When I told my mom about Burger King’s new method of including lemongrass in their cow feed to reduce the amount the cows burp and fart she didn’t have the reaction I expected. She asked “cool, will that work on me?” The answer? Probably not, but maybe.
In an effort to combat the consumer view that beef is not environmentally friendly, but not throw it out the door entirely with an Impossible Burger, Burger King is trying a new approach. In select markets they’re introducing the new Whopper made with Reduced Methane Emissions Beef that is produced from cows that were fed 100 grams of lemongrass per day for the last 3-4 months of their lives, which is purported to reduce their methane emissions up to 33%.
Over here at Crossover Meats, besides getting a good chuckle out of this new campaign’s promotional video (think ironically bad 70’s country music video with the Walmart yodelling kid singing), we all raised an eyebrow at the actual overall impact that this new cow diet would have and I was tasked at taking a closer look into the science behind it. So without further ado, let’s break all of that down a little bit so my mom can understand why her farts may or may not be reduced.
The "Research" Behind Lemongrass-fed Cows
First, the study Burger King is relying on is one coming out of Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UNAM) that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. It did 3 research rounds, all involving only 4 cows each. In these studies the cows that ate 100 grams of lemongrass from Mexico per day did see up to a 33% reduction in methane emissions.
The study was also conducted at UC Davis which has not yet been officially published, however its findings were not as encouraging as the one coming out of UNAM. Researchers at UC Davis did not find a 33% reduction in emissions from their cows. This is believed to be due to the type of lemongrass used, as theirs was California lemongrass instead of Mexican. Accordingly, this may be another on the long list of reasons not to build a wall against Mexico-- their lemongrass is better.
So while the cows in the UNAM study did see a 33% reduction in methane emissions (aka farts and burps), the study revealed that the lemongrass diet was only implemented for the last 3-4 months of their lives. Now, the average beef cow lives about 18 months, which means that for 14 - 15 months they are receiving a normal feed schedule and releasing a “normal” amount of methane emissions. This seems a bit like the study was cherry picking their data, simply claiming that emissions were reduced but burying the fact that it was only for a short period of time in the cow’s life. For those of us who can do simple math, 3 months out of an 18 month lifespan is just ⅙. The emissions taking place at full blast for ⅚ of its life, mean that over the whole lifetime of the cow, reducing emissions for just a few months really only means a 5.5% reduction over the course of its whole life.
Is this Scalable?
Now, at Crossover Meats, we are in the business of finding sustainable and scalable solutions to addressing climate change, so we took a look at the scalability of this lemongrass diet across not just Burger King chains but the industry as a whole. Since not all lemongrass is created equal, as assumed by the discrepancies in the UNAM vs. UC Davis study, that likely means that lemongrass would have to be transported from one location to another for this to be a viable option. Until teleportation is successfully invented that means another item to add to the list of things on freight trucks or cargo planes around the world. Freight movement currently accounts for 16% of all corporate greenhouse gas emissions. The question in this case: at what point does trucking lemongrass around the country negate any positive effects reducing a small percentage of methane emissions from cows for a small percentage of their lives have?
Finally, lemongrass isn’t native to the America’s. It’s considered an invasive species and can do some real damage in places it isn’t meant to be. It has a high water requirement and generally requires irrigation to grow effectively, because it’s really not meant to grow outside of Asia, Africa, and Australia. In some places, it’s considered a weed due to how quickly it can spread and get out of control and it creates a real threat to native species as it can overtake them. It’s difficult and costly to control and can reduce natural biodiversity. It even has a high risk of fires because of its high oil content. So, again, the benefit of reduced emissions gets easily outweighed by the costs in additional water to grow the lemongrass in more arid regions (it already takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of meat), the cost of loss of biodiversity of the regions the lemongrass is grown in, and we won’t even start in on the devastating impacts fires have on local ecosystems and communities.
So, sure, lemongrass may have a small effect on the burps and farts of cows. But, it really seems to have a much larger effect on Burger King’s marketing. Their video introducing the concept, using the Walmart yodeling kid, has gotten over 2 million views on Twitter. With no actual emission cutting goals disclosed, Burger King may be hitting its target market with the Instagram obsessed, viral video market.
Sustainability You Can Count On
The answer to the problem of reducing the environmental impact of meat isn’t growing invasive species that may or may not affect a cow’s flatulence levels. The answer is choosing a protein source that requires less land, less water and of course produces less methane gasses to produce. And no, we aren’t suggesting consuming crickets or (gasp) tofu, we’re talking about chicken. At Crossover Meats, we produce chicken and beef blended ground meat, called the Tasty Twosome, that tastes and performs exactly like ground beef. So you get all of the good, natural flavor of beef, no hint of lemongrass, and reduced emissions by 50%, plus it comes in 20% lower than your average ground beef at the supermarket. And the great thing about chicken is that they can grow locally, they aren’t too invasive (well, I wouldn’t recommend letting them into your house), they are minimally flammable and no one ever talks about chicken farts. So if you love a good, juicy burger but are concerned about the ice caps melting, give our Tasty Twosome ground beef blend a try.
Now please excuse me as I go make a lemongrass smoothie for my mom.