Prepare for meat war
The climate battle over meat is “going to be worse than energy,” an industry researcher says.
Conservatives are lying about climate change again. The subject this time is red meat, and the lie is that President Joe Biden is planning to limit individual consumption of it by 90 percent over the next decade.
This claim is a total fantasy. But for Republicans who want to stymie support for climate action, spreading it is probably an effective strategy. As food historian Bruce Kraig once told me, there exists a “deep American ideology in which abundant food, especially meat, suggests ‘the promise of America,’ the American cornucopia, and defines who we are as Americans.” A perceived threat to the mass availability of cow flesh has a good chance of causing a frenzy.
This approach has been successful before. In early 2019, Republicans seized on a comment Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made about “maybe not eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” to claim that her Green New Deal would outlaw hamburgers. The fact that it wouldn’t outlaw hamburgers didn’t matter. Standing behind a podium, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah held up a patty between two buns, took a bite, and said he would never allow climate activists to take burgers away.
This fantasy sparked a backlash so intense that Ocasio-Cortez eventually removed language about factory farming emissions from her office’s fact sheet about the Green New Deal. The original draft said the legislation would address the problem of “farting cows,” referring to methane emissions from cow flatulence. That was eventually changed to “emissions from cows,” and later it was removed from the sheet altogether.
It was a victory for Big Meat, which has been working hard for decades to get climate advocates like Ocasio-Cortez to stop talking about animal agriculture. We should expect that effort to heat up as the Biden administration pushes forward on its climate plan, according to one researcher who studies the meat industry’s role in climate policy delay.
How the meat industry works against climate action
The meat industry has “spent millions of dollars lobbying against climate policies and funding dubious research that tries to blur the links between animal agriculture and our climate emergency,” according to research published in the journal Climatic Change last month. These tactics have deeply mimicked those of the fossil fuel industry, said Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and one of the study’s authors.
“I’ve often compared beef to the coal of the meat world,” she told me. “We’re seeing the beef industry deploy the same strategies deployed by the coal industry, because the writing on the wall is clear: it’s going to be very hard to maintain both of those industries in their current state if we’re going to tackle the climate crisis effectively.”
Read more from Vox: A new study reveals how the companies you buy meat from block climate action.
U.S. beef and dairy companies have mimicked fossil fuel companies on climate change in a few key ways, Jacquet says—and one is by funding research that casts doubt on the science connecting the livestock sector to climate change.
The science they’re primarily trying to cast doubt on shows that 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are associated with livestock supply chains, she said. According to Climate Nexus, “This is broadly equivalent to the emissions from all the fuel burned by all the world’s transport vehicles, including cars, trucks, trains, boats and airplanes.”
To do this, beef and dairy interests have been funding scientists like Frank Mitloehner, who studies air quality at the University of California Davis and asserts that livestock and dairy aren’t big climate problems. “The quintessential Mitloehner take: Worry less about the burgers and more about Big Oil,” journalist Jenny Splitter wrote recently in an in-depth profile of Mitloehner for Undark, which is very much worth reading.
(Mitloehner also partially credits himself for getting the reference to emissions from cows removed from Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal fact sheet).
Industry-favored experts like Mitloehner generally point out that in America, farming is only responsible for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—and only about half of that comes from animal agriculture. That’s true, but this is a climate crisis; we don’t really have the option of ignoring one of the main contributors, even if the contributor is not as bad as fossil fuels. Global meat consumption is also projected to grow rapidly, and it’s very likely that without regulation, emissions are going to grow with it. Right now, one-third of all U.S. animal agriculture emissions come from either livestock methane (farts/burps) or livestock manure management.
These things could be regulated, but the meat industry is not a fan of climate regulation. Over the last two decades, meat and dairy groups in the U.S. “have spent millions on political campaigns, typically to support Republican candidates,” according to Vox’s report on Jacquet’s study. They’ve also been “lobbying annually against climate policies like cap-and-trade, the Clean Air Act, and regulations that would require farms to report emissions.”
The coming meat wars
The meat industry is thus not likely to take the Biden administration’s latest climate push lying down. “This tension’s going to really heat up,” Jacquet said. “It’s going to be worth digging into this network of countermovement to addressing meat and dairy’s role in climate change, because it will do much of what fossil fuel companies did.”
It’s also going to be worth countering Republicans’ lies on the topic with uncomfortable honesty. No, neither Biden’s climate plan nor the Green New Deal seeks to limit individual meat consumption. But, as I wrote in 2019 after the AOC incident, the price, availability, and/or source of meat products is probably going to change somewhat:
Any comprehensive climate plan must take cows into account, with one obvious solution being to reduce their population. That doesn’t mean taking away people’s hamburgers, but it does mean making it a rarer, and thus more expensive, product. This is hardly the greatest sacrifice that will be required to prevent a civilizational catastrophe. But if the world’s population simply reduced its meat and dairy consumption, scientists say the effect would be massive.
Jacquet thinks the battle over meat regulation will be uglier than fossil fuels, because it surrounds a choice that individual Americans make directly. “I think the meat wars are going to be worse than energy,” she said. “This is a question that people ask themselves three times a day. It can’t play out behind the scenes.”
At the same time, she doesn’t expect most of the flat-out lies to come directly from meat companies or trade groups. Rather, she expects them from the politicians, pundits, and networks with whom the industry is ideologically aligned in pursuit of maintaining the status quo.
Unfortunately, the status quo happens to be a climate emergency—so the lies are not likely to be inconsequential. The question is no longer who will tell them, but who will allow them to spread unchecked.
Epicurious joins the meat wars
Big news on the meat and climate front from the recipe publisher yesterday.
For more on how the meat industry will likely respond, I recommend this thread from NYU’s Matthew Hayek. (Click the tweet to see the whole thing).
One of the most common pieces of backlash I’ve seen so far is that meat isn’t as big a climate problem as fossil fuels, and we should focus on that instead. Again, this is a meat industry talking point, and goes against everything we know about solving climate change, which is that we have to tackle everything, not just one thing.
I, personally, think the Epicurious move is huge.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Catch of the Day:
Fish was happy to learn the meat claim was a lie.
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