Cattle have been getting a bad rap as environmentally unfriendly sources of climate-changing greenhouse gases. They belch methane, which is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide but more potent in warming the atmosphere. These facts have advocates urging the public to eat less beef. But animal-sourced food also plays a vital role in global nutrition. In this episode, we look more closely at cattle’s environmental hoofprint and look at how UC Davis scientists are researching ways to make livestock more sustainable.
Pat Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, maker of the plant-based Impossible Burger.
Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist in the UC Davis Department of Animal Science. He conducts research on air quality and livestock production.
Ermias Kebreab, professor and Sesnon Endowed Chair with the Department of Animal Science He researches ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animals, manure and soil.
Ken Tate, professor and rangeland watershed management extension specialist. He researches sustainable grazing practices and rangeland ecosystems.
AMY: So Alexa and I are standing in front of a Sacramento restaurant called Hook and Ladder. I invited her here because I want her to try something on their menu
AMY: So have you ever had the Impossible Burger?
ALEXA: I have not actually, never tried it.
AMY: Ever heard of it?
ALEXA: I have heard of it.
AMY: It’s that plant-based burger that is supposed to taste like a real burger.
ALEXA: I don’t know, Amy, you know I eat meat, I eat everything and I prefer a real burger.
AMY: Most Americans do. We produce about 26 billion pounds of beef a year in the U.S. and Americans consume more beef than any other country in the world. Most of that consumption is in the form of a hamburger.
ALEXA: That’s a ton of burgers.
AMY: If you’re old enough – which you’re probably not, you might remember that commercial that really epitomized Americans' hunger for hamburgers. It had three women at a fast-food restaurant complaining that the bun was bigger than the burger.
(Commercial Voiceover: It’s a very big fluffy bun.
Woman: Where’s the beef?
Commercial Voiceover: Some hamburger places give you a lot less beef on a lot of buns. At Wendy’s, we serve a hamburger we modestly call a single. And Wendy’s single has more beef than the Whopper or Big Mac. At Wendy’s, you get more beef and less bun.
Woman: Hey’s where’s the beef?)
ALEXA: I do not remember that commercial.
AMY: That came out in 1984, how old were you?
ALEXA: Definitely not born yet.
AMY: Not born yet! Well since then, Americans' beef consumption has actually dropped a little. And there’s a movement to get people to stop eating meat, to shift their diets away from meat.
ALEXA: It’s become really trendy. I see it on social media all the time. And I know people who have told me, oh I don’t eat meat because I’m saving the planet.
AMY: Yeah, a lot of people say it’s the only way we’re going to feed all the people on the planet by 2050 without damaging the environment. Others say being meat-free isn’t going to come close to solving that problem.
ALEXA: So it’s complicated?
AMY: Should we unfold it?
ALEXA: I think we should
AMY: So the name of this episode is, what’s the beef...
ALEXA: With beef.
(UNFOLD THEME MUSIC)
ALEXA: Coming to you from our basement studio at UC Davis.
AMY: This is Unfold, a podcast where we break down complicated problems and discuss solutions. I’m Amy Quinton.
ALEXA: And I’m Alexa Renee.
AMY: Ok, so back to the Sacramento restaurant where Alexa and I have now placed our order.
AMY: Describe what you’re about to do.
ALEXA: I’m about to bite into the Impossible Burger. I don’t know what to expect and it also has a lot of chilis on it, so it might be a little spicy, but here we go…It really does taste like meat.
AMY: Does it?
ALEXA: Yeah, it tastes like- I know this is a bad comparison- but it tastes like that charbroiled taste that Burger King has on their burgers. I don’t know what the last time you had Burger King was, but it has a very similar taste to that. And it has like this smoky flavor.
AMY: That’s probably the heme.
ALEXA: It’s probably the heme, but it does taste like meat. That’s so weird.
AMY: So what is heme? It’s an iron-containing molecule. It’s what makes beef taste like beef and it’s also in the roots of soy plants.
ALEXA: So that’s the secret ingredient – and that’s what the guy who invented the Impossible Burger figured out.
AMY: Yeah, that would be Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods and a Stanford biochemist. He’s pretty direct in telling people exactly why he invented this plant-based burger.
PAT: The most important and urgent problem in the world, full-stop is the catastrophic impact of our use of animals as a food technology on the global environment.
ALEXA: Oh my gosh. That’s a statement that would upset a few people here.
AMY: Well yeah. He actually joked that he’s trying to alienate our audience as much as possible. I mean, come on, 97 percent of the populace eats meat – I’m talking about all meat, chicken, fish, etc. But he believes that animals have a huge environmental footprint. Cattle for example use 41 percent of the land in the United States. And Pat says that comes at the expense of biodiversity and wildlife. And further - they emit tons and tons of greenhouse gases.
ALEXA: So are cattle really that bad for the environment?
AMY: No one disputes that they have an impact on the environment. Cows use a lot of lands. And because cows belch methane as part of their digestive process, they also emit greenhouse gases. But there’s a lot of nuances to consider when looking at their environmental footprint – we’ll unfold that in a second. But first more about Impossible Foods.
AMY: I met Pat Brown at Impossible Foods headquarters in Redwood City. He greets me in a conference room wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt. By the way, the Impossible Foods conference rooms are named after foods like jello, avocado, and yam. I think we’re in yam – but I’m extremely disappointed it looks nothing like a yam. And he’s telling me the Impossible Burger is much better for the environment compared to the hamburger.
PAT: Our product uses less than a quarter of the water, less than a twentieth of the land, has less than an eighth of the greenhouse gas impact. The resource efficiency of that means that you’re not straining the limits of land and water and other resources in order to be able to meet the world’s nutritional requirements.
AMY: He says in order to change people’s minds about eating meat, you need to start with replacing the iconic American burger.
PAT: If you had to pick a single product, I think it’s the most disruptive product we could produce.
AMY: So, no doubt Americans eat a lot of burgers. So is your idea to expand this than to other parts of the animal, to steak and…
PAT: Yes, in fact, we have research ongoing that’s aimed at those next-generation products.
AMY: Alexa, his goal is to replace all meat products with plant-based foods that are equally nutritious, delicious, and affordable.
ALEXA: Affordable? Those Impossible Burgers were close to $20.
AMY: But this is California. The veggie pizza was more than that. Besides, you can now get the Impossible Burger at fast-food restaurants for reasonable prices.
ALEXA: Still, does he really think people are just going to give up meat?
AMY: Maybe if people don’t realize they’re giving something up.
PAT: You’re not going to convince someone to change their diet, they’ll change their diets if you give them something that they like better, ok, that’s the only way to solve the problem.
AMY: Of course, if you really want the world to go vegan as Pat does, the biggest challenge will be in developing countries, right? A lot of people there don’t have a choice about what to put on their plates. So I asked him where a subsistence farmer would order an Impossible Burger.
PAT: We’re not going to go and grab that goat away from the subsistence farmer in Malawi, that’s not our approach, our approach is market-based.
AMY: He really wants to make a change in industrialized countries first, where meat is consumed the most.
ALEXA: Where he says it will have the biggest impact and the most positive effect on the environment.
AMY: Exactly. Speaking of the environment, remember how we said we were going to look closer at the environmental footprint of cows?
AMY: Well it’s time to do that.
ALEXA: I bet you’re taking a trip to the dairy barn, aren’t you?
AMY: Got my boots on, ready to go.
AMY: I’m outside the dairy barn and I’m waiting for Frank Mitloehner. He’s a UC Davis professor and a guy who spends most of his days measuring greenhouse gas emissions from cows. The air quality specialist is wearing a polo shirt and slacks and looks more like he’s ready to tee off at a golf course than show me a dairy barn.
FRANK: So this is our dairy- we have about 120 milking cows and this is where we do a lot of the research. And what we are interested in is whether or not a certain feed additive that we feed to these cows, whether can reduce enteric methane.
AMY: Ok time for definitions. Enteric methane is what cows burp. And it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas. Twenty-eight times that of carbon dioxide.
AMY: And that’s where the majority of greenhouse gases come from?
FRANK: That’s the number one source of methane from human activities.
AMY: Frank is feeding these cows an essential oil to see how much it reduces methane. He takes me to the other side of the dairy barn, where a cow has its head inside a clear plastic chamber.
FRANK: The neck of the animal is sealed up airtight so that air from the outside can’t get in.
AMY: Now the air is pumped in so the cow can breathe, but whatever the cow belches will be precisely measured.
FRANK: These gases all flow through this tubing in here.
AMY: An animal science student has the very unfortunate job of collecting what comes out of the other end of the cow.
FRANK: You see barrels that are covered with what’s called flux chambers and inside the barrel is the manure and urine of these cows and we’re measuring the gases of these excreta as they occur.
AMY: Frank says while the greenhouse gas footprint of these animals is sizeable, it’s not as bad as some might think, at least in the United States.
FRANK: Overall in the United States, all livestock combined, beef and dairy and sheep and pigs and so forth, produce four percent of all greenhouse gases.
AMY: That includes greenhouse gas emissions from growing feed for livestock. Beef cattle account for about two percent of emissions. That’s right, two percent. Frank admits much more work needs to be done to reduce their greenhouse gases. It’s exactly why he’s doing this research. But he says asking people to change their diets may not be a viable solution.
FRANK: People make eating decisions based on religious beliefs, cultural beliefs, personal preferences and there will never be a situation where some major part of our diet will be ruled out. So my job is not to judge people for their eating habits or try to judge them otherwise, my job is to look at how we produce livestock and minimize those impacts that exist. That’s really where I’m coming from.
ALEXA: It seems the carbon footprint of animals in the U.S may not be as big as people think. This is surprising since Americans eat so many burgers. But what about global emissions?
AMY: Well, the global picture is definitely bleaker. Livestock contributes about 14 and a half percent of all greenhouse gases.
ALEXA: That’s almost as much as transportation.
AMY: It is. So I met someone to give us the broader global perspective of animal agriculture.
ERMIAS: My name is Ermias Kebreab and I’m a professor of Animal Science at UC Davis and I study the impact of livestock on the environment.
AMY: Ermias says that impact really depends on where you are in the world. Take New Zealand for example. Half of that country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock.
AMY: So why is it so high in New Zealand?
ERMIAS: Because they have a lot of sheep. They have more sheep and dairy cattle than people.
AMY: Ermias says India for example has the largest cattle population in the world, but people there eat the least amount of beef. That means cows hang around a long time belching greenhouse gases. And get this, it’s a struggle to get a lot of milk and meat from cows in warmer or tropical climates.
ERMIAS: There’s a lot of challenges in tropical countries, it’s very hot. And so there are cows adapted to that environment. Unfortunately, that adaptation doesn’t allow them to produce as much milk.
AMY: And that’s kind of upsetting. If like Ermias you love milk. He grew up never having enough of it. He’s from Eritrea, an African country that has struggled with drought and famine. It’s what motivated him to study livestock. Now he works to not only reduce their impact on the environment but increase their productivity in developing countries.
ERMIAS: Right now, we have an active project in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Vietnam. In all three countries, the goal is the same- to try to use better nutrition, better ration formulation, better diets, and improve productivity.
AMY: Productive animals are important. In the 1970s it took 140 million head of cattle to meet U.S. demand for beef. Now it takes about 90 million head. Those 90 million are also producing more meat. So we’re now feeding more people with fewer cattle. While eating less meat will help reduce greenhouse gases, worldwide, Ermias says it’s an unlikely scenario.
ERMIAS: The demand in low-income countries is huge because as you increase the income in those countries, the first thing they would like to use that extra money for is to buy animal-sourced food. And we expect by 2050, there is going to be a 300 percent increase in beef demand in Asia.
AMY: So Ermias -like Frank- is working on finding ways to make cows burp less methane. And he’s been successful and gained a bit of notoriety by feeding them seaweed. Yeah, seaweed.
ERMIAS: We’ve done one trial and showed that there’s up to almost 60 percent reduction in methane emissions by using about one percent of seaweed in the diet.
AMY: 60 percent is huge. And no, it does not make their milk taste any different. More research needs to be done of course. The next step is seeing how it works with beef cattle.
ALEXA: Seaweed is super salty, so would that mean that the steak would be salty too?
AMY: They’ll be figuring that part out too.
ALEXA: So it sounds like it could be a really sustainable solution because seaweed is everywhere, right?
AMY: Naturally, it’s more complex than that. It’s only a certain kind of seaweed and production of that would really have to be ramped up to be affordable enough for the beef industry. On the other hand, Impossible Burger production would also really have to be ramped up to provide Asia with a plant-based alternative.
ALEXA: That’s assuming they like the Impossible Burger. And you know what Amy, I feel like we’re missing something and that’s the amount of land that cattle use. Remember how you said almost half the land in the U.S is used for beef production?
AMY: So that’s true. And Pat Brown said beef production and land use comes at the expense of biodiversity and wildlife. So i did some more sleuthing.
ALEXA: Did you go hang with cows again?
AMY: Yep, at a ranch just outside of Sacramento.
AMY: This is the Van Vleck Ranch. Black Angus cattle are grazing on five thousand acres of vast green pastures in Rancho Murieta. Manager Jerry Spencer says at capacity as many as 25-hundred head of cattle use this land. The cattle that run by us are plenty plump.
JERRY: See how round she is, she’s really full.
AMY: A good winter’s rain has left them plenty of grass. Which is something that Jerry pays close attention to.
JERRY: You want diversity. Yeah. Different species and beneficial species not weeds like bromes and thistles. You want to see ryegrass and soft chess and species like clovers and vetch and things like that that are nutritious, productive that the animals like to eat.
AMY: Jerry spends his days making sure these animals have enough to eat but aren’t overgrazing.
JERRY: You graze it down but not too much and then that promotes growth and the plant is at its healthiest then.
AMY: To do that, he rotates the cattle every two to five days, letting pastures rest for up to 50 days, depending on the time of year. That’s critical to keeping grasses and soils healthy.
JERRY: I pay attention to it in that I try to keep everything as healthy as possible altogether. If the grass is good, then it helps filter and protects all the water resources so it’s really a holistic balancing act.
AMY: A holistic balancing act - I have to admit this is not what I expected to hear from someone in the beef production industry. And by the way, these are conventionally raised cattle- not so-called grass-fed. They’ll end up in a feedlot for a few months before being turned into the steak and burgers you have on your plate or buy at the store.
AMY: How many ranchers do you suppose are like you and pay this much attention to the land?
JERRY: Most, probably. They certainly vary in the intensity of management, but sustainability is keeping everything viable both economically and biologically. Ranchers don’t continue to exist if either one of those is really out of balance, if you’re severely overgrazing the ground, well that’s kind of a death spiral there, you start to not make money because the cattle aren’t doing well and the land is degraded.
AMY: So ranchers really have a little financial incentive to let their herd overgraze or let their herd’s hooves compact soils so that grasses can’t grow. Managing these rangelands this way also provides another environmental benefit. Grasses – especially those with long root systems - store carbon.
KEN: One of the best things we can do to help mitigate climate change is to keep the carbon that’s already stored in rangelands as rangelands.
AMY: That’s Ken Tate, UC Davis rangeland watershed management extension specialist. He says rangelands store about 30 percent of the planet’s carbon. He argues, we need to keep it that way.
KEN: Depending on where these rangelands are located, there is a substantial risk of conversion to rural residential, housing tracts, golf courses, all those kinds of things.
AMY: All those kinds of things we sometimes worry about. Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’m telling you about cows raised in a very managed system, right? Not the full picture? No doubt some ranchers raise cattle and other livestock in unsustainable ways, especially if you look at other countries where deforestation might be happening and carbon-storing trees are clear-cut. But the point is, if managed grazing could be ramped up worldwide, it could store over 16 gigatons of carbon by 2050. So cows could be part of the climate change solution, not part of the problem. It will take some doing. Ken says the question of whether eliminating meat will save the planet, isn’t the debate we should be having.
KEN: If we’re going to oversimplify these problems, I don’t know how we’re going to solve them as a society. We have to continue to grow more food- whatever that might be more and more efficiently and distribute it well, so that people can access it and do it in a way that people can afford, globally.
AMY: When we hear “Americans eat too much meat” or “stop eating meat and save the planet”, it’s a little more complex than that.
ALEXA: So let’s round things up. Americans eat a lot of beef. And cows emit tons of greenhouse gases. But…
AMY: We have highly efficient cows in the U.S. and their greenhouse gas footprint is small compared to other countries.
ALEXA: Yeah, but it’s still a really big issue here and in other countries, which is why we’re working on that at UC Davis. And rangelands – they could be part of a climate change solution, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
AMY: Of note, a recent study from our psychology faculty showed that wanting a healthier diet is the common reason people stop eating meat. Not for environmental reasons.
ALEXA: Well that Impossible Burger was probably healthier.
AMY: As a matter of fact, it is. Impossible Foods just improved their burger-making it more nutritious. It has 40 percent less saturated fat than a regular burger.
ALEXA: You can still have my burger, Amy.
AMY: You didn’t like it?
ALEXA: Not really.
AMY: I thought it was great, even if it was genetically engineered.
AMY: Speaking of which, next time on Unfold, we talk about genetic engineering and take a trip to our organic student farm. Thanks for listening.