Fact-checkers are slamming Republicans and the right-wing media for repeating false claims that President Joe Biden’s climate plan would require Americans to drastically reduce consumption of red meat. While the rumors about Biden have been thoroughly debunked, these claims were sparked by a real, thought-provoking University of Michigan study that models how a shift toward plant-based diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis.
The right-wing claims originated from baseless speculation by The Daily Mail, a conservative British tabloid that thrives on viral posts, which was then taken out of context by right-wing politicians and personalities who jumped at the chance to throw red meat (excuse the pun) to the Trumpian base.
“Speaking of stupid, there’s a study coming out of the University of Michigan which says that to meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to, get this, America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry and fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and animal-based fats,” Fox News host Larry Kudlow said over the weekend. “Ok, got that? No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue.”
Of course, there are considerable gaps between Biden’s climate vision and the latest Green New Deal proposals put forth by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The University of Michigan study is not part of the Green New Deal, but Kudlow baselessly threatened “middle America” with somehow being forced to grill “Brussels sprouts”instead of beef on the Fourth of July.
Multiple far right Republicans and commentators ran with it, sending out viral tweets and media stories falsely suggesting that Biden wants to control what people eat and would even limit Americans to “one burger a month.” (Donald Trump Jr., forever riding his father’s presidential coattails, bragged on Twitter about eating four pounds of red meat in a single day. Warning: Eating that much red meat at once can cause constipation and other health problems.)
These right-wing claims are ridiculous on their face, but the University of Michigan study that Kudlow and others took out of context is real climate science. After all, scientists say the global food supply chain is responsible for 26 percent of climate-warming emissions. While not connected White House climate policy, the study adds to a large body of research showing that reducing meat consumption — and, perhaps more importantly, reducing factory farming and mass beef production that destroys lush ecosystems in places like the Amazon — is essential for addressing the climate emergency. The study also models how a shift toward plant-based diets would drastically reduce climate-warming emissions in the United States.
According to federal data cited by in the study, the average person in the U.S. consumed about 133 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2016. If the average hamburger contains between one-third and half a pound of beef, that’s roughly equivalent to 300-plus burgers. While red meat (beef, pork and lamb) provides only 9 percent of calories in the average American diet, red meat produces about 47 percent of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions. Consumption of all animal products combined, including eggs, dairy and fish, represents 82 percent of the nation’s dietary carbon footprint.
Using this data as a baseline, the study considers four dietary scenarios in the U.S over the next decade. In the first scenario, the average amount of animal-based food products remains unchanged by 2030. In the second scenario, consumption increases slightly based on federal projections. In the third scenario, animal product consumption is reduced by 50 percent and replaced with plant-based foods. The fourth (and incredibly optimistic) scenario is the same as the third, except beef consumption is further reduced by 90 percent, a completely theoretical figure that conservatives took out of context.
If diets in the U.S. remain unchanged under the first scenario, the food supply would generate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 646 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2030. However, if animal product consumption dropped by 50 percent and was replaced by plant-based foods, the food supply would produce 224 million metric tons less — the equivalent of taking 47.5 million gas and diesel vehicles off the road. That represents about a quarter of the emission reductions necessary to meet U.S. climate goals, although the Biden administration is now pushing for even greater reductions.
Cumulative emissions would drop by 1.6 billion metric tons from 2016 levels by 2030 if the U.S. reduced animal product consumption by 50 percent. Under the fourth scenario, where the U.S. hits the 50 percent reduction target while also reducing beef consumption by 90 percent, the projected reduction in emissions would be equivalent to about 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Again, these scenarios are completely theoretical; they are models of what the future could look like if we eat less meat and animal products. Of course, what the actual future will look like is completely dependent on the decisions that we humans make. To achieve a 50 percent reduction in animal product consumption, or to replace 90 percent of the beef we currently consume with plant-based alternatives such as soy protein and vegan meat alternatives, would require substantial changes to agriculture and the food delivery system.
Since there is clearly no government plan to mandate Impossible Burgers, changing the food system will require changes in consumer demand. In short, a large chunk of the population would have to choose to eat less meat.
Hints of this shift are already happening. Americans are eating more meatless meat and plant-based dairy alternatives than ever before, but nowhere near the scale modeled in the University of Michigan study.
After looking at the climate data, grilling Brussels sprouts or asparagus instead of ground beef and hotdogs might sound pretty tasty. You’ll need some protein as well, and while there’s plenty of meatless burgers to choose from nowadays, there’s nothing quite like marinating some old-fashioned grilled barbecue tofu. Who knows, your insides and the Earth might thank you.