies indicating it is the only region globally where methane emissions have fallen between 2000 and 2017, thanks in part in greater efficiency in agriculture, and reduced emissions from chemical manufacturing.

Methane also comes from landfills, and leaky oil and gas pipelines and wells.

In contrast, methane from cattle (and wetlands) is part of nature.

Plants capture carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, which is eaten by ruminant animals, that in turn release methane (made of carbon and hydrogen) back to the atmosphere, where it decays over 10 years.

Two hundred years ago, it was mostly buffalo (including 60 million in the US alone), now ruminant animals are domesticated for meat and milk production.

Eminent scientists believe that the global warming potential of a greenhouse gas is over-estimated for methane and other short-lived gases.

Like all science, it’s not as simple as it is portrayed in the millions of articles by a media which seems fascinated with animals causing global warming.

As for a Burger King video, don’t expect scientific analysis, which is unfortunate, because it is likely to be seen by millions more people than a scientific article, and will not add to public knowledge of a complex issue which could determine the future of farming.

Unfortunately, there are too many vested interests at work for well-informed public knowledge.

There’s a propaganda battle going on, with the fossil fuel industry, for example, eager to mask the fact that it is the biggest cause by far of global warming.

Meanwhile, the fake meat industry has not been slow to add to the global warming finger-pointing at the real meat industry.

It has worked well for them.

After a stock market launch at $25, the Beyond Meat plant-based meat substitute producer’s share price rose to $239.71 in two months.

Investors saw its potential to make inroads in the traditional meat industry’s annual turnover of $1.4 trillion.

Misinformed bad press for real meat, support from the biggest fast-food restaurants, and celebrity endorsements, have helped make Beyond Meat a profitable company.

Will this help climate mitigation, as many Beyond Meat consumers may hope for?

Probably not, because making fake meat requires a huge amount of the fossil fuels which are the biggest cause by far of global warming. A main ingredient in Beyond Meat is pea protein, shipped from all over the world, including China and Europe, to US ports, and then to a manufacturing facility in Missouri. There, ingredients are blended, heated, cooled, pressurised, and frozen, before being shipped to co-manufacturers who complete production and packaging.

That adds up to a lot of greenhouse gas emissions compared to eating locally produced real meat.

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