Each year, McDonald’s buys as much as 1.9bn lb of beef that it packs into patties for millions of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders, Big Macs, Triple Cheeseburgers and other popular beefy sandwiches served across the globe.
The staggering volume of meat requires the company and its suppliers to slaughter north of 7 million cattle, according to some estimations, and that comes at a steep cost to the environment: McDonald’s more than 53m metric tons of greenhouse gas produced in 2020 exceeds several European nations’ emissions.
In recent years, the company announced big sustainability initiatives but climate experts who reviewed McDonald’s plans and data say the burger company is largely dodging the one bold step it must take to slash emissions: dramatically reducing the amount of beef it serves.
“The naked truth is McDonald’s is in a business that is fundamentally at odds with the Earth’s integrity,” said Gidon Eshel, an environmental and urban studies research professor at Bard College. “No fig leaf, however persuasive or covering it is, can change that fact.”
McDonald’s announced its most recent plan in October amid mounting pressure on companies to act. Investment funds managing more than $29tn in assets in late September called on the world’s 1,600 largest polluters to cut emissions in line with climate science. And a recent major study found the world’s food system accounts for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, with the beef industry comprising as much as 25% of that figure.
Beef is particularly problematic because cows release high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in their burps and manure. The amount of feed, water and land that cows require to produce a pound of meat is much higher than other animals and that inflates their carbon footprint. Raising cows exacts a “multidimensional burden” on the Earth, Eshel said, because it also pollutes, consumes water and spurs deforestation.
McDonald’s announcements suggest it’s already well on its way to reducing emissions. Its 2018 sustainability plan pledged by 2030 to reduce total emissions from its restaurants and offices by 36% and to reduce “emissions intensity” across its supply chain by 31% compared with 2015 levels. In October the company announced a commitment to “net zero” emissions by 2050 and included an optimistic progress report on the 2018 emission reductions goals.
But climate scientists have called into question the math behind McDonald’s 2018 plans, and a closer look at its 2021 progress report finds that little headway has been made. The new “net zero” plan has also drawn criticism from environmental groups over its lack of specifics and long timeline.
More important are the plans’ absence of menu changes needed to significantly reduce beef production and emissions, said Jennifer Molidor, a senior food campaigner with the Center For Biological Diversity.
“When it comes to the most meaningful solution for the climate crisis – serving far less beef and shifting toward low-carbon options right now – we don’t see the action on menus that we need from this megacorporation,” she said. “Not moving boldly on their menus suggests motivations might not be to mitigate climate change but to manage investors.”
In a statement, a McDonald’s spokesperson didn’t address specific questions about emissions or its plans, but said the company has been “pursuing ambitious actions to help address climate change in areas where we have the biggest opportunities for impact”, including reducing packaging waste and improving livestock management.
It labeled criticisms of its plans “opinion-based”.
Molidor said you have to be a “climate nerd” to understand the story that McDonald’s complex numbers and insider terminology really tells, and that alone is a red flag.
“One of the main signs that something is ‘greenwashing’ is that it’s not clear or transparent,” she added.
McDonald’s October press release boasts an “8.5% reduction in the absolute emissions of our restaurants and offices from the 2015 baseline”.
But restaurants and offices account for a very small portion of McDonald’s emissions, which means the 8.5% slice is much smaller than marketing makes it appear. The drop mostly comes from McDonald’s switching to more energy efficient lightbulbs at its nearly 40,000 restaurants, said Dexter Galvin, global director of corporations and supply chains for CDP. The environmental transparency non-profit works with McDonald’s and other big corporations to implement and assess progress on companies’ climate plans.
Galvin called it a good first step but said it’s not “a material reduction”. That will need to come from changes to the company’s beef operation, he added, and the press release highlights McDonald’s progress on that front: “A 5.9% decrease in supply chain emissions intensity from the 2015 baseline.”
However, emissions are still increasing, just slightly slower than they once were. “Emissions intensity” describes the amount of emissions per unit of product. If the company grows, as McDonald’s has, then its emissions can also increase. Emissions from the company’s beef production and supply chain jumped by about 40% from 2017 to 2020, according to data disclosed to CDP.
Galvin said McDonald’s is “building the systems and processes” it needs to reduce the greenhouse gas emitted by its beef operation and supply chains, but added, “they need to really start showing significant reductions, and I think there will be a point where they need to diversify what’s being offered on their menus”.
McDonald’s “net zero” by 2050 pledge has also been criticized because such plans can allow polluters to continue emitting high levels of greenhouse gases over the next decades. To offset emissions that companies continue to produce, “net zero” programs often rely on carbon offset schemes – which have been the subject of multiple investigations pointing to flawed carbon calculations and uncertain impacts – as well as carbon capture technology, which is expensive and not yet operating at scale.
Though McDonald’s plans and metrics are complex and controversial, they hold high marketing value because they give the appearance to the layperson of real progress, Molidor said.
“McDonald’s is taking advantage of people who don’t understand this kind of math,” she added.
Last year, Burger King rolled out beef made from cows that it says burp and fart less due to the addition of lemongrass to their diets, while researchers in Germany developed a “potty training” strategy for cows that they say will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While some argue that consumption reduction is the only meaningful approach, the beef industry’s contribution to the climate crisis demands “a whole food system approach”, said Mario Herrero, a Cornell University sustainable food systems professor. That includes imaginative solutions to improving animal care, reducing waste, fine tuning management practices and more, but he said that McDonald’s low prices and accessibility drive its popularity and emissions.
One important aspect is for the public to understand better the health, environmental and economic toll of beef production and for beef to be consumed and priced accordingly, he said.
“If McDonald’s or any producer is serious about tackling the issue, it will provide a message of moderating consumption and include the true costs of beef,” Herrero said.
Governments could tax beef, impose regulations or slash massive industry subsidies that maintain low prices – a 2015 analysis found a US Big Mac’s cost would jump from $5 to $13 if $38bn in meat subsidies were eliminated. However, Donald Trump and the right have already made beef consumption a culture war flashpoint, and any such moves would be “a touchy political issue”, Herrero acknowledged.
Absent the political will, it’s up to corporations to lead, and McDonald’s has been years behind competitors like White Castle, Burger King and more in fully introducing plant-based burger options. McDonald’s only began to test its McPlant in a small number of European countries and five American stores this year, though it tested a plant-based burger in Canada in 2019 before scrapping the trial.
Galvin said McDonald’s spends $40bn on procurements annually, and it must use that as leverage to quickly convince its suppliers to use more sustainable practices.
“They need to use that influence in their supply chain to massively reduce emissions and they are quickly running out of time,” he said.
McDonald’s said in a statement that it’s a small part of the world’s food system and added “beef and animal protein consumption are a part of people’s lives and livelihoods all over the world and will continue to be for decades to come”.
Though McDonald’s has said it offers what consumers want, Molidor said the company doesn’t meet demand – it drives it. In choosing to wield its $650m annual marketing budget largely to sell low cost, beef products on its menus, it directly increases consumption, she said.
“People don’t eat what’s not on the menu,” Molidor added. “Companies could make it cool to eat a smaller burger, a salad without chicken, more wraps, they could redefine what American fast food looks like. Instead, they’re making a triple cheeseburger.”
While McDonald’s plays an outsize role in “perpetuating the culture of beef in the US”, said Eshel, consumers ultimately have to weigh the consequences before their next Big Mac.
“The culture of beef is not consistent with Earth’s wellbeing, and we have to choose: do you eat beef and let Earth incinerate, or do you forgo beef and give Earth a fighting chance?”