Folks, Joe Biden is bringing big government into the kitchen. Your kitchen.
Sleepy Joe, he’s coming for your sweet, beautiful meat. Your fridge, it’s going to be full of kale after Biden is done cleaning out your delicious hamburgers and Angus sirloin. Filet mignon? It’s gonna be a thing of the past in Biden’s America. Maybe you get it once a year—if you win the meat lottery. (You probably won’t because you know they rigged it. #StoptheVealSteal) Your grill? Forget about it, unless you want to put some turnips on it.
So goes the hellscape of the modern conservative imagination in America. Last week, Republicans introduced a climate plan that’s wholly inadequate to address the crisis. But you probably didn’t hear much about it anyways because all Republicans want to talk about right now is meat, and how Joe Biden is planning to limit you to a quarter pounder a month (TBD if you can have cheese with that in Biden’s America). The meme began propagating through conservative media, feeding the right-wing outrage cycle. It is, of course, a complete lie.
The gist of the meme is this: Joe Biden’s climate plan will require Americans to consume 90% less red meat. Luminaries such as Rep. Lauren Boebert have tweeted about it, and Fox News and Fox Business have had a series of graphics in strong rotation highlighting this claim.
Yet nowhere in President Joe Biden’s climate plan does it say anything about meat consumption. His pledge to the Paris Agreement unveiled last week says that the U.S. will reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50% to 52% by 2030, well in line with other countries and far below what an actual fair share would be for the U.S., the world’s biggest historic carbon polluter by a long shot. There’s literally nothing. The only thing he promised to decarbonize in his climate plan released during the campaign is the electric grid.
Instead, the “stat” comes from a report released last year by University of Michigan researchers who modeled possible pathways to reduce dietary-related emissions.
“Our study merely identifies opportunities for emissions reductions that are possible from changes in our diet,” Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian, two researchers at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, said in a press statement sent to Earther in response to questions (Heller led the research. “By no means does it suggest that these changes in diet would be required to meet climate goals.”
Yet the Daily Mail took the study and ran with it, replete with a laughably bad graphic, claiming this was what Biden’s climate plan would mean for average Americans. This approach is, of course, catnip for other conservative outlets to pick up and amplify. A bunch of random conservative sites flagged it, including one that comically remade the Daily Mail graphic but added a typo. Then came Fox News, Donald Trump Jr., Boebert, and popular conservative conspiracy theorist Matt Couch. The latter’s tweet of a somewhat decent-looking steak received thousands of deranged replies from people trying to own the libs by posting absolutely horrifying-looking meals. Seriously, look at some of these steaks. As a former line cook, there’s some truly triggering stuff here.
“It’s extremely surprising because Biden’s plan hasn’t been released yet and our report came out a year ago,” said Stephanie Feldstein, the Center for Biological Diversity’s population and sustainability director. The group sponsored the report now swirling across the right-wing disinformation ecosystem. “It’s surprising to me that that’s the one they would latch onto. There’s a growing body of research of many studies [about the topic].”
Republicans’ obsession with burgers dates back to 2018 with the introduction of the Green New Deal, and it reflects the increasingly shrill and desperate efforts to make having a habitable planet part of the culture war. The reality is that Americans could probably afford to eat a little less red meat, both for health and planetary reasons. The average American adult already packs away around 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of beef per year. Meanwhile, the United Nations has found that carbon dioxide and methane emissions tied to raising animals, particularly cows, for food accounts for 14.5% of all human greenhouse gas emissions.
“One key finding that I like to highlight is that in addition to looking at scenarios of different levels of meat reduction, the researchers also looked at what would happen if Americans didn’t change their dietary habits—and in that case, diet-related GHGs would increase 9% by 2030,” Feldstein said in a followup email.
But eating less meat is only one facet of how to fix the wasteful, planet-frying food system we currently have. Another major fix would be simply reducing waste. The world tosses out 1 billion tons of food annually, according to a UN report released last month. All that rotten food is a major source of methane emissions, accounting for an estimated 10% of all methane emissions globally. Yet for some reason, the Daily Mail chose not to highlight how fixing this issue could help meet emissions targets.
“The fact that people latch onto these dietary changes in a different way than they do to food waste or shifting away from fossil fuels isn’t all that surprising to me,” Feldstein said. “People have a very personal connection to the foods that they eat. “It’s part of people’s identity, culture.”
In other words, perfect fuel for a culture war.
There are also schemes to reduce emissions tied to raising cattle from feeding them seaweed to managing manure in different ways. That said, most climate-friendly diets recommend some form of reduced meat consumption so it’s certainly something that we should consider as a tool if not a government mandate. Having eaten one of those diets recommended by public health and climate experts For the Blog, I can report it was totally fine.
“Right now, our food system is geared toward the overproduction of meat and dairy. We heavily subsided livestock prod as well as feedstock,” Feldstein said. “There’s a lot of money flowing toward not just supporting the production of meat and dairy, but the overproduction of meat and dairy. That should be shifted toward more climate-smart crops and more plant-based foods.”
I’m sure in response to this, some angry conservatives will blow up my inbox arguing about China’s rising meat consumption. That’s also a challenge we should address! The point is many things cause climate change, which means many things need to be fixed (rapidly!).
The irony of the study conservatives are so amped up about is it found if the U.S. has just followed through on the Paris Agreement pledge it made under former President Barack Obama, the types of changes needed would be much less dramatic. And the longer conservatives keep lying and delaying climate action with every ounce of their meat-stuffed being, the more extreme measures not just the U.S. but the world will have to take.
Update, 4/26/21, 1:18 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Stephanie Feldstein and more details about the study.
Update, 4/26/21, 3:53 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian.