During the last week's White House climate summit, the Biden administration unveiled ambitious plans to dramatically cut the U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Right-wing pundits and politicians quickly jumped on a far-fetched and ultimately debunked interpretation of this proposal, which claimed that Americans will be forced to cut their red meat consumption by 90 percent.
Suggesting that a U.S. government would ration the consumption of the most American of meats is ludicrous. While several European countries are considering climate-related taxes on meat, the traditional opposition to new taxes makes this route a no-go in the U.S. However, tackling climate change will require changes in our food systems. But don't be afraid of burger-snatching Democrats: Most of these changes can be implemented before our food reaches the dinner plates.
Modern agriculture contributes to GHG emissions in several ways. Its consumption of diesel fuel for various farm machines results in carbon dioxide emissions, while agriculture-related deforestation lowers the ability of the biosphere to capture some of that carbon dioxide. The production of artificial fertilizers consumes 2 percent of world energy and their decomposition in the soil releases nitrous oxide, a gas about 100 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. Cows, which are the key farm animal to Western nutrition rich in beef and dairy, release methane during their digestion; methane is several dozen times more potent GHG than carbon dioxide. And much of these emissions is released for nothing — we throw away one-third of all food produced.
Many of these problems can be tackled by a combination of new technologies, regulation and education. Better fertilizer formulations can minimize the amount of fertilizers lost to wind and rain, while sensors for real-time monitoring of nitrate (the key component of fertilizers) can allow accurate dosing. Food waste happens around the world, but its main causes in the West are the overemphasis on the aesthetic appearance of produce, confusing safety labels and high standard of living. Many consumers routinely buy more food than they will consume.
In 2016, France introduced a law which forbids supermarkets from throwing away food — they must instead donate it. While still in an early stage, this law is already showing positive effects on food inequality and has stimulated innovations, such as the Too Good to Go app that advertises deeply discounted foods toward the end of the day. In the U.S., there is a growing movement among local and state governments and private actors to simplify food safety labels. Namely, “best before” and “enjoy by” dates on food packages are often misinterpreted to mean “unsafe after,” resulting in perfectly edible foods being discarded. As the most egregious example, dried pasta and most canned foods can be used safely years after their “best before” dates.
Back to beef. Along with cheese, it is the most carbon-intensive commonly used food. Each pound of beef or cheese causes the equivalent of emitting 21 pounds of carbon dioxide — three times more than pork, five times more than rice, and almost 20 times more than most legumes. These emissions mostly come in the form of methane, which could be captured by better management of farms and their manure piles. As methane is a fuel — identical in composition to natural gas — its capture could also be economically profitable: It could be burned on site to provide electricity or heating, or sold to off-site consumers.
Finally, Americans should probably be eating less beef; doctors have been telling them that for decades. There are encouraging signs. Vegan and vegetarian diets are on the rise in the U.S., especially in the faster growing non-white segment of the population.
Biden is not after our burgers. But ditching them every now and then is a responsible thing to do. It’s good for the body, it’s good for the planet.
Ognjen Miljanić is a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, where he teaches about energy and sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @MiljanicGroup.