By how much is yet to be determined.
Agriculture is a significant producer of greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock especially so; the United Nations estimates that about 14.5 percent of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. The meat industry has come under fire for its part in rising emissions levels, and it announced this week that, in response, the vast majority of North American meat producers have committed to reducing their emissions. But by how much?
The entire chain of meat production is rife with emissions-producing activities. Production of feed, including the fertilizer used in growing corn and soy for feed, is a huge source of emissions. Processing and transportation also produce emissions, and then there are the famous cow burps. (Cattle are estimated to be responsible for around 65 percent of all livestock emissions.)
According to The Hill, this new pledge applies to all members of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), an industry group that represents about 95 percent of the entire meat industry in the United States and Canada. Members include Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, JBS, Cargill and a whole host of retailers and packagers. The board of directors features representatives from companies such as Butterball, Boar’s Head, Bob Evans and Hormel.
In effect, the announcement says that the members of NAMI have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “in line with the Paris Agreement goals.” The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, is a pact between countries, not between multinational corporations, so that statement is pretty vague. The Paris Agreement itself is mostly about long-term strategies for reducing emissions and transparently sharing progress; there is a general goal to limit the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (Climate Action Tracker, for what it’s worth, rates the US’s progress on this front as “insufficient” and Canada’s as “highly insufficient.”)
What’s actually happening is that NAMI agreed to create some greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, along with other targets involving workplace injuries and animal welfare. None of those targets have been set or announced, but NAMI promised that all of its members would hit these targets, whatever they’ll be, by 2030.
The targets will be set, eventually, by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), an organization that sets environmental targets. SBTI is a collaboration among nonprofits such as CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, WWF and the World Resources Institute.
This announcement comes on the heels of a disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, eroding consumer trust in the safety and ethics of the industry and repeated denials that the beef industry in particular is really contributing to climate change.
There is some promise in reducing methane emissions from the cows bodies by introducing some seaweed into their diet. Researchers from the University of New Hampshire to Australia are finding positive results. Another thing that would obviously help is moving toward grass fed beef. Corn and soybeans would not be a normal part of a bovine diet, and to my tastebuds, are unnecessary. Grass is good!