Burgers, fries and global warming

B y the end of 2021, the fast food industry was valued at over $600 billion. The brand value of McDonald’s alone was $155 billion. The same year, the IPCC released a report estimating that human influence has contributed to a 1.08°C increase in global surface temperature since 1850, with every 0.5°C increment conducive to a dramatic increase in frequency and intensity of heat waves, floods and droughts.

In 2019, the organisation FAIRR (Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return) published a report indicating a significant culpability of the fast food industry in greenhouse gas emissions, overconsumption of water and land degradation. FAIRR is a coalition of investors managing over $11 trillion worth of assets which aims to influence investment decisions by raising awareness of the material impacts of animal-based agriculture.

The brand value of McDonald’s alone was $155 billion

Globally, the agricultural industry is estimated to be responsible for around 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. Fast food represents only a portion of the agricultural industry, but has been a particular target of critiques regarding its impacts on the environment. The environmental and urban studies professor, Gidon Eshel, describes McDonald’s as “a business that is fundamentally at odds with the Earth’s integrity?” What makes fast food so bad for the environment? The key is in the name – fast. Under constant demands to produce vast quantities of food, fast food chains resort to suppliers who use intensive farming practices such as crop monoculture, factory-scale animal rearing and slaughter and use of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides.

The pace at which these corporations are moving is dangerously slow given how fast the clock is ticking

For the last few years, FAIRR has been pushing six fast-food giants (Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Wendy’s Co, Restaurant Brands International – the corporation responsible for Burger King – and Yum! Brands, who own KFC and Pizza Hut) to make bigger commitments to mitigating their environmental harm. McDonald’s and Yum! Brands have consequently committed to set targets for emissions globally, whilst Restaurant Brands International has committed to targets for its restaurants in Canada and the US. The other three corporations have yet to set targets, and none of the corporations have committed to specific emissions and water-use targets from their meat and dairy suppliers.

By the end of 2021, the fast food industry was valued at over $600 billion

The pace at which these corporations are moving is dangerously slow given how fast the clock is ticking. According to the IPCC report, drastic and immediate cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are absolutely essential to staving off an average warming of 1.5°C or 2°C, the likes of which would have devastating effects on the planet. But it’s not just about future scenarios – it’s also about the terrifying ramifications of climate change we are seeing across the planet before our very eyes; ramifications which are hitting the Global South hardest. In late August 2022, 1⁄3 of Pakistan was underwater, a consequence of flash floods which have killed more than 1600 people. The news is sadly unfamiliar given that similar patterns have been unfolding around the world for years now.

What’s clear is that we need to revolutionise the way we produce our food. One of the reasons why the response from fast food chains on climate has likely been so lacklustre, is that their business models centre around profit. Even their recent attempts to cater to vegans – the McPlant burger and Kentucky Fried Vegan, for example – are almost certainly motivated by a desire to captivate the burgeoning vegan market rather than a genuine care for the environment (for the record: the McPlant burger uses 99% less water than the Quarter Pounder and produces 90% less emissions per burger). With McDonald’s being the most ambitious of the fast food chains listed above, and having only set a target of net zero by 2050 – long after thousands more will have died in climate-related incidents. It calls into question whether the fast food industry could ever exist within the fabric of a society finally at peace with the environment.


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