Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
That’s a shame. Lowering meat consumption should be in the president’s climate agenda. In return, Americans would get more delicious plant-based foods and a more sustainable future.
The spark that ignited this right-wing meat fury was an analysis of the climate benefits of Americans eating less beef, which the Daily Mail falsely connected to the president’s climate plan. But the report, from the University of Michigan and Tulane University (and supported by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work), was released a year ago, before Biden took office. In fact, Biden has yet to release any specific climate plans related to food and agriculture.
The Center for Biological Diversity supported this academic research to understand how a shift in the American diet could help meet necessary emissions-reduction targets, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined. The study found that replacing 50 percent of animal products with plant-based foods could prevent more than 1.4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, or a quarter of current U.S. annual emissions. The climate savings were even greater with steeper reductions: If beef consumption were reduced by 90 percent alongside a 50 percent reduction in other animal products, more than 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions could be prevented by 2030. That would cut America’s annual diet-related emissions by more than 50 percent within the decade.
That’s why that 90 percent target — and the relationship between beef-heavy diets and the climate crisis — should be a part of the conversation. Dietary changes won’t solve the climate crisis on their own. But the study also found that if we continue along our current trajectory, diet-related emissions will increase by 9 percent by 2030, pushing us further away from the emission reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Panic over the idea that Biden might storm into people’s kitchens and confiscate their steaks is laughable. Aside from insufficient tweaks such as feed additives to reduce methane produced by livestock and voluntary incentives for adopting practices to sequester carbon in the soil, Biden’s climate plans so far ignore agriculture, even though it accounts for 10 percent of U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Beef production is responsible for one-third of those emissions. Worldwide, food accounts for as much as 37 percent of emissions, with more than 40 percent coming from beef.
Americans eat four times the global average of beef. This is particularly troubling since domestic livestock animals and their manure are responsible for more U.S. methane emissions than any other industry. Those emissions, which have much higher warming potential than carbone dioxide, have been increasing, even as the importance of reducing methane gained recognition. Since 1990, methane emissions from manure alone have risen 68 percent. We can’t meet climate goals without reducing meat and dairy consumption.
Among this week’s angry tweets claiming Americans were losing their right to a rib-eye, there was little argument over whether meat reduction is an effective and necessary climate strategy. That’s because the science is clear on the climate footprint of meat-heavy diets. But Republicans have an appetite for destruction when it comes to the climate, and they’re more than willing to ignore the facts in favor of fueling the culture war over occasionally eating one fewer burger.
The American way of life isn’t threatened by replacing a beef burger with a veggie version. But it is threatened by the climate crisis, which puts Americans at risk as temperatures and sea levels rise and as drought and disease diminish our ability to grow nutritious food. And it’s not just a climate problem: Meat and dairy are also a public health problem and a racial justice problem.
Let’s not let fake news run roughshod over what’s best for Americans. We need meaningful action to support farmers growing healthy, climate-friendly plant-based foods and to make it easier for people to be able to choose to eat less meat. By aligning federal procurement and dietary recommendations with climate goals and making plant-based foods more available in school lunches and other nutrition programs, the president can encourage Americans to eat foods that are healthier for us and the climate.