A modest defense of the hamburger

imgresIf you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a hybrid car like a Prius?

The easiest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve argued, is to eat less meat. Because the emissions generated by the production of  beef, pork and chicken (in that order) exceeds those of plant-based protein, going meatless for a day or two each week makes a difference.

But curbing meat consumption won’t make nearly as much of a difference as driving a more efficient cars, some experts says–although comparing the climate impacts of Big Mac, a lentil stew, a Ford 150 truck and a Prius  is a devilishly complicated business.

Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, recently pointed me to an interesting new publication that explores this issue, and others. Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (available as a PDF here) report on a series of workshops held last year by the well-respected Institute of  Medicine that brought together environmental scientists, nutrition experts, government officials and business people to look at the effects of diet on the planet and on human health.

One of the experts, Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at   the University of California at Davis, who is chair of an FAO group studying the environmental impact of livestock, offered a defense of beef. He tried to  put in perspective the claims of activists who urge consumers to eat less meat for environmental reasons.

The report says:

In Mitloehner’s opinion, although scientists would agree that food choices are an important environmental emission source, they would also agree that food choices pale in comparison to transportation choices or energy production and use choices.

To illustrate his point, Mitloehner cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 33 percent of all GHG emissions are associated with production and use of energy and 27 percent are associated with use of transportation (EPA, 2013). Compare those figures to GHG emissions in the United States from the entire livestock sector, all species, based on life-cycle assessment9 at 3.4 percent (EPA, 2012). According to Mitloehner’s calculations, of that 3.4 percent, approximately 1.8 percent comes from the beef sector. Thus, GHG emissions from livestock in developed countries are dwarfed by carbon footprint contributions from other, larger sectors (e.g., transportation, energy, industry). The same is true of other developed countries.

Mitloehner questioned the impact of “Meatless Mondays” or “Beefless Mondays.” If 300-plus million people were to go beefless on Mondays, that would cut the 1.4 percent figure by a factor of 7 (number of days in the week), which would amount to a 0.2 percent reduction in the total greenhouse gas footprint. Mitloehner said, “While this is not nothing … it will not even compare to what we see from the transportation sector.”

Mitloehner may be right. He is especially critical of a 2006 FAO report that estimated that livestock contributes 18 percent of all GHG emissions, and those emissions were greater than those from the transportation sector. This number has been quoted widely but, he said, the comparison was inappropriate because livestock emissions were analyzed using a full lifecycle assessment, and then compared to transportation emissions that included only tailpipe emissions.

A very different view was put forth by Emily Cassidy of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues including Jon Foley has worked to quantify the environmental impacts of diet. The report says:

Americans consume a lot of meat, more than 110 kilograms per person per year, even though the nutritionally recommended amount is only about 23 kilograms per person per year (FAO, 2013). If meat consumption were to be reduced by 75 percent, to 30 kilograms per person per year, with the lost weight being compensated by fruits and vegetables, cereals, and other foods, what would happen to the environmental footprint of the U.S. diet?

Cassidy’s calculations suggest that such a reduction would significantlychange the environmental impacts associated with the U.S. food system. Specifically, a 75 percent reduction in meat consumption would result in a 27 percent reduction in land use, a 31 percent reduction in water use, and a 46 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

It’s complicated, no? One problem is that using global or even national averages when talking about the carbon impacts runs roughshod over important differences in farming and ranching practices, the electricity mix, shipping and a gazillion other variations. Did the corn that was grown and fed to the cow that was turned into a Big Mac require irrigation? Was the electricity fed to the Prius generated by a coal-fired power plant or by hydropower? Which has a greater carbon impact, salmon from Alaska or chicken from the Delaware shore? Climate change is a global problem, but all emissions are local, as Ory Zik has noted in developing his startup company Energy Points, which uses Big Data to analyze environmental tradeoffs.

So…if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a the Prius? The answer is, it depends. It sure looks as if switching to a Prius will have a bigger impact, but of course it’s easier to skip a few meals with meat than to buy a new car. What’s more, the health and environmental impacts of meat production in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) go well beyond climate, including the need to dispose of animal waste, potential water pollution, pesticide and fertilizer overuse to produce feed, antibiotic use and resistance, air quality and animal welfare issues.

Happily, it’s not an either or. You can cut meat consumption and drive a more efficient car.

Meantime, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill are working together to limit the environmental impact of beef production through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is all to the good.

That said, it would be so much simpler and more sensible to put a tax on carbon emissions and use price signals to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. Pricing carbon emissions into the costs of goods and services–electricity, gasoline, food and everything else–would unleash the power of markets and drive producers and consumers to smarter and greener choices.

My radical plan for McDonald’s

1272056932627So I like McDonald’s. Really, I do. The fries. The coffee. Even the (850 calorie for a large!) strawberry McCafe Shake. The clean bathrooms, too. It’s my default place to stop when driving more than a few hours.

I also like the people I know who work at McDonald’s. Bob Langert, the company’s sustainability chief, is a great guy. Their PR folk are unfailingly gracious. And I’m told by a friend of the CEO, Don Thompson, that he’s a terrific person, too.

But–and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?–McDonald’s has a big problem. Actually, a couple.

The company wants to sell the world as many hamburgers as it possibly can. Beef, when produced at an industrial scale, is a terribly inefficient way to deliver protein to people. The production of beef requires more water and more land, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions, than the production of chicken or pork or, goodness knows, vegetable protein. Maybe the easiest way for any of us to do our part to deal with the climate crisis is to eat less beef. So long as McDonald’s is pushing burgers, it is, in effect, pushing climate change and deforestation, not to mention obesity and heart disease, at least for those consumers who do want the company wants them to do and eat more burgers. McDonald’s response to this is to join in the Global Coalition for Sustainable Beef–a laudable idea, and one that could reduce the environmental impacts of beef. But I’m skeptical about how far and how fast coalitions like this will take us. (See my 2012 story for YaleEnvironment360, Should Environmentalists Just Say No To Eating Beef?) The evidence, when you look at similar efforts to produce “sustainable” palm oil or fish, is decidedly mixed.

Then there’s the inequality problem, which is all over the news lately, and for good reason. CEO Thompson made $13 million or so in 2012. The front-line McDonald’s worker makes less than $20,000 a year. Many rely on government assistance to get by. I don’t begrudge Thompson his paycheck, but something’s amiss when the people who work for him need help from the government to feed their families.

What should McDonald’s do? I tried to address that question in a story today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Promoting its Dollar Menu and More, McDonald’s says: “An empty stomach shouldn’t mean emptying your wallet, too.” A Bacon McDouble – beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, pickles and onions – costs just $2. A bargain, no?

Alas, the price of a burger does not reflect its full cost. The environmental impact of beef is staggering: on average, 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage and 15,500 cubic meters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef, according to the new Meat Atlas from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an environmental non-profit. What’s more, beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions than cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs or vegetable protein.

Then there are the costs of supporting those who cook and serve burgers: More than half (52%) of the families of front-line fast-foodworkers are enrolled in at least one government-funded safety net program, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley Labor Center study titled“Fast Food, Poverty Wages”. The research estimates the industry-wide cost to these programs, very roughly, at about $7bn. Median pay for front-line fast-food workers is about $8.69 per hour, which comes to a bit more than $18,000 per year. And we won’t even consider the costs of treating the health problems that are caused by consuming too much processed food.

All of which raises a question: how can a company that depends on cheap meat and cheap labor become sustainable, responsible and even admirable?

You’ll have to read the rest of the story to see the full answer, but, in essence, I argue that McDonald’s should do three things.

(1) Nudge its customers to eat less beef.

(2) Raise the wages of its workers, publicly and proudly.

(3) Become an advocate for a price on carbon.

Will this happen? Probably not. Could it happen? I’m curious to know what you think.

Sustainability at McDonald’s. Really.

coffee-cupHere’s a question. Which trio of companies has done more for the environment…

Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle?

Or Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?

I don’t have an answer. Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle have been path-breaking companies when it comes to sustainability, but Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are so much bigger that, despite their glaring flaws, and the fundamental problems with their business models, they will have a greater impact as they get serious about curbing their environmental footprint, and that of their suppliers.

Small and mid-sized companies create sustainability solutions, as a rule, but the impact comes when big global corporations embrace them. Size matters.

All that is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about McDonald’s coffee-buying practices and the role of the consumer in driving them to scale.

Here’s how it begins:

Across the US, McDonald’s last week introduced pumpkin spice lattes made with Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso. No such assurance comes with McDonald’s drip coffee. Why? Because consumers haven’t yet shown Mickey D’s that they care.

That’s gradually changing, says Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, and not a moment too soon. As the world’s biggest fast-food chain, which has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, seeks to make its supply chain more environmentally friendly, McDonald’s is trying to enlist its customers as allies.

That’s why the pumpkin lattes marketing features the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. That’s also why McDonald’s fish sandwiches, for the first time, feature a blue ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock inside comes from better-managed fisheries.

By talking to consumers about its sustainability efforts, McDonald’s hopes to build brand trust and loyalty. Until recently, people had to dig into the company’s website to learn about its environmental performance.

“We’ve had sustainable fish for many years, but we didn’t tell people about it,” Langert told me during lunch in Washington DC. (He ordered fish.) “We feel there’s a tipping point coming. We see the consumer starting to care. Consumer expectations are rising.”

What McDonald’s is doing with its coffee isn’t innovative. Starbucks paved the way. But if McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Costco, Target and others follow, the world’s coffee farmers will be a lot better off.

Meantime, McDonald’s is leading the way as it encourages potato farmers to use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer, as the story goes on to say. And it could potentially have a huge impact as it tackles its most important supply chain–beef.

Elitists will scoff at everything McDonald’s does, of course, and some of their criticisms have merit. A Big Mac, it’s safe to assume, has a big carbon footprint. Eating too much food from Mickey D’s (or anywhere else) makes people fat. I’d like to see fast-food chains pay their workers better, even if that means customers will have to pay more for breakfast or lunch. But on the environment, McDonald’s is moving in the right direction. Just as important, the company is trying to move its customers along, too.

You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

Why sustainability has to be a team sport

imagesOne of the great virtues of market capitalism is that power is widely dispersed–among consumers, corporate executives, investors and regulators. Lots of people get lots of votes that collectively shape business, and that’s good. But decentralization creates a daunting problem for anyone who cares about corporate sustainability: It’s hard to get things done.

In conversations today at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, people who could be described as powerful—executives with big titles (vice chairman, vice president, CEO) at big institutions (NASDAQ, McDonald’s and Ingram Barge, America’s biggest barge company)–all lamented the limits on their influence over what their companies do, let along how industries can change.

This is why sustainability has to be a team sport. Very few people–or companies–can do much on their own.

Take Bob Langert, vice president for corporate responsibility at McDonald’s, who is one of the most respected sustainability executives in the US. He’s got credibility inside the company and with NGO partners. But to get anything done, he’s got to win over thousands of owner-operators of McDonald’s stores, as well as a a diverse set of suppliers and, in some instances, the tens of millions of people who eat at Mickey D’s every day.

“We are the world’s largest small business,” Langert said. The overwhelming majority of McDonald’s outlets are “owned and operated by independent business people. They have a lot of power in our system. That means we can’t dictate from on high. I challenge people to show me a company that’s more democratic than McDonald’s.” [click to continue…]

What a long, strange trip it’s been for McDonald’s Bob Langert

Bob Langert worked in logistics for McDonald’s in the late 1980s when he was asked to take on a “temporary” six-month assignment to get chlorofluorocarbons out of the company’s clamshell packages.

Twenty years later, Bob has worked with WWF and Conservation International on marine stewardship and sustainable beef, spent a decade with Temple Grandin dealing with animal welfare issues, visited chicken farms and slaughterhouses, picked tomatoes with migrant workers in Florida, lectured on sustainability in China and taken a nine-day raft trip down the Amazon River with his pals at Greenpeace.

“I never, ever imagined this,” Bob said. “To have the good fortune to do this work, and make a difference in the world is beyond my expectations.”

I interviewed Bob, who is vice president for corporate social responsibility, at McDonald’s, today at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago. We talked about what he’d learned about working with NGOs, his accomplishments, frustrations and whether selling hamburgers can be “green.”

Here are a few highlights:

A pioneering partnership: Langert’s work with packaging led to a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, which ruffled feathers in the corporate world and the environmental community.

“Fred Krupp [EDF’s chief] was a visionary back then,” Bob said. “It was not politically correct to work with big companies.”

EDF’s crew did a shift working in a McDonald’s, and proceeded to help with dozens of initiatives—from trimming the size of straws to using recycled paper in napkins.

Recalled Bob: “We didn’t spend one penny more. We saved millions and millions of pounds of packaging and costs.”

The future of fish: McDonald’s joined with the WWF to develop guidelines for the companies that supply its fish. What’s the business case, I asked, for investing corporate time and money in sustainable fisheries?

“Assured supply,” Langert replied. “The guy in charge of buying fish for McDonald’s, he was really concerned with being able to buy fish 10 or 20 years from now….The No. 1 job of everyone in supply chain at McDonald’s is to make sure we have stuff on the menu tomorrow.”

This kind of long-term thinking—so rare in big public companies—is a key to sustainability.

Picking tomatoes: When McDonald’s was urged to support efforts by migrant workers in Florida to win better wages, Langert worked side by side with the pickers. “ I couldn’t keep up with people half my size,” he remembered. “Females doing the work all day long in the sun and you see the living conditions which are not good at all.” Just last month,  the workers hashed out an agreement that should bring them higher pay.

Bears and the Amazon: When Greenpeace protesters dressed as chickens picketed a McDonald’s in London, accusing the company of destroying the Amazon, Langert’s first job was to calm down his colleagues.

He recalled saying: “Let’s not get all in a tizzy about their tactics. Greenpeace doesn’t have an advertising budget, so they had to use McDonald’s to get the word out. Let’s look at the issue.” The allegation was that tropical forest was being cut down to grow soy to feed chickens in Europe that became McNuggets.

When he asked trusted partners at Conservation International and WWF about the charge, he decided Greenpeace had a point. He approached the group and, before long, McDonald’s, Greenpeace and big suppliers like Cargill had agreed to stop buying soy from deforested land.

The raft trip came later. “We spent nine days—four of us from McDonald’s, four of us from Greenpeace, to get the lay of the land. I gave up a Chicago Bears Superbowl game to go so that tells you where my passion is. Anyone who knows me knows that besides my family and my faith, it’s the Chicago Bears.”

Langert’s to-do list: He’d like to find new ways to engage consumers in McDonald’s sustainability work. The company serves about 64 million people a day.

He also wants to do more to reduce the environmental impact of the company’s 33,000 stores, most of which are  owned and operated by others. “Energy’s a big issue for us,” he said. New initiatives are on the way, he hinted.

The problem with burgers: Because beef has such a big environmental footprint, I asked Bob how he could reconcile the company’s desire to grow—and sell more beef—with its environmental ethic. I told him that my rabbi, Fred Dobb, has said that one of the easiest things people can do to help the planet is to eat less beef, and asked if McDonald’s would try to wean its customers away from Big Macs.

“I’d like to talk with your rabbi,” Bob replied. He acknowledged the beef production has a big footprint, but said that “at the end of the day, we’re going to give people what they want. We’re going to do it in a good, responsible, clean, safe way. We’ve tried veggie burgers. They hardly sell at all. The day we can sell 500 a week in a restaurant, they’ll be on our menu forever and ever. I don’t have angst. You’ve got to face the realities of the world. And the reality of the world is that people eat protein from livestock and meat. Nothing wrong with that from my moral compass. I respect others that have a different moral compass. It’s our job as a company to make things better, though. We’re starting on that path–working with WWF on sustainable beef. That’s the  next step.”

Certainly McDonald’s offers choices to those who would prefer to avoid beef. Hey, the company even gave out pedometers and yoga CDs a few years ago to encourage people to be more active. But…given the climate crisis and the obesity crisis, maybe the next step ought to be to encourage those 64 million customers to make choices that are healthier for themselves and for the planet.