The future of hamburgers
Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Politico Magazine.
Politicians often rally their supporters with partisan red meat, but these days Republicans are using actual red meat. They're accusing Democrats of a plot to ban beef, trying to rebrand the "Green New Deal" for climate action as a nanny-state assault on the American diet. At a rally in Michigan, President Donald Trump portrayed a green dystopia with "no more cows." In a recent Washington speech, former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka warned conservatives that leftists are coming for their hamburgers: "This is what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved!" Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) actually ate a burger during a press conference on Capitol Hill, an activity he claimed would be illegal under a Green New Deal.
In reality, nobody's banning beef. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the driving force behind the Green New Deal, really did suggest that "maybe we shouldn't be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," and her office did release (and then retract) a fact sheet implying a desire to "get rid of farting cows." But the actual Green New Deal resolution calls only for dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. It says nothing about seizing steaks, and no Democrats are pushing to confiscate cows, regardless of their tailpipe emissions.
This Washington stir over the burger police is classic political theater, the latest tribal skirmish in America's partisan culture wars. But livestock really do have a serious impact on the climate — and the extreme rhetoric about cow farts and rounding up ranchers is obscuring a consequential debate over the future of animal agriculture in general and beef in particular. Red meat has a greater impact on the climate than any other food; if the world's cattle formed their own nation, it would have the third-highest emissions on Earth, behind only China and the United States.
Meat is as central to American culture as cars or sports; the average American eats three burgers a week, and even more chicken than beef. But this is a delicate time for the industry. The influential EAT-Lancet Commission study recently warned that Western diets include far too much meat, and more than half of Americans say they're trying to cut back. New York City's schools have adopted Meatless Mondays, while fast-growing companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are selling plant-based burgers and other products that taste, look, and even feel remarkably similar to conventional meat; Burger King has just started selling beef-free Impossible Whoppers.
So far, any serious political discussion over the future of meat has been drowned out by the cow-farting furor, as Republicans like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and even Trump critic Meghan McCain have mocked vegan fascists who would, in the words of Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, force Americans to "say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches." It's a wildly exaggerated attack — and nobody actually believes we should eat burgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — but it packs a punch in a meat-loving country. Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee, whose liberal group has helped shape the Green New Deal, says he'd love to rein in the immense economic and cultural power of America's "meatriarchy." But his polling has found there's literally nothing less popular than banning meat.
"It's up there with giving VA benefits to ISIS," McElwee says. "That's the tension the Left has to struggle with; Democrats eat meat, too. But even minor improvements could create massive gains for public health and the environment." In fact, some changes are happening. And some of the industry's advocates and critics agree that the best way to spread them just might be ... a Green New Deal.
The world loves meat, but that love puts pressure on the world. Beef production is the worst climate offender in the agricultural sector. A World Resources Institute report on food sustainability calculated that beef creates about seven times as many greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein as chicken or pork, and 20 times as many as peas or lentils. One reason is that grass-eating ruminants like cows release huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
The more significant problem with meat production is that it uses enormous amounts of land, both for grazing and growing grain for cattle feed. Pastures and farms that are used to fatten cattle often replace forests, wetlands, and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon. Even America's relatively efficient beef production takes up more than 40 percent of U.S. agricultural land to produce just 3 percent of U.S. calories.
The U.S. meat industry, though, does more with less, compared with foreign counterparts, producing 18 percent of the world's beef with only 8 percent of the world's cattle. Kevin Kester, a fifth-generation rancher in Parkfield, California, says it takes him six weeks less than it took his grandfather to raise a half-ton steer, and he expects his grandchildren will achieve similar productivity gains.
The average dairy cow in California produces four times as much milk as a cow in Mexico and 23 times as much as a cow in India. Kester argues that if Green New Deal advocates succeed in reducing U.S. cattle production, it will just move to countries that require more land to produce less meat, endangering carbon sinks like the Amazon and dramatically expanding global emissions.
"There's so much ignorance about what we do," Kester says. "Most Americans used to have a farmer or rancher in the family, but now hardly anyone knows where their steak comes from. And we're way behind the curve on educating the public."
The industry's climate message is that it can be part of the solution — not only by increasing yields through more intensive production but also by storing more carbon in its pastures and cutting emissions from its operations. Bill Gates recently touted the potential of "regenerative agriculture," which uses cover crops and no-till farming to keep more carbon in the soil, to grow animal feed with fewer emissions. And some ranchers use climate-friendly "rotational grazing" to mimic the patterns of migratory buffalo herds.
One reason it's become increasingly difficult to do more with less, however, is climate change. Kester has seen his yields reduced by droughts in eight of the past 10 years, and a nasty weed called Medusahead rye has invaded his parched pastures, reducing their carrying capacity by about 20 percent. If meat producers can set aside their skepticism about the Green New Deal, and Green New Deal supporters can set aside their skepticism about meat, there's potential for a compromise that would provide more lucrative opportunities for meat producers to go green.
Eating animals actually helped humans become human. Meat added so much nutrition to the diets of our pre-human ancestors that they no longer had to spend all their time foraging; they started to develop larger brains and smaller stomachs. "It transformed our species in a positive way, physiologically and socially," says Marty Matlock, an ecological engineering professor who runs the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center. Matlock is one of the American meat industry's favorite scientists, because his studies have documented its improvements in sustainability. In our conversation, he emphasized that meat has helped feed humanity for 2.5 million years, helping to free billions of people from "the tyranny of hunger."
Yet Matlock also told me: Americans eat too much meat. "No doubt about it," he said. For the sake of their health and the sake of the planet, he said, meat eaters and particularly beef eaters in rich countries shouldn't just eat more-sustainable meat; they should eat less meat. "Meat should become more expensive," he said. "We shouldn't ration it and turn it into the next cocaine, but we do need options."
Impossible Foods is now selling plant-based options at more than 5,000 restaurants around the U.S.; its new partnership with Burger King will start with only 59 outlets in the St. Louis area, but it could catapult the company into the mainstream. The Impossible message to the public, conveyed in a new video of expletive-filled double takes from actual diners informed that the Whoppers they just ate were made of plants, is that you can help save the planet and prevent the use and abuse of animals without sacrificing the joy of meat.
Beyond Meat's strategy relies more on the meat aisle of supermarkets like Whole Foods and Kroger; it's now in 38,000 locations in 20 countries, touting itself as "a better way to feed the planet." A University of Michigan study found that the company's burgers — made with peas, potato starch, beets, and other vegetarian ingredients that mimic the chewiness, juiciness, and tastiness of ground beef — produce 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases per pound than conventional meat. CEO Ethan Brown says that if the average American replaced one animal-based burger with a Beyond Burger every week, the emissions impact would be equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road.
Brown is a vegan, and he believes our big brains that developed with the help of meat are now telling us there must be a way to enjoy meat without increasing our risk of heart disease, treating sentient animals like disposable raw materials, and imperiling the planet. But Brown is marketing to meat eaters, not meat haters, and has found that the vast majority of consumers buying his products put animal-based foods in their shopping carts as well. His investors include the poultry giant Tyson Foods, and he hired the original architect of the dairy industry's "Got Milk?" campaign to craft his "Go Beyond" pitch.
The most daunting long-term threat to the industrial meat system may be "clean meat" grown from stem cells in a sterile lab, avoiding the climate effects, moral quandaries, and real-world inefficiencies of raising animals for slaughter. The startup Memphis Meats can convert cells biopsied from a cow into a finished meatball in just a few weeks, feeding them solutions of amino acids, sugars, and other nutrients the cow would have needed to grow. The company hopes to have products virtually identical to conventional meat in stores by 2021, although its T-bones won't have bones; in the future, customized meat could even be healthier than the real thing, with more omega-3s or less saturated fat.
The conventional meat lobby is happy to talk about ways its products can be more sustainable, but it is quite vigorously opposed to the idea of people eating less of its products. And it does see phrases like "plant-based meat" and "clean meat" as fighting words. It helped pressure Missouri into passing a law prohibiting the labeling of any product as meat unless it's "derived from harvested production livestock or poultry," and 21 other states are now considering similar labeling restrictions on meat and dairy substitutes.
Republicans would love the Green New Deal debate to be a referendum on meat, pitting red-blooded carnivores against organic-kale hippies. Trump, an avid consumer of fast-food burgers and overcooked steak, is already vowing to run for re-election against the Green New Deal and its alleged plan to "permanently eliminate" cattle.
But the status quo with meat is not sustainable in a climate-constrained world, even if meat advocates don't often admit it and Green New Deal advocates don't often admit they want to change it. There's an obvious path to compromise; one former agribusiness CEO told me he often reminds farmers and ranchers who resent being pestered by the sustainability police that they are vastly outnumbered, and that if they don't figure out ways to do better, their critics will end up dictating ways for them to do better.
"There's such an enormous opportunity to reduce emissions in meat production, if you didn't hear all this counterproductive talk about how everything about it is terrible," says Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal agriculture at the University of California–Davis. "Let's not alienate the people we need the most on our quest for a climate solution."
Used with permission. © 2019 Politico LLC.