Biden’s not coming after beef. But should he?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Not too long ago, a number of Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures railed against President Biden over the claim that he was going to greatly restrict the amount of beef Americans are allowed to eat.

There is no truth to the allegation. Biden has put forward an aggressive plan to combat climate change, but his proposals don’t include any measures aimed at regulating how much meat people consume. The claim, which first appeared in an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mail in April, quickly gained traction among conservatives despite its inaccuracy.

Biden may not be targeting beef, but environmentalists have argued for years that the emissions created by cattle farming need to be reduced if the world is going to meet its goals for preventing the worst impacts of rising global temperatures. Livestock farming is estimated to be responsible for as much as 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef production as the biggest contributor. “If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire [European Union],” former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in 2019.

Why there’s debate

Environmental groups have argued that the Biden administration must be willing to take direct action to reduce beef consumption in the U.S. if it is serious about meeting its climate goals. While even the most strident advocates on the left agree that limits or an outright ban on beef would be a mistake — if it were even legally and politically possible — they have identified a number of ways the president could change the incentives that have made beef such a popular choice for Americans.

Those proposals range from modest changes like adjustments to national dietary guidelines to more substantial moves like ending federal subsidies for cattle farming in the U.S. and instead using those funds to boost development of plant-based or synthetic meats. Supporters of these ideas say curbing beef consumption would also make Americans healthier and decrease the risk that new deadly viruses might develop among animals in factory farms.

Conservatives have portrayed any efforts to decrease beef consumption as un-American and a violation of personal freedoms. Other skeptics question whether the public would be willing to cut back on beef even if the government tipped the scales toward other alternatives. Some Democrats also have doubts. Key members of Biden’s administration, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and climate envoy John Kerry, have made the case that focusing on the production side of farming by investing in new technologies and agricultural strategies to make livestock farming more sustainable is a better strategy than trying to change deeply embedded eating habits on the consumer side.

Perspectives

Supporters

There’s no way to address climate change without cutting beef-related emissions

“If Biden is serious about staving off climate disaster, our meat system is not something he can afford to ignore.” — Sigal Samuel, Vox

Americans have shown they’re not going to give up beef on their own

“So far, the notion of pending climate doom just hasn’t been enough to motivate most Americans to simply cut their 24 ounces of beef per week down to a burger every other week.” — Scott Reid, New York Daily News

The benefits of cutting back on beef go beyond just climate change

“The USDA can play its part in helping America get substantially closer to our climate goals. That shift will also bring with it the benefits of reducing the pathogen-producing risks that come with factory farms as well as avoiding the cancer risks that come with meat — all good things for Americans’ health.” — Michael Shank, The Hill

The government should stop subsidizing the beef industry

“Despite the harrowing scientific reports, we see policy suggestions such as a meat tax that would lower consumption of animal-derived products often met with raised eyebrows and jokes about the intensity of vegans. … In this case, we are in luck, because no tax is necessary, only a removal of the billions of dollars in subsidies Americans already provide animal agriculture every year.” — Christina Sewell, Journal of International Affairs

The government should give a financial boost to the alternative meat industry

“There’s no chance humanity is going to give up meat, en masse, anytime soon. … All we need to do is replace the animals, or at least a lot of them. Technologically, we’re closer to that than you might think. What we need is for government to put money and muscle behind the project — just as it’s doing for electric cars and weatherized homes and renewable energy — so that the future happens fast enough to save the present.” — Ezra Klein, New York Times

Skeptics

Americans aren’t going to give up beef, no matter what Biden does

“Serious climate policy means dramatic lifestyle changes. I doubt Americans are up for that, especially when it comes to beef.” — Henry Olsen, Washington Post

Any measures that make beef more expensive would do more harm than good

“Meat-eaters who brush off concerns about the threat to their meals are too complacent. No, burgers, chops, and steaks will not be banned, but in all probability they will be rationed, if by price rather than by law. The prospect that increasingly onerous — and undeniably regressive — greenhouse-gas taxes might be imposed on meat is far from remote.” — Andrew Stuttaford, National Review

It should be up to individuals to decide what they eat

“You can count me and my family among the sinister sproutheads. We’re even mostly (gasp!) vegan. But we’re not calling on Washington to confiscate anyone’s bacon cheeseburgers. Personally, I don’t give a fig what you eat, drink or smoke.” — John Rolfe, Poughkeepsie Journal

We should focus on making farming more sustainable rather than policing people’s diets

“We need smart legislation, policies, and funding that help farmers, not false promises or silver bullets that claim eliminating livestock is the only path to sustainability. We need real, solutions-oriented action, and we need it quickly. … Climate-smart livestock farming must not be treated as a political football.” — Frank Mitloehner, Washington Examiner

Government intervention isn’t necessary to reduce U.S. beef consumption

“Why wait for Biden, or any person of political power, to tell us it’s time to cut back on burgers to save the planet? The reasons are clear, and the consequences of not doing so appear dire. It’s clear we don’t have time to wait for someone to force food off our plates in place of something better. It’s up to us. One burger, and one bite, at a time.” — Jennifer Barckley, The Hill

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