Inside The Race To Build The Burger Of The Future

Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for  Politico Magazine.Politicians often rally their supporters with partisan red meat, but these days Republicans are using actual red meat. They’re accusing Democrats of a plot to ban beef, trying to rebrand the Green New Deal for climate action as a nanny-state assault on the American diet. At Thursday’s rally in Michigan, President Donald Trump portrayed a green dystopia with “no more cows.” In a recent Washington speech, former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka warned conservatives that leftists are coming for their hamburgers: “This is what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved!” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) actually ate a burger during a press conference on Capitol Hill, an activity he claimed would be illegal under a Green New Deal.In reality, nobody’s banning beef. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the driving force behind the Green New Deal, really did suggest that “maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” and her office did release (and then retract) a fact sheet implying a desire to “get rid of farting cows.” A lot of environmental activists really do target red meat, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) , a vegan who hopes to replace Trump, really did recently observe that “this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture.” But the actual Green New Deal resolution calls only for dramatic reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture. It says nothing about seizing steaks, and no Democrats are pushing to confiscate cows regardless of their tailpipe emissions.Story Continued BelowThis 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 Whoppers. 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.Meat producers don’t want their products to be viewed like fossil fuels—useful but dirty. And beef producers don’t want to follow the path of coal, which is hemorrhaging market share because it’s the dirtiest fossil fuel. Colin Woodall, head of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says his industry can help save the planet as well as help feed the planet.“We know the spotlight is on us right now,” Woodall says. “The way we see it, the Green New Deal has given us a great opportunity to tell our story.”So far, any serious political discussion over the future of meat has been drowned out by the cow-farting furor, as Republicans like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and even Trump critic Meghan McCain have mocked vegan fascists who would, in the words of Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, force Americans to “say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches.” It’s a wildly exaggerated attack—and nobody actually believes we should eat burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner—but it packs a punch in a meat-loving country. Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee, whose liberal group has helped shape the Green New Deal, says he’d love to rein in the immense economic and cultural power of America’s “meatriarchy.” But his polling has found there’s literally nothing less popular than banning meat.“It’s up there with giving VA benefits to ISIS,” McElwee says. “That’s the tension the left has to struggle with; Democrats eat meat, too. But even minor improvements could create massive gains for public health and the environment.”The U.S. produces about 50 billion pounds of meat a year, and globally, pastures occupy about one-fourth of the ice-free land on Earth. So changes in how meat is produced and consumed really could have outsized impacts. In fact, some changes are happening. And some of the industry’s advocates and critics agree that the best way to spread them just might be…a Green New Deal. ***The world loves meat, but that love puts pressure on the world. The United Nations has estimated that livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions that are trapping heat in the atmosphere. Project Drawdown, a group of scientists pursuing climate solutions, puts the figure at 18 to 20 percent, and some studies have suggested even that’s way too low. In any case, meat is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, and as millions of families in India and China join the meat-eating middle class, its contributions could soar. A recent World Resources Institute report titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future” found that demand for animal-based foods is on track to rise more than two thirds by 2050; it also warned that the resulting expansion of agricultural production could produce enough emissions to exceed the Paris climate agreement’s targets for catastrophic warming even if the world completely stops using fossil fuels.“We just can’t feed an expanding world population on meat, not if we keep growing it the way we’re growing it,” says Jessica Almy, policy director for the Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-based and cell-based meat alternatives.Beef production is the worst climate offender in the agricultural sector. That WRI report on food sustainability calculated that beef creates about seven times as many greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein as chicken or pork, and 20 times as many as peas or lentils. One reason is that grass-eating ruminants like cows release huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. They do this primarily by burping, not farting, despite National Review ’s cover cartoon of Ocasio-Cortez surrounded by the rear ends of cows, but methane helps warm the earth no matter which end it comes from.Still, some agricultural experts believe cattle methane has been overstated as a climate disaster. Marty Matlock, an ecological engineering professor who runs the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center, says the methane produced by U.S. cows is not much greater than the methane produced by the wild buffalo that once roamed the U.S. plains. He says that unlike carbon from fossil fuels, which gets released into the atmosphere after lying underground for millions of years, methane from ruminants is part of a natural cycle that expands only when herds expand. And in the U.S., herds are shrinking. America now produces the same amount of beef it did in 1970 with one-third fewer cattle, and 81 percent more milk than it did in 1945 with two-thirds fewer dairy cows.“Methane from livestock isn’t what’s new. Burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation is what’s new,” Matlock says. “Climate change is an existential threat to human well-being, but let’s keep the focus where it belongs.”The more significant problem with meat production is that it uses enormous amounts of land, both for grazing and growing grain for cattle feed. Pastures and farms that are used to fatten cattle often replace forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon. Even America’s relatively efficient beef production takes up more than 40 percent of U.S. agricultural land to produce just 3 percent of U.S. calories. The World Resources Institute report warned that unless consumers eat less meat and producers get more efficient, by 2050 the world will have to deforest a land mass nearly twice the size of India (and releasing much of its sequestered carbon) to satisfy the additional demand.“Growing red meat just takes up too much land to generate too few calories and too little protein,” says Tim Searchinger, the lead author of the report.Again, though, the U.S. meat industry does more with less than its less efficient foreign counterparts. It produces 18 percent of the world’s beef with only 8 percent of the world’s cattle, thanks to cutting-edge genetics, advanced veterinary care, and data-driven industrial processes optimized to fatten cattle quickly and cost-effectively. Kevin Kester, a fifth-generation rancher in Parkfield, California, says it takes him six weeks less than it took his grandfather to raise a half-ton steer, and he expects his grandchildren to achieve similar productivity gains. Kester also reduces his emissions by running his wells on solar power, and by using drones to check his water lines for leaks rather than driving his truck around his 22,000-acre ranch.President Donald Trump speaks behind a table covered with fast food as he welcomes the North Dakota State Bison football team to the White House on March 4, 2019. | Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty ImagesOverall, U.S. animal agriculture only produces about 4 percent of direct U.S. emissions, much less than its competition abroad. That’s partly because the U.S. emits so much carbon from gasoline and fossil-fueled electricity, but it’s partly a triumph of efficiency; the average dairy cow in California produces four times as much milk as a cow in Mexico and 23 times as much as a cow in India. Kester argues that if Green New Deal advocates succeed in reducing U.S. cattle production, it will just move to countries that require more land to produce less meat, endangering carbon sinks like the Amazon and dramatically expanding global emissions.“There’s so much ignorance about what we do,” Kester says. “Most Americans used to have a farmer or rancher in the family, but now hardly anyone knows where their steak comes from. And we’re way behind the curve on educating the public.”The industry’s climate message is that it can be part of the solution—not only by increasing yields through more intensive production, but by storing more carbon in its pastures and cutting emissions from its operations. For example, one of Project Drawdown’s top 10 proposals for fixing the climate was “silvopasture,” planting more carbon-storing trees on grazing lands. Bill Gates recently touted the potential of “regenerative agriculture,” which uses cover crops and no-till farming to keep more carbon in the soil, to grow animal feed with fewer emissions. And some ranchers use climate-friendly “rotational grazing” to mimic the patterns of migratory buffalo herds; cattle are clustered in one area to devour the grass and fertilize the soil with their manure, then moved to another area so the grass can regrow. General Mills is encouraging its suppliers to embrace these practices; Jerry Lynch, the company’s chief sustainability officer, says one Georgia rancher who provides beef for its EPIC Meat Snacks is sequestering so much carbon his overall emissions are approaching zero.“We’ve got to be concerned about the challenges the planet is facing,” Lynch says. “We’ve been in business for 150 years, and we hope to be for 150 more.”Conglomerates like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and General Mills have been setting emissions reduction targets for their suppliers, which will ratchet up pressure on farmers and ranchers to green their operations. But at a time when they’re already getting squeezed by a handful of giant agribusinesses that process their animals, as well as the economic fallout from President Donald Trump’s trade wars, they’re hoping for government incentives to reduce their emissions. Frank Mitl ...Read more

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