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Burger King: What’s the environmental impact of Impossible Whopper?

TAGS: Management
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Why are we still talking about cow farts when we should be focusing on providing food to nourish a hungry planet during a global pandemic?

Virtue signaling is in full force at Burger King, where the fast food chain is promising greater environmental sustainability by targeting beef.

Brace yourself. It’s cringe-worthy.

In a video released July 14, Burger King features a kid dressed in western garb crooning to the camera as he sings about how it “ain’t a laughing matter” that cow farts, burps and “splatter” release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing global warming.

At one point during the video, the guitar-playing kid wears a gas mask while singing out cow digestion. Later a farmer says, “If a cow ain’t farting, it must be me.” The video wraps about Low Carbon Land, a theme park promising a better world by reducing cow farts.

Yes, I’m for real. You can watch the eye-rolling video here.

So what’s Burger King’s solution? Grazing lemongrass to reduce methane.

With interviews from Restaurant Brands International, Temple Grandin, Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, Cargill (yes, the same packer that’s currently facing an antitrust investigation from the Department of Justice), Business for Social Responsibility, United Nations Global Compact and more, Burger King explains its new #CowsMenu initiative.

According to Burger King, “Scientists and industry experts weigh in on the importance of the #CowsMenu initiative. Cattle are one of the top contributors to overall greenhouse gas emissions. Since we are part of the problem, we have been working to be part of the solution.

“So we teamed up with top scientists and—after a year of research—developed a feed that improves cows’ digestion and reduces their methane emissions. Join industry experts as they explain how Burger King’s Cows Menu initiative is a scalable solution with the potential to reduce cows’ impact on climate change. This is just the beginning. We hope to expand our testing and extend this initiative to more restaurants, more brands, and more countries to create more of a lasting global impact."

Watch the video here.

The company promises that their beef will be “open source,” although I’m not sure what that means. However, I think there’s an important distinction between private landowners pursuing environmentally beneficial grazing practices to improve your lands, make the most of your cattle genetics and earn a premium for your product verses large corporations proposing climate-friendly practices that are presented as voluntary at the onset, but will most likely evolve to a mandate, where you’re either forced to sell your beef somewhere else or exit the business altogether.

Maybe I’m just a pessimist though. There could be many positives that arise from this collaborative effort between the packer, a fast food company, an environmental organization and you, the land-owning beef producer. Consider this joint press release from Cargill and Burger King and decide for yourself.

According to the press release, "As global demand for protein increases, ranchers, agribusinesses, restaurants and conservation partners are coming together to feed a growing population, address climate change and protect the planet. Burger King restaurants and Cargill are teaming up with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and ranchers within the Northern Great Plains to launch a three-year grasslands restoration program. This initiative brings together two major companies who deliver beef to Americans to support the rehabilitation of less productive soil into thriving ecosystems– with cattle playing a critical role.

“Through reseeding, the program aims to convert nearly 8,000 acres of marginal cropland throughout Montana and South Dakota to ecologically diverse grasslands with beef cattle as the primary grazers in the ecosystem to maintain it. If successful, the program is projected to save the carbon equivalent of driving nearly 70 million miles in an average passenger vehicle. “‘We recognize the powerful opportunities we have to advance sustainability in food production together. Through our parent company’s Restaurant Brands for Good framework, we have showcased our commitment to implementing more sustainable business practices,’ said Matthew Banton, global head of innovation and sustainability for Burger King. ‘Via the Grasslands Restoration project, we are proactively engaging with our peers, experts and industry stakeholders to help advance beef sustainability and mitigate the effects of climate change.’

“According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the North American beef supply chain is already more than 35% more efficient from a GHG perspective than the global average. The project builds on the strong leadership of farmers and ranchers in this region, by providing additional opportunities to expand their grazing land.

“The reseeding efforts will focus on large areas of marginal cropland in the Northern Great Plains - where the land is not productive for farming or other agricultural uses. Native grasses, with roots 10 to 15 feet deep in some cases, pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground to support one of the world’s most stable carbon sinks. The roots also secure the plants and topsoil from being blown or washed away and effectively pull water underground, supporting the resiliency of the grasslands during times of drought.

“Through this project, the producers recognize the potential to improve the ranches for future generations,” said Markus Erk, a rancher from South Dakota. “I’m thrilled to team up with partners who want to come along side us to help us enhance our conservations practices.”

“When managed well, cattle grazing can help stimulate the growth of grasses and maintain a healthy ecosystem, similar to the role the region’s native bison used to play. Cattle’s hooves break through hard ground, allowing more water to be absorbed into the soil. The restored grassland can also provide a habitat to wildlife unique to the region.

“‘Ranchers are some of the most important stewards of the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains. As managers of over 70% of the remaining intact grasslands within this region, they hold the key to its future,’ said Martha Kauffman, managing director of WWF’s Northern Great Plains program. ‘Our collaboration with Cargill and Burger King will restore formerly plowed areas within these vital ecosystems back to grasslands through the seeding of native grasses. As these ecosystems rebuild under the management of our ranching partners, the environmental value and the health of our grasslands, including their ability to support wildlife, will continue to grow for years to come.’

“The latest monitoring practices will be used to measure the progress of the project including changes in soil carbon and moisture, and the wildlife response to the something missing here. Carbon measurement tools will also be explored and tested to continuously evolve best practices.”

Pardon me if I sound skeptical here, and I realize that I’m beating up on some hard-working beef industry folks with this initial review of this project. But until Burger King quantifies the environmental impact of the Impossible Whopper or does an audit on any other ingredient on its menu, it’s very difficult to take seriously these efforts to improve the U.S. beef industry, which, by Burger King’s own admission, is already leading the planet in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Let me state that I’m a strong advocate for responsible grazing, improving the landscape and promoting soil health. On my ranch, we practice rotational grazing. We plant cover crops. We graze on crop residues in the fall. We no-till our fields. But the distinction is we do it because it’s the right thing to do, and we do it because it improves our land and benefits our cattle.

Now, there may be incentives here to do what many ranchers have already been doing and doing quite well for generations. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to have strategic corporate partners to collaborate with to continually improve these efforts.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of converting marginal farmland back to grasslands, but it absolutely should be producer-driven by private landowners.

So let me be clear. What I am saying is this — if after watching Burger King’s new music video, you don’t question the intentions here, then I urge you to dig a little deeper and ask yourself why we are back to talking about ridiculous, over-inflated notions about cow burps and farts at a time when we should be focusing on delivering nutrient-rich foods to nourish a hungry planet during a global pandemic.

Perhaps Burger King’s time (along with their notable partners on this project) would be better spent donating burgers to hungry families who have lost their jobs during this pandemic. Or maybe they could get involved in providing meals for the food insecure children who may or may not be able to return to school in the fall. Just a few friendly suggestions from a rancher whose sole purpose is to provide beef for people to enjoy.  

By the way, if you want science-based information on greenhouse gas emissions, I urge you to check out this blog post: Mitloehner clears the air on fossil fuels, cattle & climate change

Again, so I can be abundantly clear, let me reiterate: American ranchers were green way before Burger King got on board. In fact, the U.S. beef industry already has one of the lowest beef greenhouse gas emissions intensities, 10-50 times lower than other parts of the world.

Ranching is sustainable, regenerative and critical to maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and that includes whether cattle eat lemongrass, hay, corn, silage or any combination of forages. Cattle are incredible upcyclers of cellulosic material that is inedible by humans.

Beef is the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. And when it comes down to it, nobody should ever feel guilty for enjoying U.S. beef at the center of the dinner plate.

Feel free to tear this blog post to shreds. I’m certain it will be. More than likely, the pushback will come from folks worried about protecting a regular paycheck, so I’ll note that these opinions are my own, from the vantage point of an independent rancher.

While I wait for the hate mail to arrive, I’ll just be sitting here enjoying the peaceful views of the grassy rolling hills of my South Dakota ranch, knowing this rangeland is providing a healthy habitat for wildlife and forages for my cattle, while naturally sequestering carbon, offering soil cover to reduce erosion and retain water and promoting a healthier planet.

Take a deep breath; enjoy a burger; and stay informed, my friends. Thank you for reading.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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