Forget Counting Carbs, Count CarbON

By Kayla Sargent

Counting carbs is so last decade.  This decade, counting carbON could be the next big thing.

“What comes to your mind when you think of the worst carbon emitters?  Cars?  Airplanes?  Power plants?  Did you know annual carbon emissions from livestock are greater than those of all global transport?  That’s why at Quorn, we’re working to understand the entire carbon lifecycle of our products.”

Quorn, a UK-based global meat-free alternative protein brand, recently threw livestock production under the bus in an announcement to promote the company’s new carbon footprint calculations.  Fifty percent of the brands’ top products are now labeled to show the amount of carbon emitted in the making of the product from “farm to shop.”  The calculations are third-party verified by experts at the Carbon Trust.  Then, the package is stamped with a footprint label that symbolizes the availability of the calculations and Quorn’s commitment to “continue to reduce its carbon footprint.”

To utilize the carbon emissions label as a marketing tool, Quorn compares their product calculations to that of livestock production.  The website paints a grim picture of “the carbon foodprint,” claiming that livestock is the second highest source of global emissions, racking up 14.5 percent, only behind energy production.  Citing the same Guardian article, Quorn also claims “meat agriculture uses a whopping 70 percent of agricultural land.”

“The stats are stark.  Twenty-six percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food, with the footprint from animal products alone making up over 50 percent of the industry’s global carbon emissions.  It’s really quite simple: choose food that produces less carbon emissions as a step in the right direction to prevent climate change,” the website reads.


Bad Science…

This information is based on the same bad scientific study that has been haunting the livestock industry for years.  Livestock’s Long Shadow, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2006, was a flawed study according to Dr. Alan Rotz, USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) Agricultural Engineer.  Dr. Rotz said the study was not peer reviewed, it did not compare full life cycle analyses, and different beef production models were not considered.

“It wasn’t really done right.  They were comparing a life cycle assessment of beef to, basically, fossil fuel use, not a life cycle assessment on that side.  So that was one flaw in the study,” he explained.  “The major thing is that beef in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries is so efficient compared to beef production in much of the rest of the world.  A lot of the numbers they were coming up with, it’s based on animals that are used much more than just for beef.”

Take India and Asia for example, where cattle are used for power and live long, multipurpose lives before perhaps becoming beef.  In sharp contrast, American cattle are finished in just two years, resulting in a much different life cycle and a consequently smaller carbon footprint.  This, however, was not taken into account in the FAO study.

“Because the FAO report when out without enough peer review, everybody’s jumped on that bandwagon and it takes a long, long time to reverse some bad science like that,” Dr. Rotz said.  “Particularly when there’s so much politics involved in the vegan industry that wants to make as much out of that as they can.”

Truth be told, looking at U.S. beef production specifically, “the carbon footprint of transportation is so far greater than that of beef production that it’s hardly even comparable,” according to Dr. Rotz.  He released a study in March 2019 clarifying that beef cattle production accounts for 3.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while transportation and electricity generation account for 56 percent.


A Closer Look…

While the big, bold type urging consumers to choose Quorn products over traditional meat may be based on flawed science, reading into the fine print presents a more accurate roll of the di.  In a white paper done by the Carbon Trust, Quorn compared the emissions of their products to that of meat.

Quorn uses a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) formula to calculate the product footprint.  The CO2e formula was developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and The European Commission and represents “the global warming potential of a range of different greenhouse gases.”

Quorn’s carbon calculations found that to produce “Meat Free Mince” (their alternative to ground beef) 1.3 kg of CO2e is emitted per kg of product made.  In contrast, according to the Quorn Footprint Comparison Report, to produce one kg of UK beef mince, 27 kg of CO2e is emitted.  Both calculations take into account the entire lifecycle of the product, including feeds, transportation, processing, packaging, and more.

“It’s a little difficult to compare different life cycle assessments because everybody uses different assumptions and the assumptions they make are usually biased by how they want things to look in the end,” Dr. Rotz said.  “It’s not necessarily pure science, usually it’s more of a marketing claim.”

That said, the figures the Quorn report concluded for beef CO2e per kg of edible product “would compare pretty closely to what we have found in our work for the U.S.,” Dr. Rotz said.  He called the figure “real” and said he couldn’t argue that 27 kg of CO2e per kg of beef mince would be unreasonable.


The Grand Scheme…

“To me, the bigger issue is the real impact that cattle are having has been blown way out of proportion,” Dr. Rotz said.

While methane, the GHG emitted by cattle burps and manure, is certainly a strong gas, according to Dr. Rotz it does not remain in the atmosphere for long.  Within 10 to 12 years, methane has completed the carbon cycle and has decomposed back to carbon dioxide, he explained.

“So, from that standpoint, the methane emitted by cattle really is not having a long-term impact on the climate,” Dr. Rotz said.

Ultimately, eco-conscious consumers should consider more metrics than CO2e when making shopping decisions.  Sustainability, according to researchers at Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. funded by the Beef Checkoff, “is about balancing multiple economic, social, and environmental issues at once, while recognizing tradeoffs.”

“Sustainability is bigger than carbon footprints,” a beef sustainability factsheet explained.  “Relative differences in carbon footprints between animal versus plant foods don’t add up to significant GHG emissions differences at the national level.”

For example, the factsheet continued, if all Americans were to switch to a vegan diet, GHG emissions would lower by 2.6 percent.  But at the same time, synthetic fertilizer use would increase, soil erosion would increase, and most importantly, there would be insufficient nutrients to feed the nation’s population.

Dr. Rotz said he doesn’t foresee a carbon label being a meaningful move for the beef industry, or for comparing food products in general.

“I mean it’s totally worthless,” he said.  “Everybody’s coming up with their meaningless numbers and trying to compare everybody else’s meaningless numbers.  But it’s happening and I don’t know if it can get turned around or not.”

“We’re trying to tell the real story, but who’s listening?” Dr. Rotz concluded.


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