Last month’s Fox News-fueled brouhaha over the ban on beef that wasn’t was a reminder of many things, none of which reflects well on the current state of conservative media. But it would be a mistake to allow a hefty serving of bad-faith fear mongering to end an important conversation before it begins.
No, President Joe Biden is not coming for your burgers. Yes, if we’re going to avert the worst impacts of climate change, Americans are almost certainly going to need to start eating less meat.
Livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and meat and dairy are by far the worst dietary offenders—combined, they account for an estimated 80 percent of a typical American’s food-related emissions. There’s widespread scientific agreement that eating less meat could help avert the worst impacts of climate change, and recent research suggests such a shift may even be necessary independent of any other emission-curbing efforts. Put another way: Americans can’t keep eating meat the way they do for much longer without the world paying an even more serious price than it is already.
The question, then, is how to encourage US consumers to do just that in a way that is both environmentally productive and politically feasible. I offer one possible solution: The federal government could make climate labelling mandatory for food, not unlike what it did with nutritional content in the early 1990s. An industry-wide system would be ideal, but to speed implementation while maintaining impact, the Biden administration should first target those foods most responsible for heating our planet: meat and dairy.
The livestock industry and its congressional allies are likely to try to block such efforts, of course, as might Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who worked as a dairy lobbyist in between his first stint atop the USDA and his current one. But with Democrats currently controlling both the White House and Congress, there is an opening, however small, for action.
Americans are unlikely to change their meat-loving ways without a push, but many consumers say they are eager for a nudge. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, roughly half of Americans say they’d be willing to give up at least some meat if they had more information about its climate impact. There’s good reason, then, to believe that many would do just that if they found climate labels when they picked up a package of meat in the grocery store.
While climate change remains a partisan issue in Washington, that is no longer the case in the country at large. More than 6 in 10 Americans believe climate change is already impacting their communities, according to the Pew Research Center, with 2 in 3 saying the federal government should do more to reduce its effects. The problem, however, is that the average American remains woefully misinformed about what, exactly, is causing the planet to warm. In a 2019 poll conducted by the Washington Post, for example, just 1 in 5 correctly identified raising cattle as a “major driver” of climate change, while nearly twice that many erroneously cited “the sun getting hotter” as a key contributor.
It’s a similar story in academic research, where participants routinely underestimate emissions associated with food. A 2019 study by a team of American and Australian researchers found that people tend to miss the mark by more when assessing products with higher emissions—participants typically understood that a potato was less emissions-intensive than a cut of beef, for instance, but nonetheless underestimated the climate footprint of red meat by the widest margin of those foods surveyed. Such misperceptions matter. Not all meat is created equal—where and how livestock are raised can have a major impact on emissions—but the fact remains that meat and dairy don’t just emit more than plant-based alternatives on average, they emit orders of magnitude more. Cattle pose a special problem, too. Thanks to their multiple-stomach digestive process, cows belch out methane, which doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon but nonetheless is a far more potent greenhouse gas while it does stick around.
Modelling hypothetical dietary shifts can be tricky, but the estimates we do have make the potential clear. A team led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, for example, estimates that if Americans were to give up meat and dairy for two-thirds of their meals—in effect, following Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” diet—they’d cut their climate emissions by 60 percent. Consumers don’t have to give up meat entirely or embrace these changes en masse for them to have an effect, either. There’s evidence that even a small shift in meat consumption by just those most open to changing their diets would be enough to make a significant dent in national emissions.
A team from Denmark and Sweden, meanwhile, put the labelling theory to the test in a peer-reviewed paper published earlier this year in the journal Food Policy. The experiment worked like so: Participants were twice asked to select from a variety of food products, ranging from minced beef to a plant-based alternative—once before they were given emissions information about the products and again afterwards. As you can no doubt guess by now, people were more likely to select an item with a smaller footprint after they were shown a label with the climate information. There was an important wrinkle, however: Before researchers provided the emissions data, they first asked the participants whether they wanted to know the products’ climate footprint. Those who did went on to cut their emissions by roughly a third between their first, pre-label selection and their second one. But those who said they didn’t want the information also tended to select more climate-friendly foods on the second go-around after researchers shared the data anyway, dropping the combined footprint of their choices by 12 percent.
It was a single study, yes, but it suggests that some consumers who want to make climate-smart food choices will be more likely to do so if they have a label to help them. And it also suggests that at least some consumers are currently willfully ignorant of the climate impact of their choices—but that they are avoiding that information not because they don’t care about the climate but because they very much do. That may sound a little counterintuitive at first, but information-avoidance is not uncommon in human decision-making. If you’re about to eat an entire bag of chips or pint of ice cream, for instance, you might rather not know just how bad of a caloric decision you’re making; others feel the same way about learning how the sausage is made before they eat it. It appears something similar happens with emissions, which is all the more reason to think such climate labels will both push many of those who want the information and pull some of those who don’t toward better choices.
The industry would, of course, launch an all-out assault against a labelling effort given it has a long history of opposing any action that threatens its bottom line, as a recent peer-reviewed analysis illustrates. The study, published late last month in the academic journal Climatic Change, found that the 10 largest meat processors in the United States spent more than $100 billion on lobbying over the past two decades, much of it designed to block explicit climate efforts such as the cap-and-trade bill that died in the Senate more than a decade ago. The meat industry’s political spending rivaled that of its oil and gas counterparts when you consider the size of the companies. Take Tyson Foods, the largest American meat processor both by sales and emissions: As a share of revenue, it spent 33 percent more on lobbying and twice as much on campaign donations than ExxonMobil did during the two decades the researchers tallied.
The meat industry has gotten plenty of bang for those bucks. Any time an official somewhere ever-so gently recommends people eat a little less meat, the industry sounds the alarm and the GOP cavalry frames such suggestions as an existential threat to American freedom. This beefy battle played out in quick order in March in middle America, after Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, suggested state residents consider not eating meat for a single day. Local livestock associations complained and Nebraska’s GOP governor, Pete Ricketts, rode to the rescue by calling his interstate neighbor’s non-binding proclamation “a direct attack on our way of life,” and urging Nebraskans to eat more meat in response.
There’s no reason, then, to think the meat and dairy industry will go along with this plan voluntarily—which is all the more reason to make them do so.
The companies and their GOP allies have already made clear that they will do their best to brand any direct efforts to reduce meat consumption—such as Meatless Monday campaigns or Polis’ proclamation—as Big Government run amok. But they may find it more difficult to argue against a labelling system since it is a half-step removed from an explicit suggestion. Labels simply offer consumers information and ask them to decide for themselves what they want to eat.
President Biden and his allies in Congress have made agriculture a key part of their climate plans, but to date they’ve focused on producers while largely ignoring consumers. One high-profile plan under consideration is a USDA carbon bank that would pay farmers and ranchers to adopt climate-friendly practices such as rotational grazing. The industry, naturally, is more excited about a bonanza of federal cash than it would be about a federally mandated climate label. But Democrats could potentially pair the two proposals together, which likely wouldn’t be enough to win industry support but could make climate labelling slightly easier for the farm lobby to swallow.
The labels by themselves will not be enough to avert climate disaster—no single act is going to reduce emissions by enough to stop global warming. But they could shift consumer demand enough to convince companies to invest more heavily in plant-based alternatives, as some, such as Tyson, have already started to do. Likewise, a better-informed US shopper is a better-informed American, and every second someone spends reading an emissions label is a chance for them to think about climate change and what actions and industries are driving it. The best way to eat an elephant, after all, is to … read the climate label on its packaging and then reach for a more climate-friendly alternative.
Josh Voorhees is a political correspondent for Modern Farmer and an MPH student focused on food systems and climate change at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.