This Washington stir over the burger police is classic political theater, the latest tribal skirmish in America’s partisan culture wars. But livestock really do have a serious impact on the climate—and the extreme rhetoric about cow farts and rounding up ranchers is obscuring a consequential debate over the future of animal agriculture in general and beef in particular. Red meat has a greater impact on the climate than any other food; if the world’s cattle formed their own nation, it would have the third-highest emissions on Earth, behind only China and the United States. So at a time when concerns are already growing about meat’s effects on human health and the treatment of animals on factory farms, the U.S. meat industry is taking the global warming debate seriously. It’s talking up its own climate progress, while trying to ensure that any Green New Deal-style government efforts to cut agricultural emissions use financial carrots rather than regulatory sticks or even meat taxes.
Meat is as central to American culture as cars or sports; the average American eats three burgers a week, and even more chicken than beef. But this is a delicate time for the industry. The influential EAT-Lancet Commission study recently warned that Western diets include far too much meat, and more than half of Americans say they’re trying to cut back. New York City’s schools just adopted Meatless Mondays, while fast-growing companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are selling plant-based burgers and other products that taste, look and even feel remarkably similar to conventional meat; starting Monday, Burger King is going to start selling beef-free Impossible Whopper. The meat lobby is also increasingly nervous about “fake meat,” its term of art for cell-based meat startups that are not even selling to the public yet, but are already producing meat in laboratories that’s molecularly identical to the stuff in supermarkets without raising or killing animals.