May 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

New culture war: the meat you eat

Illustration of a burger patty on a flat top grill with grill marks in the shape of the Western hemisphere

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The role of food in climate change is having its time in the spotlight, though advocates for eating less red meat probably weren't hoping for it to happen quite like this.

Why it matters: The food system, including raising cattle for consumption, accounts for greater than 30% of worldwide emissions of heat-trapping gases. How to reduce those emissions is an increasingly urgent question as the world remains off track to meet the temperature targets set in the Paris agreement.

Driving the news: The move by a prominent food website to forego meat recipes, a baseless conservative media panic over President Biden's climate plan, and Monday's decision by a high-profile New York restaurant to shift to a meat-free menu have drawn new attention to the role the food system plays in climate change.

On Monday, the iconoclastic, much-celebrated restaurant 11 Madison Park (also known as "EMP") announced that its post-pandemic return to in-person dining will come with a twist: a meat-free menu.

  • "We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways," chef Daniel Humm wrote on the restaurant's website.

Two other recent developments help put the EMP news into the context of the culture war over any attempts to tell meat-loving Americans to consume less in order to protect the planet.

  • The New York restaurant news followed Fox News' multi-day frenzy over a false claim that the Biden administration's climate plan would limit Americans' meat consumption. (A Fox News anchor eventually conceded the report was erroneous.)
  • In addition, Epicurious, which is a massive database of recipes, announced last week that it would no longer publish new recipes containing beef.

Context: Not long after the EMP news broke, Columbia's energy think tank released a helpful primer on why food isn't just a sideshow in the climate debate.

  • The Columbia report shows that about 15% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases, particularly methane, come from livestock, with the vast majority stemming from cattle.
  • It's true that if each of us were to make significant cuts in meat consumption, by, say, switching to a more plant-based diet, such emissions would decline.

Climate change poses significant risks to the food system in the form of drought, extreme heat events, and wild swings from one end of the temperature scale to another.

  • Yes, but: Becoming a vegetarian alone won't be enough to eliminate your carbon footprint, nor will it be sufficient to save the planet from the worst ravages of climate change. There would still be a need for massive, systemic-scale change in energy systems, the transportation sector and more.

By the numbers: According to the Columbia publication, which details the latest studies on food system emissions, it's strikingly clear that beef is among the most carbon intensive foods there is.

  • At least 75% of tropical deforestation occurs to clear land for agriculture, including for producing beef.
  • About 35% of the world's total land area (not including Antarctica) is devoted to agriculture. A staggering two-thirds of these lands are used for livestock grazing and production.
  • However, the fastest-growing livestock group in the world is poultry, with beef consumption having fallen in recent years in the U.S. At the same time, chicken consumption has grown along with new plant-based meat products.

What's next: Part of what propels a viral fake story is that it seems like it has an element of truth to it. For many who bought into the Fox News reporting, it made sense that a White House that's pursuing federally-led action on climate change would seek to alter Americans' diets.

  • A fear of big government, top-down approaches to solving climate change has long motivated the climate contrarian community.
  • However, there are other ways to reduce food system emissions that don't require that all restaurant menus go the way of fancy New York restaurants.
  • These include supply side interventions, such as making land use more sustainable, shortening supply chains so food travels shorter distances between pastures and plates, protecting forests from conversion to agriculture, and techniques to cut methane emissions from cows.
Go deeper