McDonald's To Fund Cow Methane Study--Can We Trust the Results or Ourselves?
The UK Guardian reports that McDonald's is funding a three-year study of cows on 350 British farms to look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. The methane emitted from cows and other livestock is a significant factor in global warming, according to multiple studies, and the British government has asked industry to see what can be done to mitigate the problem. The study will be conducted by an independent consulting entity, the E-CO2 project. Over three years researchers will regularly measure greenhouse gas emissions on the farms and specialists will advise on ways to reduce the methane levels.
How far would McDonald's to toward envisioning the kind of radical change in its offerings that might make a real difference? It is tempting to roll one's eyes and view McDonald's as the corporate devil, and I have certainly done my share of dismissive shrugs. However, any progress in understanding cause and effect of greenhouse gas emissions is useful. McDonald's is doing (part of) its job in funding the project, but it is really up to all of us "non experts" to ask the tougher questions:
Can You Bite the Hand That Funds You?
Can those performing a study funded by a multinational corporation be trusted to come up with results that might displease the people with the purse strings? Is it asking too much of business not to expect a "return" for their investment in green or environmental research and good citizenship? While I do not impugn the morals of the researchers, it is only human not to bite the hand that feeds you.
Who Is Blowing Smoke?
By examining the symptoms (methane emissions) are we avoiding the tougher questions around what is causing the emissions? Cows (and indeed, humans) emit methane in the process of digestion; but variations of diet and the sheer number of animals, driven by demand for dairy and beef, has made livestock, by some estimates, the cause of 18% of global warming. Rather than accepting the methane and trying to mitigate it, are there ways to cut down on the number of cows?
When did eating meat two or three times a day become normal? In many cultures today, meat is an occasional luxury. In the U.S., per capita meat consumption has risen from 125 pounds in 1950 to 201 pounds per person per year in 2007, in a period where we have seen increases in obesity, heart disease and other illnesses of poor nutrition. And the western diet is being adopted by more people globally, increasing the demand for meat. What chance do we have to instill a cultural change, a shift away from a norm of eating four pounds of meat a week per person?
The food journalist Michael Pollan is an inspiration when it comes to fortifying oneself against the advertising industry and the corporate titans of processed food. His book In Defense of Food contains the simplest rules of all, and sometimes the hardest to follow, as he promotes mindful eating of food prepared from fresh products, mostly vegetables and fruits. His mantra--Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.--is a challenge to all that McDonald's currently stands for. It is simple, to the point, and a challenge to all of us to eat consciously to improve our health and to mitigate global warming and global inequity. And if enough of us change how we eat, McDonald's will follow our lead.