Quantcast

Beef Industry Takes the Biggest Bite Out of Earth's Natural Resources

Insights + Opinion

A Highland Cattle bull in Scotland chewing hay.


georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images

By Jennifer Molidor

One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.


A recent move by the American beef industry is no exception. Earlier this month, faced with its involvement in the planet's environmental crisis, the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef put together a voluntary framework to "assess" and "encourage" sustainability and hand out recognition certificates.

But it's totally inadequate. This framework lacks accountability, transparency and, above all, truth about beef's impacts.

Agriculture takes up more than a third of the world's land surface, uses nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources and contributes up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

In the agricultural industry, beef production takes the biggest bite out of the planet's natural resources. The American beef addiction creates the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 32.3 million cars. Crops grown to feed livestock in the U.S. take up nearly half the landmass of the lower 48 states.

Grazing cattle destroy vegetation, trample land, damage soils, contaminate waterways with fecal waste and disrupt natural ecosystem processes. And livestock-wildlife conflicts have contributed to the killing of millions of animals every year and have been a key driver in the war against wolves.

To mitigate damage from this incredibly damaging industry, we need solutions with real teeth. In fact, scientific research shows that the U.S. needs to reduce consumption of beef by 90 percent to meet climate targets.

Unfortunately the beef industry has long fought environmental protections like the Clean Water Rule, which attempts to hold the industry accountable for pollution that threatens drinking water and wildlife habitats.

The industry has also attempted to strong-arm state and federal policymakers into preventing producers of plant-based foods from using the words "meat" and "milk" on their products. Beef lobbyists have argued against including sustainability in the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Rather than addressing the industry's underhanded approach to environmental policy or acknowledging the fundamental problems with mass-scale beef production, the roundtable has turned to greenwashing.

Bringing together stakeholders to identify the harms of beef production is a step in the right direction, but this framework is a bit like Big Tobacco releasing advice for safe smoking. It fails to admit that beef is bad for the planet, particularly at current rates of consumption. It also falls short of creating clear steps to address that problem.

What's worse, the framework is intentionally weak – seeking to appease beef producers instead of working to build trust with consumers by acknowledging hard truths about this destructive industry.

These weaknesses likely grew from the roundtable's very makeup. It is composed of beef producers and processors, along with giant corporations like McDonald's, Taco Bell, Walmart and Costco in the retail and food service sector, and public advocates. The members claim to represent 30 percent of the nation's cattle and produce 20 billion pounds of beef.

That scale of production means the roundtable can also take credit for largely contributing to 544 billion pounds of greenhouses gases and 784 billion pounds of manure per year. Its members also use more than 1 billion acres of land and 30 trillion gallons of water.

With impacts that big, the public is a stakeholder.

It's time for the roundtable to stop catering to its polluting members. Beef producers need to earn our trust, not claim it. And until they're ready to do so, we must support policies, retailers and producers shifting our food system away from excess meat and dairy and toward more plant-based foods.

Jennifer Molidor is a senior food campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Jennifer Molidor, PhD

Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
(L) Rushing waters of Victoria Falls at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zimbabwe pictured in January 2018. Edwin Remsberg / VW PICS / UIG / Getty Images (R) Stark contrast of Victory Falls is seen on Nov. 13, 2019 after drought has caused a decline. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP / Getty Images

The climate crisis is already threatening the Great Barrier Reef. Now, another of the seven natural wonders of the world may be in its crosshairs — Southern Africa's iconic Victoria Falls.

Read More Show Less

Monsanto's former chairman and CEO Hugh Grant speaks about "The Coming Agricultural Revolution" on May 17, 2016. Fortune Brainstorm E / Flickr

By Carey Gillam

Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.

Read More Show Less
A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.