Wondering why there’s so much fuss in the news over cow farts? We’ve got you covered. This week, we discuss why beef’s environmental impact far exceeds most other food products and consider ways to reduce those impacts without giving up too many of our steaks and burgers. We’re joined by Sebastian Bishop (Reed College), Adrian Castanon Galicia (Boston University), and special guest Dr. Rachael Garrett: Professor of Environmental Policy at ETH Zürich.
Given how important an issue it is, I wanted to produce an episode on beef from the get go. I knew a bit about the issue going in, and I did know it was complicated, but I don’t think I quite knew how complicated.
One reason is its interconnectedness with every other issue. The food system is just that: a system. It’s nearly impossible to isolate any one part of the food system when there are crops like corn and soy being fed to cattle that are also fed to other livestock, there’s different land management practices, there’s energy, there’s transportation, there’s every step along the food supply chain ultimately ending with waste, and I could go on. While our other topics were easier to isolate and discuss, beef was challenging because there’s just so many moving parts. It makes for an interesting conversation, but a challenge to discuss succinctly.
Another reason is that the solutions are a lot trickier. I love beef, I don’t want to prevent other people from eating beef, but I also want to protect the environment. It’s a hard trade-off. Ultimately, we explore a lot of solutions that could encourage voluntary choices, improve farming practices, and use economic instruments and tax incentives to guide the industry in the right direction. But no solution is carbon free. In other sectors like energy and transportation, we’ve been able to develop technology to move toward carbon neutrality through renewable energy, but agriculture doesn’t have that same flare because no food system can be carbon free. We can make improvements, but it can’t be perfect as of now.
Dr. Garrett’s insights were extremely helpful in striking that balance. Having studied the food system extensively and having spent time with Brazilian cattle farmers, Dr. Garrett could discuss what improvements we could make to improve the environment without harming farmers, exacerbating food insecurity, or forcing people into certain dietary decisions. Her optimism, that just because we won’t have a carbon free food system doesn’t mean we can’t improve, is absolutely worthwhile. Sebastian and Adrian brought up really great points too, and even for an issue as polarizing and frustrating as this one, managed to find some agreement.
Agriculture too often gets left out when discussing climate change. When cities create plans to go carbon neutral, they don’t have to count the emissions caused by the food consumed in their city, since those emissions occurred on a pasture or feedlot far outside the city. I understand that including agriculture in that calculation essentially ensures carbon neutrality won’t be feasible in the immediate future, but it still causes emissions which can be scaled back. Improvement is definitely better than ignoring it!
It’s so striking to hear that scaling back beef production is the number one step an individual can do to reduce their personal climate impact. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that even a small baby step makes a difference, whether it’s swapping beef with turkey or getting an 8oz steak over a 20oz steak.
We hope you enjoy this episode!