The conflict between our current meat consumption and the climate crisis is heating up. Recently some conservative lawmakers and political pundits railed against President Biden’s new climate plan, claiming it would force Americans to cut red meat consumption by 90 percent. Photos of juicy steaks appeared on Twitter in protest.
In fact, the plan doesn’t mention Americans’ diets, and the misinformation originated from a sensational British newspaper headline. In the same week, a prominent recipe site announced it will no longer feature recipes that include beef.
Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, isn’t surprised by these polar opposite reactions.
Jacquet is co-author of research published in the journal Climatic Change, which looks at the climate commitments of the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies, and the role the industry plays in how we think about the climate crisis.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Jennifer Jacquet about her work and this cultural moment of meat.
LISTEN to the conversation
Kara Holsopple: You and your colleagues found that the meat and dairy industry has acted very much like the oil and gas industry in downplaying its role in climate change. How have they done that?
Jennifer Jacquet: One important distinction is there’s no evidence that they’ve outright denied climate change, but they have tried to minimize the link between the meat and dairy sector and climate change through funding academic studies that challenge the emissions data. [They] also sort of challenge the framing. They tried to emphasize that transportation is equal or if not more than meat and dairy. And of course, they’ve also funded, in a variety of ways, politicians who work against climate policy.
Holsopple: What percentage of greenhouse gas emissions is animal agriculture responsible for?
Jacquet: Responsibility is tricky because our views of responsibility keep changing. There was a very important study that came out in 2006 that did attribute about 14 and a half percent of greenhouse gases to the livestock sector. That was called Livestock’s Long Shadow.
There’s no way of growing this sector and reducing emissions that we see on the near-term horizon.
Ever since that report, scientists have been working a lot on these numbers, and they’ve come up with somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of anthropogenic climate forcing is the result of meat and dairy. That’s global.
Holsopple: The greenhouse gas emissions of animal agriculture aren’t just the methane emissions that we hear about — the cow burps and farts, right? There are other components to it?
Jacquet: Yes. The main reason why meat and dairy look worse than other animal agriculture like chickens or fish is because of the methane component. But the feed component for cows and for all animals is also a significant portion of animal impact on the climate. We’re seeing the need to clear land to grow crops to feed animals. This contributes massively to climate change, not only through the direct impacts, like the use of nitrogen for fertilizer but through the indirect impacts of deforestation.
Holsopple: Some conservative lawmakers and pundits recently ran with a story — which is false — that part of President Biden’s new climate plan is a mandate to limit Americans’ beef consumption to four pounds of red meat a year. There was all over Twitter and Fox News. Why do you think this Biden climate plan misinformation blew up the way it did?
Jacquet: I think we’re headed into some serious meat wars. I think there’s going to be a lot of pushback against any sort of dietary advice
We’ve seen that already in Germany, when the Green Party tried to introduce Meatless Mondays into the government sector, there was a backlash called “Hands Off My Sausage.” It’s often a conservative viewpoint oriented toward a status quo of continuing meat consumption and production in a business-as-usual scenario.
The thing we found about these 35 companies is they’re making claims about becoming net-zero or addressing climate change, and at the same time, they’re also telling their shareholders they’re going to grow by 10, 15, or 20 percent and feed the world with meat and dairy. Those two things simply aren’t compatible at the moment. There’s no way of growing this sector and reducing emissions that we see on the near-term horizon.
Holsopple: The argument is that this is a small sector of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy use is much bigger, and there’s transportation, so why would we even try to tackle this when there are bigger problems to tackle?
Jacquet: That is a nice idea. Unfortunately, we’re living in a crisis moment. This is something that we all have to get our heads around. It’s all of the above — it’s everything at once if we have any hope toward actually bending the curve. That does not mean that this has to come at the expense of aviation or cars or fossil fuels, but it means that every sector will have to be addressed through a climate lens.
Holsopple: While limiting beef consumption isn’t specifically part of Biden’s climate plan, there are likely to be regulations on the animal agriculture industry to curb climate emissions that might impact consumption, right?
Jacquet: Well, one would hope. There are various ways you could imagine making the industry pay for the pollution it creates. If that happens, and I hope it does, because, again, we need progress on this issue, we should see meat become more expensive. And when meat becomes more expensive, what we have seen in the past is consumption should decrease.
I expect beef to become the coal of the meat world because beef is disproportionately impactful on the climate.
Now, that may or may not hold true. It may be that people want meat at any expense. We’ll find out. But economic theory would suggest that would have an effect on consumption.
Holsopple: How is this conversation about climate change and meat consumption likely to play out in the future? What do you see in the next five, 10 years?
Jacquet: Oh, I don’t think it’s going to be five or 10 years. I think it’s going to be five or 10 months. Things are moving so quickly. Because of the Biden administration, I expect all those things to pick up steam.
I expect beef to sort of become the coal of the meat world because beef is sort of disproportionately impactful on the climate. In fact, I expected there might be a clean beef campaign in the same way there was a clean coal campaign.
Things like this are unfolding before our eyes. I expect the financial sector to get more involved. We’re going to be looking at the role of finance and banks in keeping this industry on a business-as-usual track.
This is not really about the American way of life. This is about a future for our planet.
I really think that kind of same playbook we’ve seen with regard to both policy and pushback from the fossil fuel industry, we can probably expect from the meat and dairy sector.
Now, I have all sorts of hopes for plant-based alternatives and/or cellular meat — meat that’s being grown in a lab with far less energy needs and greenhouse gas outputs. The more pressure we put on this industrial business-as-usual model, the more change we can expect to see in that sector in response.
This is not simply an American problem. It is a problem around the world. It’s a problem in Brazil. It’s a problem in New Zealand. It’s a problem in the European Union. It’s a massive problem looming on the horizon for China, especially as they’re growing their dairy consumption.
This is not really about the American way of life. This is about a future for our planet. So we have to think innovatively, strategically.
We can tap that part of the American psyche, of the American dream, of the American way of being and say, ‘we will innovate, we will get out of this, we will bend the curve and we will make progress,’ rather than digging in our heels and saying we’re going to have our beef at all cost.
Jennifer Jacquet is an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University.