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Biden’s climate change plan may not nix cheeseburgers, but science says beef should be on the chopping block

A GOP social media frenzy about Biden banning beef has no meat to it, but beef plays significant role in greenhouse gas emissions

Steaks and other beef products at a grocery store in McLean, Va. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Biden is not coming for Americans’ Big Macs, chicken wings or bacon.

Over the weekend the Twitterverse exploded with GOP fears that, to meet the administration’s goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade, Americans would be required to curtail their meat consumption.

The fears were flamed by a Thursday story in the British tabloid Daily Mail that suggested that to meet Biden’s climate change goals, Americans would need to limit red meat consumption to four pounds a year or about a hamburger a month, prompting outrage from Fox News’s Larry Kudlow as well as much of the Internet.

So far, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the White House plans to make any declarations about red meat or hamburgers in regards to climate change policy. And the U.S. Agriculture Department dismissed such suggestions on Monday.

“This is a fabrication,” said a USDA spokesman. “There is no such effort or policy that exists by this administration. It’s not a part of the climate plan nor the emissions targets. It is not real.”

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However, there is a lot of research when it comes to the contribution of industrial agriculture to the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

The Daily Mail piece erroneously connected Biden’s climate plan to a 2020 University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems report that advocated severely cutting meat consumption. Biden’s plan does not mention this report, nor does the report make any suggestions for Biden’s climate stance.

Yet, beef consumption, in particular, has been singled out as uniquely harmful to the planet. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission report and the special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made strong suggestions about the need to move away from cattle ranching. Livestock are responsible for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, on a par with all of global transportation.

Indeed, beef as straw man is not accidental, according to Marion Nestle, an author and nutrition professor emerita at New York University.

“The recommendation to eat less meat for reasons of human and planetary health imply a need for changes in government policy,” she said. “People opposed to government on principle see public health not as a societal benefit, but rather as an intrusion on their personal liberties.”

She says that public health, because it is about societies, not individuals, is inherently communitarian and antithetical to individualism. Meanwhile, she says, JBS, the largest meat producer in the world, admits meat production plays a role in climate change and says it will reduce that impact.

On Sunday, JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the country’s largest chicken producers, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times headlined, “Agriculture can be a part of the climate solution,” committing to net-zero emissions by 2040.

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Bruce Friedrich, co-founder of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based meat, sees Big Meat’s movement in this direction inevitable, calling attention to the fact that JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfield — the four biggest meat companies in the world — all see the huge promise of making meat from plants, and Tyson and Cargill have both invested in cultivated meat companies.

“If the U.S. doesn’t support making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells, we’re going to see China do to the U.S. on meat what it did with lithium-ion batteries and solar panels, where China has dominated, leaving the U.S. behind,” he said. A bad diet is the No. 1 cause of poor health, and accusations have increasingly been leveled at red meat, with studies associating increases in red meat consumption with mortality in American men and women.

Political hand-wringing over food is nothing new.

Former president Donald Trump made a point of elevating his own unhealthy eating habits to be the stuff of real Americans, while consigning healthy eating to being a preoccupation of effete elites.

Individual foods have always been politicized — Ronald Reagan catapulted jelly beans to new heights while George H.W. Bush befouled broccoli’s honor and Barack Obama found himself in the great Dijon mustard kerfuffle of 2009 — yet Biden has said nothing about eschewing beef or even how Americans’ food consumption might change in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

From ranch to kitchen table

But the political outcry over the weekend about eating meat was particularly heated, after the Daily Mail story reported that to meet Biden’s plan described at the two-day climate summit, Americans would be limited to about a hamburger a month. This prompted Fox News host Larry Kudlow on Fox Business on Friday to assert that part of Biden’s climate plan required that, “America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry and fish, seafood, eggs, dairy and animal-based fats. … No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue.”

Conservatives took to social media to decry this meatless move, with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeting,” Why doesn’t Joe stay out of my kitchen?” and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) dubbing Biden, “The Hamburglar.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) pushed back flatly that a burger ban was “not gonna happen in Texas.”

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Ezra Klein, in a Saturday New York Times column, called for a “moonshot” that would turn the United States away from industrial agriculture and toward “meatless meat.”

No moonshot necessary: According to the Good Food Institute, there are more than 800 companies producing plant-based meat products and 70 start-ups focused on developing cell-cultured cultivated meat that does not require animal slaughter.

“This is why Donald Trump’s secretary of agriculture and FDA commissioner were so supportive of alternative proteins — they see the need for the U.S. to lead on agriculture innovation,” Friedrich said. “The U.S. can be a leader or a follower. The meat industry understands this, and the concept really should be bipartisan.”