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Our Views

Our Views Columns

Date: 4/25/2019

Title: NCBA Responds to Politico Article on Politics of Meat

In a recent article for Politico Magazine, Michael Grunwald takes a wide-ranging look at the politics of meat. Covering dense (should we say “meaty”?) topics like the rise of fake meat and climate change, Grunwald’s analysis touches on issues that are top of mind for American cattlemen and cattlewomen. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) took a look at some of the article’s claims to see how they held up.

Claim #1: Proponents of the Green New Deal do not want to ban beef

Grunwald is correct to point out that the text of the Green New Deal resolution does not make specific policy recommendations for livestock producers. Like most sweeping climate change proposals, the Green New Deal is light on details. That is why NCBA released a set of questions designed to help policymakers and consumers evaluate climate change policies like the Green New Deal.

However, Grunwald also highlights a few facts that rightfully give livestock producers pause. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) may have retracted the fact sheet targeting “farting cows,” but its very existence demonstrates how out of touch she is with agriculture. Some of the other lawmakers who rushed to embrace the Green New Deal, including Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), have not exactly been friendly to cattlemen and cattlewomen. And that is to say nothing of the broad coalition of activist groups who have thrown their weight behind the Green New Deal. Livestock producers are all-too-familiar with serving as the climate change scapegoats – and they will always push back hard against rhetoric that targets them unfairly.

Claim #2: Cattle and beef production is bad for the environment

While Grunwald does include a few dissenting voices, the negative environmental consequences of cattle and beef production serve as an overarching theme of the article. There is certainly no disputing that raising cattle and producing beef (like virtually all other activities of modern society) impact the environment. But beef’s direct contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is small – just two percent of the total, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. [1]  (In developing countries the percentage contribution of livestock is higher, but livestock are also an essential part of livelihoods for many in the developing world.)

It is also important to remember that overall efficiency of U.S. production is improving. Grunwald cites an anecdotal example from Kevin Kester, NCBA’s Past President and a rancher in Parkfield, CA, to illustrate the point, but a few big picture numbers bear repeating:

  • Compared to 1977, today the U.S. produces the same amount of beef with 33 percent fewer cattle.[2]
  • Improved efficiency and animal well-being mean a 16 percent lower carbon footprint and fewer natural resources used for every pound of beef produced.

Finally, cattle and beef production must be considered in the context of the benefits it provides and the available alternatives. Nutrition is a basic requirement of human life, and beef provides high-quality protein and essential nutrients like iron, zinc and B vitamins. It also delivers these nutrients in a calorie-efficient way. You would need to eat 3 cups, or 666 calories, of quinoa, to get the same amount of protein as in 3 oz. of cooked beef, which is about 170 calories.

Raising cattle in the United States is also an efficient use of land. As ruminant animals, cattle are able to turn grass and other plants humans cannot eat into high-quality, tasty protein. Keep in mind that more than 40 percent of the land in the contiguous U.S. is pasture and rangeland that is too rocky, steep, and/or arid to support cultivated agriculture – yet this land can support cattle and protein upcycling.[3]

Cutting out beef is not the answer. Researchers at Virginia Tech University found that if everyone went vegan, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would only drop 2.6%. At the same time, our national diet would provide insufficient nutrients to feed the U.S. population and result in increased use of synthetic fertilizer, as well as increased soil erosion.

The problem with the “cattle harm the environment” narrative is not that it highlights the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production. The problem is that it fails to recognize the environmental benefits and trade-offs inherent in all sustainability conversations. It also serves as an easy scapegoat that diverts attention away from the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, like transportation and electricity. 

Claim #3: We can’t feed the world’s growing population with current production practices

With a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the world will need all the high-quality protein sources we can get. But the argument that U.S. cattle producers’ will not be able to feed a “climate-constrained world” assumes that the industry will remain stagnant. History has shown that is not the case.

U.S. production efficiency has improved dramatically in the last thirty years (see response to Claim #2) and will only get better. Continuous improvement is in the cattle industry’s DNA. We have barely scratched the surface on new technologies and other advances with the potential to drive down beef’s environmental footprint even further.

Claim #4: Americans eat too much meat

A favorite line of anti-animal agriculture activists, but USDA consumption data does not support their claim. In fact, USDA reports that Americans are, on average, consuming only 1.7 ounces beef per day.  Total meat (including red meat), poultry and seafood is at levels consistent with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and is within recommendations of major health organizations worldwide.[4][5]

Still, Grunwald says: “The influential EAT-Lancet Commission study recently warned that Western diets include far too much meat.”

In fact, the EAT-Lancet report has been widely panned as junk science. Many members of the Commission have a well-known anti-livestock agenda. And even the World Health Organization recently pulled out of an event featuring the Commission’s dietary recommendations.  

Claim #5: Lab-grown fake meat is “molecularly identical” to the real thing

When talking about lab-grown fake meat, Grunwald writes that companies are “producing meat in laboratories that’s molecularly identical to the stuff in supermarkets without raising or killing animals.” If any of the lab-grown companies have the data to prove it, NCBA would love to see it. 

Lab-grown companies are fond of claiming that their products will be identical to real beef. But thus far they have not made any samples available for independent analysis. Here’s what a past president of the American Meat Science Association had to say at a public meeting on the topic last year (full transcript available here – see pages 110-111):

  • “As you will hear from Dr. Boler, meat scientists do not have enough information about cultured tissue to determine whether it should be called meat or how it should be regulated.”
  • “Please note that samples of cultured tissue have not been available for evaluation of the safety, composition, nutritional bioavailability, functionality and sensory properties to understand how it compares to meat from conventional animal production.”

Claim #6: Cattle and beef producers view lab-grown fake meat as a threat

Grunwald claims that the “meat lobby” is “increasingly nervous” about lab-grown fake meat. Perhaps he picked up this line from fake meat activists, who have tried to paint the livestock industry’s requests for equal treatment and science-based regulation as a reactionary move.

Cattle and beef producers welcome competition for the hearts and stomachs of consumers. They firmly believe in the value of open markets and consumer choice. All NCBA and our affiliates seek is a regulatory framework that protects consumers and ensures a level playing field for real beef products. Given that scenario, cattlemen and cattlewomen are confident that real beef will always be what’s for dinner.    


 

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Inventory of U. S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.

[2] Herrero M, et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2013. 110: 20888-20893

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

[4] 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015 DGA, Table A3-1) 

[5] US-Style Pattern at 2,000 kcal level, reported in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (2015 DGAC, Table D1.32).