EEvery year, McDonald’s buys up to 1.9 billion pounds of beef that it packages into patties for millions of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders, Big Macs, Triple Cheeseburgers and other popular beef sandwiches served around the world.
The huge volume of meat forces the company and its suppliers to slaughter north of 7 million cattle, by some estimates, and this comes at a high cost to the environment: the more than 53 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas. greenhouse produced by McDonald’s in 2020 exceed several emissions from European nations.
In recent years, the company has announced big sustainability initiatives, but climate experts who have looked at McDonald’s plans and data say the fast food company is largely dodging the only bold step it needs to take. to reduce emissions: significantly reduce the amount of beef it serves.
“The bare truth is that McDonald’s is in a business that is fundamentally at odds with the integrity of the Earth,” said Gidon Eshel, research professor of environmental and urban studies at Bard College. “No fig leaf, however persuasive or cover-up, can change this fact.”
McDonald’s announced its most recent plan in October amid growing pressure on companies to act. Investment funds managing more than $ 29 billion in assets at the end of September called on the world’s 1,600 biggest polluters to reduce their emissions in accordance with climate science. And a recent study found that the global food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions, with the beef industry accounting for up to 25% of that figure.
Beef is particularly problematic because cows release high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in their burps and manure. The amount of food, water and soil cows need to produce a pound of meat is much higher than that of other animals, which inflates their carbon footprint. Raising cows places a “multidimensional burden” on the Earth, Eshel said, as the industry also pollutes, consumes water and spurs deforestation.
McDonald’s announcements suggest it is already on track to cut emissions. Its 2018 sustainable development plan is committed by 2030 to reduce the total emissions of its restaurants and offices by 36% and to reduce “emissions intensity” in its entire supply chain by 31%. compared to 2015 levels. In October, the company announced its commitment to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050 and included an optimistic progress report on 2018 emission reduction targets.
But climatologists have questioned the math behind McDonald’s plans for 2018, and a closer look at its 2021 progress report reveals little progress has been made. The new “net zero” plan has also drawn criticism from environmental groups for its lack of detail and its long lead time.
More importantly, the lack of menu changes needed to dramatically reduce beef production and emissions is the lack of menu changes, said Jennifer Molidor, a senior food activist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“When it comes to the most meaningful solution to the climate crisis – serving much less beef and switching to low-carbon options right now – we don’t see the action on the menus we are seeing. we need this mega-corporation, ”she said. “Failure to step boldly on their menus suggests that the motivations may not be to mitigate climate change but to manage investors.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for McDonald’s did not address specific questions about the emissions or its plans, but said the company “is pursuing ambitious actions to help tackle climate change in areas where we have the greatest impact opportunities, ”including reducing packaging waste. and improving livestock management.
He called criticisms of his plans “opinion based.”
Molidor said you need to be a “climate nerd” to understand the story that McDonald’s complex numbers and insider terminology really tell, and that alone is a red flag.
“One of the main signs that something is ‘greenwashing’ is that it’s not clear or transparent,” she added.
McDonald’s October press release reports an “8.5% reduction in absolute emissions from our restaurants and offices compared to the 2015 benchmark.”
But restaurants and offices make up a very small portion of McDonald’s emissions, which means the 8.5% slice is much smaller than marketing suggests. The decline is mainly due to McDonald’s shift to more energy-efficient light bulbs at its nearly 40,000 restaurants, said Dexter Galvin, global director of business and supply chains for CDP. The environmental transparency nonprofit works with McDonald’s and other large corporations to implement and assess the progress of corporate climate plans.
Galvin called this a good first step, but said it was not a “material reduction”. This will have to come from changes to the company’s beef operations, he added, and the press release highlights McDonald’s progress on this front: “A 5.9% decrease in supply chain emission intensity compared to the 2015 baseline ”.
However, emissions continue to increase, just slightly slower than before. “Emission intensity” describes the amount of emissions per unit of product. If the business grows, like McDonald’s, its emissions may also increase. Emissions from the company’s beef production and supply chain jumped about 40% between 2017 and 2020, according to data leaked to CDP.
Galvin said McDonald’s is “building the systems and processes” it needs to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by its beef operation and supply chains, but added: “They really need to start showing reductions. significant, and I think there will be a time when they need to diversify what is offered on their menus ”.
McDonald’s ‘net zero’ commitment by 2050 has also been criticized because such plans can allow polluters to continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases for decades to come. To offset the emissions that companies continue to produce, “net zero” programs often rely on carbon offset programs – which have been the subject of multiple investigations highlighting erroneous carbon calculations and uncertain impacts – as well as carbon capture technology, which is expensive and not yet operating on a large scale.
While McDonald’s plans and measures are complex and controversial, they have great marketing value because they make the layman appear to be real progress, Molidor said.
“McDonald’s takes advantage of people who don’t understand this kind of math,” she added.
“Businesses Could Make Eating A Smaller Burger Cool”
Last year, Burger King introduced beef made from cows that burp and fart less due to the addition of lemongrass to their diet, while German researchers developed a ‘toilet training’ strategy. for cows which they believe will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While some argue that reducing consumption is the only meaningful approach, the beef industry’s contribution to the climate crisis requires “a whole food system approach,” said Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems at the Cornell University. This includes imaginative solutions to improve animal care, reduce waste, refine management practices and more, but he said the low prices and accessibility of McDonald’s are boosting its popularity and emissions.
An important aspect is for the public to better understand the health, environmental and economic toll of beef production and for beef to be consumed and priced accordingly, he said.
“If McDonald’s or any other producer is serious about tackling the problem, that will provide a message of moderation in consumption and include the true costs of the beef,” Herrero said.
Governments could tax beef, impose regulations, or cut massive industry subsidies that keep prices low. A 2015 analysis found that the cost of an American Big Mac would drop from $ 5 to $ 13 if $ 38 billion in meat subsidies were eliminated. However, Donald Trump and the right have already made beef consumption a flashpoint in the culture war, and such measures would be “a delicate political question,” Herrero admitted.
In the absence of political will, it’s up to companies to lead, and McDonald’s is years behind rivals like White Castle, Burger King, and more in fully introducing plant-based burger options. McDonald’s only started testing its McPlant in a small number of European countries and five US stores this year, although it tested a plant-based burger in Canada in 2019 before giving up the trial.
Galvin said McDonald’s spends $ 40 billion on purchases each year and needs to use that as leverage to quickly persuade its suppliers to use more sustainable practices.
“They have to use this influence in their supply chain to massively cut emissions and they are running out of time quickly,” he said.
McDonald’s said in a statement that it is a small part of the global food system and added that “the consumption of beef and animal protein is part of the lives and livelihoods of people all over the world. and will continue to be so for decades to come ”.
Although McDonald’s has said it offers what consumers want, Molidor said the company is not meeting demand – it is driving it. By choosing to use its annual marketing budget of $ 650 million largely to sell low-cost beef products on its menus, it directly increases consumption, she said.
“People don’t eat what is not on the menu,” Molidor added. “Companies could make it cool to eat a smaller burger, a salad without chicken, more wraps, they could redefine what American fast food looks like. Instead, they make a triple cheeseburger.
While McDonald’s plays a disproportionate role in “perpetuating the beef culture in America,” Eshel said, consumers ultimately need to weigh the consequences before their next Big Macs.
“Growing beef is not compatible with the welfare of the Earth, and we have to choose: do you eat beef and let the Earth be cremated, or give up the beef and give yourself to the Earth a chance to fight? “