The mystery of climate-friendly beef
Arielle goes down a wormhole trying to find answers about Tyson’s “Brazen Beef”
Last week, I pitched Emily a story about how Tyson Foods is launching Brazen Beef, the first USDA-approved climate-friendly beef. I thought the product deserved some digging into, given that the beef industry is a major source of climate pollution.
Climate scientists have been saying for years that the world needs to eat less meat to slow global warming. One peer-reviewed study estimates that one pound of beef produces 15 times more CO2 than a pound of rice, and 60 times more than a pound of wheat or corn.
Tyson claims that Brazen Beef lowers cattle emissions by 10 percent. That’s a pretty hefty claim. It is possible to lower livestock emissions—the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that improved diet and manure management could cut methane emissions by 30 percent. So naturally, I wanted to know: is Tyson actually lowering their cattle emissions? Or is Brazen Beef a clever marketing scheme that greenwashes a major climate polluter?
After a week of research and interview requests, I came up with more questions than answers. But Emily and I thought those questions, and the mystery of climate-friendly beef, were important enough to start raising.
So instead of writing a traditional article, today we’re going to let you into the meeting where I explained all my reporting and remaining questions to Emily. We’ll keep exploring this story as we attempt to gain more clarity. And if you’d like to hear our full conversation—or if you simply prefer to listen rather than read—we’ll release a subscriber-only audio version.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Atkin: The number one thing that I'm wondering: What does it mean for the USDA to certify beef as climate-friendly?
Arielle Samuelson: That's what I want to know. So I started going down a rabbit hole.
EA: A wormhole.
AS: A wormhole. The USDA hasn't responded yet to my request for comment. But think about their organic certification program. There are so many stringent rules. They have an entire database where you can look up who their accredited certifying agents are, because they outsource a lot of this certification to approved third parties. But for the climate-friendly certification, I just couldn't find anything on it in my initial search.
However, I did find the third-party verification company for Tyson's Brazen Beef, and it's a company called Where Food Comes From, Inc. They are the company that is meant to go through Tyson's list of “Here's how we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” and verify that that is true.
So I reached out to their director of sustainable animal proteins, Lora Wright, but she replied that they couldn’t comment for the story.
EA: What did you ask them?
AS: I wanted to know if they could just walk me through how this verification works. What kind of data does Tyson send them? And who do they get this data from? Because Tyson, for the most part, are just the beef packers; there's actually all these cattle ranchers and beef producers around the country working with them. You're talking about a lot of individual farms, entities, cattle ranches that are going into this climate certification.
EA: And they were just like, “No.”
AS: Yes, that is what they said. They directed me to Tyson–whom Wright used to work for.
EA: That reads to me a sketch, but I guess I would consider trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. You said you also reached out to the USDA?
AS: I did. Because what I haven't told you yet is that the USDA is funding “climate smart” agriculture in an attempt to help the U.S. reduce its emissions, 10 percent of which come from agriculture. Tyson is the lead partner on a project that just received a $61 million grant from the USDA, so that they can work on “Climate-Smart Commodities.” And, in particular, climate-smart beef.
EA: You're telling me that Tyson just received $61 million in taxpayer money to create climate-friendly beef? And that we don’t know what climate-friendly beef means? And that the entity that is supposed to label it climate-friendly won't tell us how they're going to figure that out?
EA: Great. I love this country.
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AS: Presumably, when Tyson applied for this USDA grant, they had to send the USDA some sort of proof of concept that shows their beef really does reduce emissions by 10 percent. I would like to see that data very much. I take nothing on faith.
EA: When your mother says she loves you, ask her for sources.
AS: And references.
EA: Here's another question that just comes to mind. How does a 10 percent reduction in emissions from beef equal climate-friendly beef? It’s like saying methane gas is a climate-friendly fossil fuel, because it emits 30 percent less than coal. In what world is beef that still emits 90 percent of normal beef climate-friendly?
AS: That is my biggest question. On one hand, you can say this is a win because it shows that enough consumers are worried about either animal welfare or the environment that one of the biggest meatpackers in the country felt they need to offer something that they're branding as “climate friendly.”
On the other hand, I think that this could result in the rebranding of beef as good for the environment. My concern is, what if this climate-friendly beef catches on and people say, “That's wonderful. I can still eat my cheeseburger and enjoy it while feeling good about how it impacts the planet.”
What happens when McDonald’s, who is a listed partner on this USDA grant to Tyson, starts selling you their Brazen Beef Quarter Pounder?
EA: We’re going to see a whole new generation of greenwashing TV ads about McDonald’s burgers—so good for the climate!
AS: Exactly. Tyson’s vice president of fresh meat marketing told an outlet called Progressive Grocer that they are specifically trying to speak to younger millennials and Gen Zers with this product.
EA: I’m reading his quote. It says, “We're trying to be upbeat and different, but something that speaks definitively to that group of younger Millennials and Gen Z consumers. Messaging will share sometimes complicated scientific information in a consumer friendly, understandable way.”
But they won't even tell you about the science. At least not yet.
AS: No. But to give you more detail about this, one of the other partners that Tyson is working with is Adams Land & Cattle, LLC in Nebraska. It's one of the largest cattle buyers in the United States. They also have cattle ranches, but specifically, they create databases to track their cattle from start to finish. So they are building what they call “a supply chain to accurately estimate the greenhouse gas emissions from pasture to production.” So they're going to model the emissions, and then they're going to supposedly tell you about it from start to finish.
As I looked into this, I wondered if that was a conflict of interest: having a major beef buyer and producer be the partner measuring the greenhouse gas emissions. Presumably that's why you have Where Food Comes From, Inc to be that third-party verification.
EA: More like turd-party verification. You like that one?
EA: Okay. So we've got potential conflicts of interest there that also we probably need more information on to be able to say anything.
But here’s my assessment of what you’ve told me so far. On the one hand, I think it is a good thing for the USDA to recognize that beef is a big contributor to climate change, and we're probably not going to be able to eliminate its production. So let's try and reduce the emissions of beef, and let's provide government incentives to do that. I completely understand that.
Where I think it gets tricky, and where the potential for all sorts of problems starts to occur, is the ability to stamp a label on that as “climate-friendly,” and then allow the corporation to market off of that. That's where you get the potential for misinformation, and for misleading consumers into thinking, “I'm buying climate-friendly beef so I don't have to consume less of these things that are destroying the planet.”
Did you make it this far? As a token of our appreciation, here’s a fun fact: There’s an exoplanet that glows cherry-blossom pink.
EA: So where are we on Brazen Beef coming to market?
AS: They unveiled it in March at the Annual Meat Conference. And this particular grant is something that they were just awarded in April, when the USDA announced that the first round of funding had gone out.
But I don't actually know when it's coming to market. It's certainly not at the McDonald's near you.
EA: It seems like we really have a lot of questions to answer. What are your biggest remaining questions?
AS: One, what does it mean to be certified as climate-friendly? That's extremely vague. Two, where is the data or proof–or even a short summary–explaining how you reduced those emissions by 10 percent?
And three, maybe most importantly, 10 percent reduced emissions compared to what benchmark?
EA: I don't know, there's just something so weird to me about how Tyson got $60 million from the government to help them do something that they probably already should have been doing. And then they get to put a fancy name on it and make even more money selling beef from it. It just doesn't sit right with me.
AS: Well, Tyson said in a press release that 75 percent of that grant money would go to the individual farmers and cattle ranchers that they're working with to help them set up climate-friendly practices. And that would make sense on the surface. Maybe you're a rancher who wants to be part of this climate-friendly program, but you don't want to use your own funds or don't have the funds to change your practices. And maybe that’s true, that most of that money goes to these individual beef producers that Tyson works with. I don’t know, I'd have to ask.
EA: Well, I guess we'll be back when we have more answers. Oh, and if people reading have answers, tell us.
AS: Yes, please. If you are a cattle rancher in Nebraska and you're like, you got all of this feedlot stuff wrong, come at us. I want to know more.
Catch of the day: Dio is a very lucky kitty. Reader Charlotte says she wishes he were a vegetarian, but he just loves pâté too much.
Dio can hold out hope that they will make a climate-friendly pâté next.
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Calling it "Brazen Beef" feels a little on the nose given the unverifiability of these climate-friendly claims.
In an oft-used quote, Milton Friedman was said to declare that it is the sole responsibility of business to increase profit. This is inaccurate. Here is Friedman, in a NY Times editorial published in 1970, quoting his own words from his book, "Capitalism and Freedom:"
... “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception fraud.”
Most people who quote Friedman leave off the last part - about "open & free competition," and "without deception fraud." But even Friedman, the biggest pro-profit bogeyman in recent history, recognized the need to play fair in a capitalist system.
Keep shining the light on the fraud. Hopefully when enough people see it, they'll hold the collective corporate feet to the fires so that consumers can make informed decisions before jumping on the "climate friendly" bandwagon.