Why claims of ‘sustainable’ beef should be taken with a pinch of salt

Meat processors the world over are touting their beef as ‘sustainable’ or better for the environment. David Burrows asks, do their claims really stack up?

Credit: William Edge / Shutterstock.com 

In September 2019, the New Yorker published a lengthy article detailing the disruptive intentions of alternative meat businesses. The major meat companies were not panicked per se but there was an acknowledgment of the ambition and advertising skill that the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats were bringing to a new world of plant-based products. “They’re master marketers,” said Brian Sikes, then head of Cargill’s global protein unit and now president and CEO. “They’ve made us realise that we need to tell the story of traditional animal protein better.” 

For the past four years the meat industry has been striving to do just that – especially for beef, the red meat with the heftiest environmental footprint of all foods. 

In the US for example, ‘low carbon beef’ has arrived, much to the chagrin of campaigners who have called it out as ‘greenwashing’. That didn’t deter UK retailer Sainsbury’s: in September the chain launched the “largest low carbon beef range ever produced in the UK”. The greenhouse gases per kilo of processed meat have been reduced by 25% (from around 32kgCO2e to 24kgCO2e) through more efficient feeding and rearing practices. The fact the cows are also culled sooner was publicised far less. 

Other examples are popping up all over the globe. In Australia, there is the ‘Gamechanger’ – billed as “the world’s most sustainable beef burger”. Grill’d, the company behind the patty, claims it is reducing methane emissions from the cattle by up to 67% thanks to a seaweed feed supplement. Now they are targeting 90% reductions.  

Tyson Foods also has its ‘Brazen Beef’ range: the cattle are said to emit 10% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

Such products and initiatives are, as the Washington Post recently noted, “at the vanguard of a contentious push by meat and dairy companies trying to rebrand as climate solutions”. 

Stories, not statistics

Nowhere is this push harder than with regenerative agriculture – an approach to farming that promises much in terms of reducing the footprint of beef cattle, though not as much as some meat companies might have consumers and investors think. 

Regenerative agriculture can help restore soils and reduce chemical inputs but it’s the increase in carbon stored in the soil – so-called carbon sequestration – that meat companies in particular are excited about. JBS has talked of regenerating land and “bringing it back to life”, with trees, grain and animals farmed together apparently producing 40% more food together with less carbon. 

There is hope this could mean expansion of beef production and consumption rather than the retraction that much net-zero science demands. The idea of having our steak and eating it, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

I have yet to see verifiable ‘better’ beef. It’s all stories rather than statistics.

Irina Gerry, Change Foods

Carbon capture in soils has been promoted by the livestock industry as “a get out of jail free card”, explained Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen in an interview with the Financial Times last month.

Smith, alongside academics from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, looked at the capture of carbon in grassland soils.

Published in Nature Communications, the study concluded it is a “risk” to rely on carbon sequestration to offset emissions from ruminants like cows. Claims about grazing systems having a negative greenhouse gas balance “could be misleading”, the researchers have warned. “[…] we need to be more realistic on this if we really strive for climate change mitigation.”

Smith told the FT: “This [study] is the nail in the coffin of that argument.”

Whether the major global meat brands or those companies that rely on beef have a realistic outlook remains moot. There is for example almost zero acceptance of the need to consume less beef in developed countries.

“Do these companies have a desire to reduce production? Does a single one of them say we are going to reduce production? Absolutely not, [less beef] is in no-one’s plan,” says Irina Gerry, chief marketing officer at Change Foods, which is creating animal-free dairy foods through precision fermentation technology. “I have yet to see verifiable ‘better’ beef. It’s all stories rather than statistics,” she adds.

The likes of Gerry are in no doubt the major meat companies are employing the same tactics as those in fossil fuels – creating debate where arguably there isn’t one. “The media is playing into their hands, trying to be objective,” Gerry says, but diets need to shift away from so much livestock: “There is no way around that. You need to pull the policy levers.”

Our beef’s best

Gerry talks of the lack of a “shared reality” on beef production and consumption. Politicians are not inclined to step into debates about what people should and shouldn’t eat (especially during years like this one, when almost half the world goes to the polls). Much therefore rests on the FAO’s global roadmap to 2050 for food and further integration of agri-food systems into the discussions and agreements at annual COP events. 

Meantime, the fact many governments are promoting these animal proteins through subsidies and publicly-funded campaigns has galled green NGOs. 

In the UK, for example, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has come under fire for running a campaign, ‘Let’s eat balanced’ last month. The board insists the campaign is not about selling more beef, lamb and dairy products but rather is aimed at educating consumers about the nutritional benefits of the products as part of a balanced diet. It’s a complicated picture that is impossible to explain within the space of a 30-second advert. The result is a lack of the necessary nuance and no mention of what climate science says about meat and dairy. 

The AHDB’s accompanying website includes blogs and myth-busters relating to the environmental impact of beef. “Red meat and milk produced in the UK are among the most sustainable in the world,” reads the site, which also boasts that British beef and lamb footprints are “half the global average”. 

Such a nationalistic approach to beef production is becoming increasingly popular as countries vie to ensure their herd is at least maintained should production and consumption levels fall globally – either by force (though regulations) or by favour (through dietary shifts like flexitarianism). 

Australia is making similar moves. The livestock sector there has set a target to be carbon neutral by 2030. “This is a key point of difference for Australian red meat in a competitive global protein market,” notes Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in its 2023 sustainability impact report. Current emissions total 51.3MtCO2e, down from 145MtCO2e in 2005. MLA has targeted another 5% reduction by the end of next year thanks to a forecast 20% improvement in livestock productivity. 

Trials are underway in Australia looking at various systems and interventions in a bid to improve efficiency and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. There is however no mention of ‘regenerative’, with ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-fed are the preferred terms. Farmers like Michael and Michelle Lyons who farm 57,000 acres at Wambiana Station in the challenging environment of the outback, see themselves as “grass farmers first”. Their focus currently is on genetic gain to make rapid improvements in the herd, including the limitation of methane emissions. 

The MLA’s approach to the promotion of its farmers and its products is fastidious. Quality and value remain the top demands for customers, explained Kelly Payne from Meat Standards Australia during a recent training day for international chefs from Asia and the US, but sustainability is key for the country’s beef sector. 

Indeed, this battle for better beef is not just one that will win individual customers but rather create interest from international export markets. Can a country’s entire herd be described as sustainable though? 

“I have spoken to farming representatives from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, USA, Brazil, the Netherlands and France, all of whom tell me their herds and systems are sustainable and the problems come from how others rear their beef and livestock,” explains Duncan Williamson, global strategic lead for food systems at Forum for the Future but speaking in a personal capacity with experience as an independent advisor. “Can they all be right?”

Badvertising beef

Joanna Trewern, head of research at ProVeg International, says moves to reduce the environmental impact of beef should be encouraged but there needs to be “transparency and honesty” around what companies are doing and how it sits within the broader narrative of the changes needed to consumption levels. 

The OECD has forecast beef consumption will increase to 76Mt between 2020 and 2029, while the FAO predicts global protein availability from beef will rise 8% in the 10 years to 2031. Consumption has begun to fall in some countries, like the UK, thanks in part to the interest created in plant-based alternatives. However, it’s not at the pace scientists believe is needed to prevent 1.5 °C global warming and reverse biodiversity loss. 

Some NGOs therefore question whether beef should be advertised at all. Studies in the US and South Korea have for example shown that generic beef advertising is “clearly linked” to demand for beef, note Andrew Simms and Leo Murray in their new book, Badvertising: polluting our minds and fuelling climate chaos. “The evidence is clear that, through encouraging the consumption of beef, advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological degradation.” 

A blanket ban on marketing beef in high-consuming countries might feel like a quick fix but such blunt policy instruments can bring unintended consequences. Consider for example the explosive rise in consumption of white meat, specifically poultry, that has brought its own environmental and animal welfare issues. 

And where would such a ban leave the companies actually striving to offer ‘better’ beef? Trewern says the science around consuming fewer animal products and the need to shift to healthy diets and sustainable proteins is clear; but that doesn’t mean not talking about sustainable meat: “[…] if no-one’s talking about sustainable food at all then it’s not a competitive market,” she explains. 

Bold as grass

So what does sustainable beef look like? Is it the cull-them-quick, intensive approach or the more extensive systems supported by the regenerative movement? 

Trewern feels certain some companies want to move ahead with improving their products and how to market them as ‘better’ in terms of sustainability and therefore want to understand what constitutes better and the metrics they can use to measure it. 

Companies tend to be as confused about all this as consumers, though. Consider for example McDonald’s, which in 2014 announced it would begin sourcing “verifiable sustainable beef” but ten years on has yet to decide what that looks like. The company said last month it is still learning how to measure and validate such a claim. “It’s very complex and it’s taking years to really be able to say with assuredness that we are making a positive impact and to what degree,” global chief supply chain officer Marion Gross told GreenBiz

The easiest approach is to look through the specific lens of greenhouse gases. This has unintended consequences, however. At a January webinar run by IFOAM, which represents the EU organic food and farming sector, the limitations of a product environmental footprint (PEF) approach reliant on a life-cycle assessment were discussed. PEF would, for example, favour intensively-reared livestock – like that ‘low carbon’ Sainsbury’s beef range – and not the extensive systems that others are touting as part of the regenerative movement.

In September 2023, UK retailer Sainsbury’s launched its Taste the Difference Aberdeen Angus range, “offering a 25% lower carbon footprint compared to the industry standard”. Credit: @SainsburysNews / X

At September’s regenerative agriculture summit in Amsterdam, representatives from agtech firms offering precise measurements of soil organic matter and emissions data far outnumbered the farmers. There is widespread concern that regenerative could have more value for marketing teams and brands than the land and those who manage it. 

Investor network Fairr has been tracking the commitments made by major agri-food companies in relation to ‘regenerative agriculture’. Its most recent analysis showed only four out of the 50 with regenerative initiatives offered financial support for farmers. “This is alarming,” says Sajeev Mohankumar, senior technical specialist for climate and biodiversity, given the risks involved in transitioning from conventional to regenerative approaches. Also concerning was the lack of any formal quantitative company-wide targets to achieve the stated ambitions around regenerative farming. “We believe companies can track all this,” Mohankumar adds. “For some commodities, like beef, it is harder, but there is a lack of understanding and intention in the C-suite of many of these companies to verify the promises they are making.”

There is a lack of understanding and intention in the C-suite to verify the promises they are making.

Sajeev Mohankumar, Fairr

Soon they will have to, mind. New green claims laws in the EU and UK, as well as the new Taskforce on Nature-related Finance Disclosures (TNFD) framework, put revenue, value and reputation at risk, with EU-based firms facing fines of up to 4% of revenue if marketing is judged to be misleading. Claims relating to high-impact foods like beef will be under the microscope.

There is still time to greenwash but there is a big shift within businesses as they look to align with looming new laws. “Instead of green claims sitting with the marketing teams they are being led by the sustainability teams,” explains Margaux Le Gallou, programme manager at ECOS, the Environmental Coalition on Standards, an international NGO advocating for environmentally friendly technical standards, policies and laws. This could mean a period of greenhushing. “I don’t mind companies keeping quiet for a bit,” Le Gallou adds, especially if it means they better understand what they are talking about.

Lawyers also warn terms like ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’ will prove harder to justify if they are based solely on environmental performance. “Such claims relate to other characteristics in addition to environmental characteristics, such as social characteristics,” explains Dominic Watkins, global lead for consumer sector at law firm DWF. Those carbon sequestration claims for regenerative beef may also need to be backed by cash for farmers, for example.

Load of bull

Debate on all this is similarly heated in the US where the Environmental Working Group last year petitioned the Department of Agriculture to prohibit beef producers from claiming their products are ‘climate-friendly’ and to require independent verification of all climate claims that companies use to market beef to consumers.  

“Better beef. Better planet” is the principal claim on the front of Tyson’s Brazen Beef brand; it also states the cuts are “climate friendly” with “10% greenhouse gas reduction”. There is seemingly no public-facing data to back this claim up, however. 

“There is no single food choice less friendly for the climate than beef,” says Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “The only thing ‘brazen’ about Tyson’s beef is its brazen claim that beef can ever be climate friendly.”