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RP Siegel headshot

Is There a Sustainable Big Mac in Your Future?

Words by RP Siegel

Giant corporations such as McDonald's and Walmart cast a long shadow across the planet with the enormous amount of resources that they use, process, consume and sell. McDonald’s flips and bags 70 million hamburgers every day and is responsible for a full 2 percent of the world's beef consumption. So when you consider the impact that beef production has on the environment, particularly with regard to climate change, a move by them to sustainable beef could be a really big deal.

After all, according to a 2009 article in Scientific American, the meat industry was, at that time, responsible for somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. So, the article says, if you drove your 3,000-pound car five miles to buy a hamburger, the emissions given off by producing the meat for that burger were equivalent to those given off by your car as your drove there and back home again.

That report, which came from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, turned out to be significantly understated. An updated analysis performed by the World Bank, which was published in Forbes of all places, showed that the more accurate number is closer to 51 percent. That means you'd have to drive somewhere between 23 and 36 miles to equal that patty's footprint.

In fact, the article goes so far as to say that replacing meat with with alternative foods such as dairy products and soy analogs, for people around the world would, “have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

So McDonald's pledge to switch to sustainable beef production starting in 2016 could have a huge impact, depending, of course, on what they mean by sustainable and how different emissions figures would be compared to those produced today. Considering the fact that Walmart is also making similar noises the stakes are even higher.

Clearly, McDonald's is not talking about substituting beef with soy analogs. So says Bob Langert, vice president of global sustainability for McDonald’s in an interview with Beef Magazine: “Beef is at the core of what we do past, present and future. We want the beef industry and McDonald’s to prosper as a result of ensuring that beef is sustainable long-term.”

Nor are they talking about switching to local, organic or GMO-free options that are generally regarded as more sustainable than conventional beef production.

“That doesn’t get us where we need to go. The definition needs to be holistic and account for people, the environment, food safety, animal welfare and economics. It’s multi-faceted.”

That sounds like quite a tall order. So what exactly do they intend to do? Where, if I may ask, is the beef?

The fact is, they don't know yet. They are hoping that their supply chain, fellow members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), will help them figure it out. But they seem to have a pretty good idea what they want the answer to look like.

“Sustainability should be mainstream; it’s not niche, it’s not premium,” says Langert. “The customer wants it and wants to do business with companies that share their values. They want to see companies like ours and those of our suppliers also doing things with a sense of purpose, that we’re not in business just to make money but we’re here to serve them with food that is safe, affordable, high quality and now sustainable for our customers.”

So they want to be on the right side of history, so to speak. But it's not at all clear what they are willing to do or give up to get there.

When you consider the fact that, historically speaking, sustainability in this industry has meant continuing profitability, with more emphasis on keeping ranches in Texas from going underwater financially than anything to do with island nations like the Maldives, sharing their homes with starfish, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect here. So it might be premature to start breaking out those bottles of organic champagne just yet.

To get a sense of what kinds of things the company is looking at and thinking about, it might be instructive to consider some of the talking points that the Sustainable Beef Resource Center has published. In response to questions regarding the use of growth enhancing technologies (i.e. growth hormones and antibiotics), the center cites a study that found, using computer modeling, that raising the same amount of beef as we consume today, without the benefit of these technologies, would require substantially more cattle, more land, more water and would generate far more greenhouse gases -- 18 million more metric tons in the U.S. alone. So, using this logic leads them to assert that using growth hormones is the more sustainable choice. From there, they go on to say, that if production in the U.S. were to fall off, other countries would pick up the slack, leading to both economic hardship here at home and environmental disaster in places like Brazil, where, they claim 16.9 million more acres of rainforest will be cut down, leading ultimately to the emission of some 3 billion tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

The problem with this kind of scenario-based analysis is that it's a bit like writing science fiction. It all depends on the kinds of assumptions that are fed into the model. For example, there is the assumption that demand will remain constant in the developed world and will grow to equal that in the developing world.

That is the same argument that asserts that renewables will never be sufficient to meet the projected energy demand, which has fallen considerably in the past decade. It's the one that claims we need nuclear power without taking into account changes in behavior and improvements in efficiency. It's the argument that Monsanto likes to use, pointing at population growth, and saying that only by using genetically modified food can we possibly produce enough food to feed all of those mouths.

All of these are supply-side techno-fixes, that ignore the possibility of changes on the demand side despite a growing awareness and commitment among consumers to make changes on their end of the transaction, that brush away concerns about the inherent risks in their approach, and completely ignore fresh alternatives that a broader, more holistic view of the problem may have spawned.

But this is all beside the point, which is that beef production as it stands, has a huge impact on climate change and that focusing on how much worse things would be without hormones is a smokescreen intended to divert attention away from that fact.

Other SBRC talking points, in the same publication that says feedlots are fine because they are legal, claim that the methane produced in the U.S. from beef production in 2001 was responsible for only 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. They fail to mention that methane is anywhere from 21 to 73 times more potent than CO2 in its heat-trapping potential depending on the time frame being considered, which means beef production is responsible for far more than 2 percent of the impact.

Whatever steps McDonald's ends up taking to earn a sustainable label from an association in which they are a dominant member will be helpful, but they will also likely be small. We can look forward to seeing them wrap themselves in sustainable colors and send out messages that those who covet their advertising dollars will be happy to spread.

I hope to be proven wrong on this, but my guess is, come 2016, that you'll be able to get that same burger with a good size helping of greenwashing on the side, no extra charge.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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