Days later, the anti-meat conspiracy appeared to deepen when Epicurious, a leading recipe site, announced that it had stopped publishing new beef recipes. And then on May 3, Eleven Madison Park, one of the top restaurants in the world, said it was going vegan. The Wall Street Journal responded to the Epicurious news with a dismissive editorial, writing, “Virtue signaling over red meat won’t make a difference on climate change.”
Observers decried a meaty new front in the culture war. But there was nothing new about it. This was merely the latest eruption in a food-focused battle that conservatives and liberals have been waging intermittently for 50 years — obscuring serious policy discussions about real issues, from obesity to childhood nutrition, along the way.
In the 1970s, beef was among the dietary villains targeted by a “countercuisine” movement concerned about the threats to human and environmental health posed by the industrial food system that had grown up in the decades after World War II. The beef industry denounced the activists as “food faddists” and vegetarian menus as “bizarre.” The fight was on.
In 1988, Rush Limbaugh entered the fray with his nationally syndicated radio show, and he spent more than three decades, until his death in February, wielding food as a cudgel against his political enemies — from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a small Washington food and nutrition watchdog (which Limbaugh said spreads “misery . . . by having you eat basically nothing but tofu and cardboard”), to Michelle Obama (who he said wanted Americans to “eat roots and berries and tree bark”).
When the Democratic proposal for a Green New Deal was announced after the 2018 midterms, a GOP congressman claimed it would make eating a hamburger illegal, and President Donald Trump said there would be “no more cows” if it became law — even though the document said nothing about raising or eating meat.
This latest bout has seemed even more absurd. Larry Kudlow, a Fox Business host and former Trump economic adviser, warned that Biden’s climate plan would leave Americans with no choice on July 4 but to “throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts.” (Do red-meat conservatives drink meat-based beer?) Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) dubbed Biden the Hamburglar. And on it went.
What we eat, and don’t eat, has tremendous emotional and symbolic power. It’s one way we tell the world who we are, which tribes we belong to, what we value. For symbolism, few foods rival meat, which has historically been tied to strength, virility and prosperity. Meat generally, and beef in particular, has always been central to aspirational culture in America, in part because it was abundant and cheap; in the New World, poor immigrants could aspire to eat like their betters.
In his 2019 book, “Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America,” Joshua Specht writes of “the singular importance of meat, and particularly beef, to nineteenth-century consumers. Its importance ensured abundant demand for beef and explained why Americans rich and poor wanted ever-larger steaks at ever-lower prices.”
Two hundred years later, not much has changed.
Demagogues on the right know that raising the specter of the government — or anyone else — trying to dictate what we eat is a reliable way to whip up supporters against a menacing “coastal elite” perpetually out to take away the “freedoms” of “real Americans.” It is a strategy to defend the status quo without having to contend with the facts — the perfect rhetorical weapon for our feckless age.
On the other side, those advocating a nation of vegetarians aren’t helping. Like snatching a rattle from an infant, it only provokes an even more extreme response. And it’s just not a plausible solution: Most people like meat. It’s a culturally important source of protein, and there is evidence that it played a crucial role in the evolution of modern humans — suggesting that we may still be wired to want to eat meat.
Americans are projected to consume a whopping 224 pounds of poultry and red meat per person in 2021, an amount that has remained mostly unchanged in recent years. That includes 58 pounds of beef — a lot more than one burger a month. And despite the intense media focus on the growth of plant-based meat substitutes from start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, they still make up less than 3 percent of packaged meat sales in the United States. The percentage of folks who identify as vegetarian remains stuck in the low single digits.
The reality, of course, is that Biden isn’t planning to take away our burgers any more than President Barack Obama was after our guns. And decisions by a recipe website and a pricey Manhattan restaurant that the vast majority of Americans will never set foot in have little to do with the state of meat consumption in this country.
It should be easy, then, to dismiss all this culture war blather as much ado about nothing, the latest fake-news nonsense from shameless politicians and their handmaidens in the media.
But it’s not that simple — because we do need to eat less meat, and the hyperbole around the issue gets in the way of figuring out how to make that happen.
Global food production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions, and most of that, more than 14 percent, is attributable to meat and dairy. We can’t address climate change without changing our agriculture — and our relationship to meat.
Biden has vowed to make agriculture part of the climate solution. One of his proposals would pay farmers to employ practices that help sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the soil. Success is hardly guaranteed. For one thing, farmers are skeptical of the kind of carbon market Biden suggests. And American agribusiness, which is racking up record profits, will surely dig in against proposals that seek to upend the status quo in farm country.
The culture war makes Biden’s job that much harder. For decades now, the National Rifle Association has managed to deflect a serious conversation about gun control, despite a mountain of evidence supporting the idea, by raising the fear of government bureaucrats steamrolling our Second Amendment rights. So it’s hard to see how, as a nation, we can move forward on sensible changes to the role of meat on our farms and in our diet when half the country is in thrall to sirens who turn any discussion of climate change into a tirade against nanny-state overreach.