McDonald’s has announced that it has “achieved internal alignment and energy around [the] aspirational goal” of buying only “verifiable, sustainable beef.”
It sounds like McDonald’s is trying to say, through a mess of corporate jargon, that it is going to do something good for the environment. Perhaps the restaurant chain wants to create the impression that instead of throwing all its beef-buying business to factory farms, it will start purchasing from the mythical family farm, where cows roam freely and live happily until their throats are sliced open before they reach even a quarter of their natural age.
But neither business model is environmentally sustainable. There is no such thing as “sustainable beef,” and there never will be — at least, not until lab-grown meat can be mass-produced efficiently.
Most meat consumed in the U.S. today comes from animals who were fattened at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are notorious environmental disasters.
Let’s look at poop. The animals in American CAFOs — not counting breeding facilities, slaughterhouses, or any other kind of facility — produce three times more waste than all the human Americans do put together. Mother Nature Network reported that the yearly “575 billion pounds of parasite, bacteria, virus, pesticide, antibiotic, antibiotic-resistant pathogen, nitrate and hormone-infested manure” winds up in the water, air, and soil around CAFOs.
When meat producers aren’t polluting the land, they are clear-cutting it. CAFO-fed cows are forced to eat an unnatural diet of soy and corn, which means farmers have to grow an awful lot of those two crops. “Huge swathes of rainforest and other timbered areas have been wiped out to grow corn and soy beans to feed to cattle,” according to Green Living Tips.
CAFOs aren’t the only problem. Every stage of beef production harms the environment, as World Watch Institute summarizes: “the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, [and] biodiversity loss.”
But the idyll of grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, while more humane to the cows, is even worse for the environment. James McWilliams identified some of the problems in The New York Times, like the fact that we simply don’t have enough land to produce the amount of beef consumers currently buy if all the cows were pasture-fed. “It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land,” McWilliams wrote. The solution would probably be to clear cut more forests, destroying eco-systems, wiping out species, and destroying oxygen-producing trees. That is exactly what the beef industry has already done: a “tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle,” McWilliams noted.
Also, ”grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows.”
One more problem with McDonald’s plan for “verifiable, sustainable meat”: nobody verifies the sustainability of meat, probably because meat isn’t sustainable.
McDonald’s announcement, being meaningless, is almost non-news — except for one thing: the fact that the company went to the trouble of making this stuff up shows that corporations believe being eco-friendly is good for business.
Way to go, environmentalists! Corporate America hereby acknowledges that we are an economic force, which means we have leverage. Keep up the good work.
Photo credit: silver marquis