No products in the cart.
USDA has failed to respond to several requests for comment on this article.
The problem is, meat has become an intense topic of the culture war. Look no further than the manufactured outrage over the recent right-wing media attack that falsely claims Biden wants to control everyone’s beef intake. Or watch the steady stream of press releases from farm lawmakers suggesting that federal or local governments are somehow helping “meatless Monday” campaigns.
But in numbers, agriculture is an integral part of the climate problem: it accounts for 10 percent of all US greenhouse gases. From raising pigs for bacon to raising dairy cattle, livestock production is the largest source of heavy methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That means how we produce and consume meat is critical to delivering Biden’s promise to put the US on the right track to achieve zero net agricultural emissions before any other nation.
The powerful farm lobby in Washington and state capitals opposes the regulation of large-scale livestock farms and the promotion of alternatives to meat and dairy products. Instead, Biden government officials talk about unproven technology and wellness goals for sustainability when discussing ways to tackle climate change with agriculture.
Agriculture Minister Tom Vilsack is mainly focused on providing farmers and ranchers with new financial incentives for more climate-friendly practices. When it comes to animal emissions, Vilsack is promoting innovations such as feed additives that reduce the effectiveness of an animal’s gas and feces, or fermentation systems that capture methane fumes from manure pits and convert them into an energy source.
Stephanie Feldstein, Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group, argues that such methods have only marginal environmental benefits.
“There is simply too much meat and dairy production right now for these small improvements to produce the emissions reductions we need,” she said. “There are so many policies, from nutritional guidelines to school meal reimbursements, to farm loans and government purchases, that are currently fueling overproduction of meat – and all of that has to change.”
It’s not just Biden’s farm boss who’s careful about livestock emissions: John Kerry, the president’s special envoy on climate, rejected the idea that the government should eventually tell Americans to eat less meat.
“Not necessarily, because there is a lot of research going on right now that will change the way cattle are produced and how cattle are raised and fed,” Kerry said in a recent BBC interview. But he also acknowledged that Biden’s aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions depend heavily on technologies that have not yet been developed.
Because of this, environmentalists are pushing for immediate action. More than two dozen groups filed a petition with the EPA last month to restrict greenhouse gases from large dairy and pig farms under the Clean Air Act, especially farms with at least 500 cows or 1,000 pigs.
Ben Lillliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the left-wing Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, recently noted that many of these large farms are supported by USDA guaranteed loans and other agricultural support programs.
He calls on the USDA to “cut public funding on high-emitting factory farms” and refers to what the industry prefers to refer to as concentrated animal feeders, or CAFOs.
Since the takeover by the Biden government, agribusinesses and leading agribusiness groups have accelerated efforts to move away from federal regulators by setting their own climate targets and taking steps manufacturers are taking to reduce their environmental footprint.
“Many meat producers, packagers and processors have already committed to further strengthening their contributions to healthy land, air and water,” said Eric Mittenthal, spokesman for the North American Meat Institute, which represents meat packers and processors.
Other groups support Vilsack’s voluntary efforts. The National Pork Producers Council has touted the potential climatic benefits of methane capture and genetically engineered pigs that digest nutrients better and are effectively releasing less gas. However, it warned that more aggressive measures like curbing the growth of pig farms would backfire.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also supports voluntary initiatives as part of existing USDA conservation programs. Practices such as rotary grazing and cover crop planting “have become buzzwords lately” for policy makers in Washington, but they have long been used by farmers and ranchers, said Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the group.
“It’s important to note that a sustainable future for the livestock industry doesn’t require a complete overhaul of the way producers do business,” Lane said. “The US livestock and beef industry has had the lowest greenhouse gas emission intensity in the world in 25 years. Direct emissions from cattle account for only 2 percent of the country’s total emissions. “
There’s not much appetite in Congress for stricter regulations, either. Sens. John Thune (RS.D.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) Recently tabled laws that would prohibit the government from requiring emissions permits for livestock.
“Livestock owners are working to improve efficiency and reduce emissions from their operations,” Thune, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said in a statement. “They shouldn’t be subject to strict regulations and costly permit fees for emissions from their animals, which could ultimately lead to higher food costs for consumers.”
On the flip side, more progressive lawmakers are pushing for the USDA to take a tougher stance on large-scale livestock production.
“We have relied on an extractive, exploitative form of corporate agriculture for too long, with many negative consequences,” said Rosa DeLauro, Chair of House Appropriations, at a recent hearing on USDA research programs.
The Connecticut Democrat cited a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that nearly 16,000 Americans die each year from air pollution caused by food production – mostly meat, dairy products, and crops for animal feed. The results, which are disputed by industry groups, suggest that a greater shift in the American diet towards plant-based foods could reduce such deaths by as much as 83 percent.
DeLauro says it is time taxpayers subsidized research into alternative proteins at the same rate as traditional livestock production. Such products have been described as “a compelling option to tackle agricultural emissions”. This is an important statement from the leading legislature responsible for allocating more than $ 1 trillion in annual expenses.
Plant-based meat is growing in popularity, but it still accounts for less than 1 percent of all chilled meat sales.
A strategy paper by the nonprofit climate advisors and the Good Food Institute, which advocates alternative meat, says that a “global protein transition” is required to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. According to the report, accelerating the adoption of alternative meats while increasing the efficiency of the existing system could have a greater impact on reducing global emissions than switching to electric vehicles.
Some beef producers are looking for a middle ground.
Mike Salguero, the founder of ButcherBox, which supplies grass-fed beef and other meats direct to consumers, said the beef industry has been focusing on food safety and efficiency rather than sustainability for decades. However, the growing focus on climate change and the wave of slaughterhouse shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic are forcing more people to rethink the way meat is made.
Salguero wrote a letter to Vilsack last week calling on the USDA to formally investigate ways to encourage grazing cattle – a system widely believed to be more environmentally friendly – instead of sending them to huge feeding grounds.
There are currently too many hurdles and inefficiencies in grass-fed beef production to capture a large market share, he said. Salguero noted the lack of access to large slaughterhouses and the structure of agricultural finance that often forces producers to sell their cattle to a feeding ground when their loans fall due.
“I don’t think meat will go away,” he said. “I think meat can be made a lot better. We are proving that there is a market for it and we are proving that there is a third way. “