Our takeaway? Cutting down on beef is good; replacing the smaller amount of beef you eat with more sustainable, grass-fed sources is better.
Epicurious recently announced it would no longer be publishing beef recipes. But is this decision as climate-conscious as it seems?
Pass over the brisket, and catch those 4th of July burgers on the flipside. Forget about mopping up your Saint Paddy’s Day beer with corned beef, and while you’re at it, let’s leave behind that Whovillian Christmas classic roast beast. Does the very idea make you Grinchy? Well that’s exactly what Epicurious announced it was asking readers to do last month – or, rather, what it had been doing.
When Senior Editor Maggie Hoffman and former Digital Director David Tamarkin published the announcement that Epicurious would no longer be publishing beef recipes, they undercut any whining by noting that beef had already been essentially wiped out of their new recipe offerings as of fall 2019, featuring beef recipes only a “small handful of times” since then.
“There wasn’t much hullabaloo about it until they announced it, though they had been quietly scaling back on beef for a year,” says Jennifer Molidor, Ph.D., Senior Food Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“What this tells me is that beef is controversial for cultural or personal reasons but not particularly edible, dietary, or nutritional ones. In other words, people don’t really notice or miss beef when they’re offered other great foods. And minimizing beef makes a huge environmental impact but a very small culinary impact.”
In other words: nowhere’s the beef.
Their announcement to stop “giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders” called cutting out beef “a worthwhile first step” towards better sustainability, echoing pretty aptly the findings reached by Oxford researchers in 2018: that a plant-based diet was the “single best way” to reduce your climate impact. Of course, those researchers were talking about a vegan diet; for now, Epicurious is only cutting out beef. (Unlike Eleven Madison Park, the Michelin-starred restaurant that is indeed eradicating all animal products including the signature butter-poached lobster from its menu, retaining only milk and honey served with coffee and tea).
But if you’re going to focus on one climate culprit in your diet, beef beats out pretty much any other change you could make. Livestock accounts for about 16 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions around the world, and according to the UN, beef is the largest contributor. According to a fact sheet compiled by Take Extinction Off Your Plate, beef produces 337 billion pounds of carbon equivalent annually, and research from IDTechEx calls our current meat production levels “unsustainable.” Since 77 percent of world agriculture land is used for livestock, which provides only 33 percent of global protein intake, the math supports this stance – and a shift towards plant-based and, specifically, away from beef.
One 2020 paper from the University of Michigan and Tulane University estimates that if Americans cut their consumption of beef to four pounds per year, there would be a 51 percent reduction in diet-related greenhouse gas emissions in this country between 2016 and 2030.
Now that’s all well and good, but statistics like these hardly move people. (If they did, we’d all be vegan, seeing as researchers have been telling us since at least 2016 that the only way to feed the growing global population by 2050 is for everyone to eschew, not just beef, but all meat, all dairy, and all eggs.) Instead, Epicurious is leading by example, demonstrating that this isn’t just a feasible but a delicious way forward is a great step.
“People will always have the option to cook beef if they choose, and recipes will always be available,” says Molidor. “But now is a great time for leading food bloggers, recipe websites, foodies and others in the food industry to step up and prioritize adding plant-based dishes that are delicious, viable options.”
Well, sure. But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?)…
For some experts, Epicurious’ stance isn’t as cut-and-dried. Researchers have notably recently indicated that the numbers we keep touting are only part of the picture: American climate strategies are far more sustainable than those found elsewhere, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beef only accounts for 3.3 percent of U.S. emissions. Sasha Gennet, Ph.D., Director, North America Sustainable Grazing Lands Strategy, North America Agriculture Program writes that a sustainable beef system can be achieved by focusing on grazing management and soil health, and she has worked with Walmart, Sam’s Club, and McDonald’s to identify “climate mitigation opportunities.” For these and other experts, a move towards more sustainable beef is far more important than attempting to remove it from the scene entirely.
“When I hear that Epicurious has chosen to not publish beef recipes, I feel like it will have absolutely no impact on anything, honestly,” says Camas Davis, a butcher, memoirist, and founder of the nonprofit Good Meat Project. “It’s like one tiny, little thing plucked out of a much more complex equation.”
While Davis agrees that conventional American beef production is indeed “detrimental to the land, and to our environment,” she adds that “by villainizing beef or all meat, we’re really missing an opportunity to redefine how our agricultural systems will look in the future.”
For Davis, the supplanting of beef with highly processed plant-based alternatives like Beyond and Impossible Meats is not a sustainable way towards a “viable, responsible agriculture system,” and moreover, it’s not really feasible.
“Simply taking cattle off the land is not possible,” she says, “and it isn’t creating a system that thinks holistically and thinks about how to manage the impact of cattle on the land.”
“If we can couple good land stewardship and good land management with viable business models, that would be great,” Davis continues. “But those things also need to be coupled with viable living for the people who own the land, but also for people who work the land for the landowners. So it’s a complicated picture that feels difficult in the current economic system that we’re working within.”
Doniga Markegard is a rancher at Markegard Family Grass-Fed. She is committed to sustainable beef production on her regenerative family farm and says she is “concerned on a lot of different levels” by the Epicurious announcement.
“People are going to be looking for a protein source, and to just simply wipe beef out, then the consumer is going to be looking for other options of protein, so that might be chicken or pork or soy,” she says. “And all of those options, frankly, are much more detrimental to the health of our environment than sustainably raised, grass-fed beef.”
She echoes Davis’ assertions that conventional beef is far from ideal, noting that “unfortunately, the way that we’ve been doing things for the last maybe 100 years is that it has trended towards the depletion of resources and causing greenhouse gasses to be emitted into the atmosphere.”
But we all need to do our own research to seek out better options – and with that Belcampo scandal raging, we all need to double down. Sourcing directly from a farmer or rancher you trust is the best option, but American Grassfed is a trustworthy label consumers can count on. The Cornucopia Institute recently published its own organic beef scorecard, accompanying a deep-diving report on organic meat production in this country, and Davis’ nonprofit has also built a resource called The Good Meat Breakdown to help consumers find meat that aligns with their values.
“It’s kind of a janky landscape, honestly,” says Davis. “So we built this resource to really guide people and help them feel a little more secure in their search, while at the same time also recognizing that there’s not one right way to do it.”
In addition to these resources, some experts hope, too, for future climate labeling on packaging, an option suggested by Josh Voorhees, a political correspondent for Modern Farmer and an MPH student focused on food systems and climate change at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It’s a solution that’s been tested by a team from Denmark and Sweden, who published a peer-reviewed paper that showed that people picked foods with a smaller climate footprint over alternate choices, when the information was readily available to them on packaging, even people for whom it wasn’t a priority. This might be a way to get people to choose environmentally superior beef.
If such a thing exists.
Some experts negate assertions that grass-fed farming is actually better for carbon sequestration, and Molidor notes that while grass-fed beef provides “a somewhat better short life for the cow,” it actually increases methane emissions and doesn’t match up to its environmental claims to protect wildlife.
“At this point there is currently no such thing as sustainable beef,” she says. “If we are ever to achieve anything like a ‘sustainable beef’ system, for Americans it would first require a substantial reduction in overall beef production.”
All of the info about this is enough to make your head spin; we get it.
Our takeaway? Cutting down on beef is good; replacing the smaller amount of beef you eat with more sustainable, grass-fed sources is better. Replacing the beef you were eating with conventional chicken or fish is a lateral move.
Bottom line? Eat real food, source it from real people, and don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.