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Clean Beef: The New Clean Coal

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There’s probably no way to seriously take on climate change without significantly reducing beef consumption. Americans aren’t going to do that and it’s such a hot culture war topic that it is giving the beef industry major opportunities to shift blame by copying the coal industry’s lies and having lots of talk about minor shifts in production methods that will supposedly reduce methane but in fact won’t do anything worthwhile at all.

There seems to be a growing consensus among climate experts that meat is a topic to be given wide berth, be it to head off a culture war with conservatives or to avoid alienating the meat-loving public. This flies in the face of a growing consensus in the peer-reviewed literature on the relationship between food systems and climate: Animal agriculture contributes about 15 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. We need to drastically reduce our meat consumption if we are to keep food production within planetary limits and in line with climate targets. For example, the EAT-Lancet diet, the result of a landmark collaboration between a commission of climate change experts and the medical journal The Lancet, recommends a maximum of 14 grams of beef per day (less that the current global average of 25 grams and far less than the American average, 102 grams).

Meat’s perennial status as the third rail in climate politics has recently been bolstered by emerging claims that the environmental impact of animal agriculture—and specifically methane emitted by cows—can be mitigated. Most of this conversation (and what Kerry was probably referring to with “cattle are herded and fed”), has been about incorporating methane-reducing feed additives into cows’ meals and shifting their production to a grazing-based, “regenerative” model of animal husbandry.

But as with any proposed climate solution, we need to ask two questions about low-emission meat. First: Does the science back the hype? Second: Can it actually be implemented at scale in a way that produces a meaningful difference?

In the case of feed, a scientific cottage industry has sprung up around the potential of using additives like seaweed to reduce the methane content of cows’ belches. There is solid scientific research that suggests that such additives work, reducing cows’ emissions by up to 80 percent in experiments. It’s the sort of number that makes for glowing headlines and effusive claims that climate-guilt-free beef is back on the menu.

But practical implementation is a different story. As Matthew Hayek, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, and I wrote for Wired in March, cattle feed additives work best when mixed with grain-based feed on feedlots, where cattle spend the last few months of their lives being fattened for slaughter. That leaves the majority of their lives, when they graze and emit most of their methane, completely unaffected. It’s also unclear how feasible it would be to introduce feed additives into grazing cattle’s diets.

That drops the widely touted 80 percent figure to something closer to 10 percent. That, in turn, would only make a real difference if algae production was scaled by many orders of magnitude and fed to the world’s population of approximately one billion cattle, raising thorny questions about the economic feasibility and ecological side effects of creating all-new value chains for a brand-new monocrop. Even if these questions could be answered, the total global reductions promised by changes in feed would still fall short of the climate targets in the EAT-Lancet calculations, meaning we’d have to eat less meat anyway, in addition to making sure the meat we did eat came from potentially more expensive, low-methane sources. And there’s one more problem. Given that feed additives work best on feedlots, they fit best within an industrial farming paradigm, making it ideal for the conventional meat industry’s greenwashing campaign. But it’s not clear how that fits with the lower-emission, nonindustrial grazing Kerry seemed to be referring to with his reference to herding cattle differently.

I don’t know what is more baked into American culture–driving or beef. But Americans aren’t going to want to give up either one. Whether plant-based meats and electric cars can push out the older industries while still giving Americans basically what they want is really the relevant question.

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