Beefatarians Not Wanted
The way that livestock is raised and killed has long made it a legitimate matter of public concern. Now that we can see that eating red meat affects the entire planet in a manner that none of us want, it is time for governments to end their support for it.
MELBOURNE – “If the sound of beef sizzling on the grill brings tears to your eyes, you’re a real beefatarian.” That’s the opening line of a TV ad produced by a European advertising campaign called Proud of European Beef. Just more advertising silliness? No, because the European Union is paying 80% of the cost of it.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2013 report Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock states that beef contributes 41% of the greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from the entire livestock sector, and also has the highest emissions intensity – that is, the highest GHG emissions per unit of protein – of any animal products. That is largely because ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein.
Since that report, the case against beef has strengthened. In 2015, a report from London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs pointed out that worldwide, meat and dairy consumption are rising at a rate that, if projected to 2050, would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature. A study published in Science in 2018 indicates that producing protein from soybeans in the form of tofu creates only 4% of the emissions required to produce the same quantity from beef cattle, while peas and nuts can both produce protein for less than 1% of emissions from beef cattle.
To meet the 2°C target, the EU is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. There is now a solid body of evidence that says this cannot be done without a global shift away from meat. Yet the European Commission spent €252 million ($298 million) promoting meat and dairy products between 2016 and 2020, compared to €146 million advertising fruit and vegetables.
“If you support sustainable farming by choosing European beef, you are real beefatarians,” says the Proud of European Beef advertisement – but without offering any explanation of why European beef is sustainable. The announcement of the funding for the advertisements says: “The aim of this campaign is to incite the consumers not to have a stereotyped idea about red meat and to enable them to be again confident about their consumption decision.” Here, however, the “stereotyped idea” that is being combated is true, and the advertisement is inciting consumers to be confident about a consumption decision that should give them serious misgivings.
Not only climate targets are being undermined by the EU’s beef promotion. Its Beating Cancer Plan acknowledges that red and processed meats have been linked to higher risks of cancer. That view is shared by the World Health Organization, which lists processed meats, such as meats treated with salt, as Group 1 carcinogens, that is, products known to cause cancer, and red meat – beef, lamb, and pork – as Group 2A carcinogens, indicating that they probably cause cancer. In 2019 the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, an expert body set up by one of the world’s leading medical journals, recommended a diet that “largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils” with some seafood and poultry, but “no or a low quantity” of red or processed meat.
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This month, the European Commission has said it “will review, and where necessary propose to revise, all relevant policy instruments to deliver the additional emission reductions.” An international group of more than 60 scientists, including Jane Goodall and Bill McKibben, has called on the Commission to align its promotion of agricultural products with the goals of avoiding catastrophic climate change and improving public health.
Arguably, beef advertising should go the same way as tobacco advertising. Before we get to that point, the least governments could do is avoid paying for it. But the EU is not alone in failing to stand up to the meat industry. Americans eat four times as much beef as the world average, and beef production alone is responsible for more than 3% of US GHG emissions. US beef, dairy, and pork producers are heavily subsidized, both directly and by agricultural support that makes animal feed extremely cheap.
As a candidate for the US presidency, Joe Biden called climate change “the number one issue facing humanity” and “the number one issue for me.” Within days of taking office, he appeared to live up to that statement by placing a moratorium on oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, scrapping the Keystone XL pipeline, and announcing that the US would rejoin the Paris agreement. But when it comes to reducing emissions from agriculture, Biden’s announced plans do not go beyond incentives for sequestering more carbon in the soil, and encouraging the use of additives to cattle feed to reduce methane emissions – a nice idea, but likely to take many years before it is used on a scale that would have a significant impact.
Eating meat is not just a personal preference. The way that the animals eaten are raised and killed has long made it a legitimate matter of public concern. Now that we can see that eating red meat affects the entire planet in a manner that none of us want, it is time for governments to end their support for it.