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Instead of Reengineering Cows, Just Eat Less Meat

Meat consumption is the third rail in climate politics. But no amount of ingenuity is going to make feedlots good for the environment.

A Montbeliarde breed cow stands in its enclosure at an agricultural fair.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has a meat problem. The average American will eat about 220 pounds of meat this year, including around 60 pounds of beef. The cattle needed to support that consumption require vast amounts of land and feed. They emit huge quantities of methane, which heats the planet. The farms and feedlots they’re raised on pollute waterways, and deplete soils, and contribute to the rising threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The workers needed to process the meat toil in Covid-19-infested slaughterhouses, where tens of millions of animals are slaughtered on under-regulated high-speed production lines.

The most obvious solution to these problems is pretty simple: produce and eat a lot less meat. A recent report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of leading global experts on food and climate, recommended a diet for optimal human and planetary health that includes 14 or fewer grams of beef per day, an 80 percent reduction from current U.S. consumption. And recent research published in Science suggests that the U.S. could reduce its food-related emissions by almost three-quarters just through dietary change.

Instead of confronting the beef problem head-on and reducing consumption, however, many are holding out for a scientific silver bullet—no one more so than the meat industry itself. This past week, The New York Times published a piece by longtime science reporter Henry Fountain chronicling efforts to reduce the ecological hoofprint of feedlots in the Texas Panhandle. Industry experts, animal scientists, and feedlot managers talk about trying to cut down the methane emissions from cows’ burps and the nitrous oxide emissions from their manure by changing cows’ feed and fattening animals to slaughter weight more efficiently, thereby cutting short their carbon-emitting lives.

Beef gives people enjoyment, nutrition, and sometimes a sense of identity, and most people are loath to sacrifice such pleasures. And the meat industry has profits to protect. When the public started to get queasy about animal treatment, the meat and dairy industry advertised happy cows. Now that attention has turned to cows’ methane-rich burps, the meatpackers are hawking carbon-neutral cattle.

Whether this is possible is unclear. It’s true that some feed additives, like algae, can significantly reduce cows’ methane emissions by intervening in the biochemistry of the rumen, the first of four compartments of the cow’s stomach, where food is fermented. It’s also obviously true that shortening cows’ lives gives them less time to burp.

But it is precisely the merciless efficiency of feedlots that got us to where we are now. First, big beef produced more animals more quickly, and then, fewer but fatter animals more cheaply. Today, beef is the bulwark of a monopolistic food system that relies on a steady stream of pharmaceuticals, monocropped grains, cheap labor, and compliant politicians. Novel Rube Goldberg workarounds for making beef greener don’t address these broader problems of large-scale cattle farming. It is this entire system, and not just the methane, that is unsustainable.

Even on methane, the jury is out. The New York Times cites scientists who claim that U.S. cattle’s emissions of methane are not rising. This claim depends on how you do the math. It is notoriously difficult to properly account for greenhouse gas costs that are distant from the feedlot—say the impact of deforestation driven by grain cultivation. Some experts conclude that industry-touted greenhouse gas accounting systematically underestimates the full climate cost of the U.S. diet.

There’s an implicit assumption in such articles that aligns with the meat industry’s own position: Meat consumption is inelastic, making it at once an inalienable right and an intractable problem. If we’re going to eat beef, the argument goes, it might as well be clean beef.

Unfortunately, there’s more than enough research at this point to know that clean beef is like clean coal: more an oxymoron than a practical solution. Feedlot beef cannot be made greenhouse gas neutral; it can be made less disastrous. As one of the researchers quoted in the article puts it, “We’re looking at mitigation strategies.” But the simple truth is that the only way to mitigate the impact of cattle is to produce and eat fewer cattle. This is as true in 2020 as it was in 1971, when Frances Moore Lappé published the cult classic paean to vegetarianism Diet for a Small Planet in response to the environmental impact of meat production.

Those who consider the broad impacts of food production, like the EAT-Lancet Commission, have concluded that “global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries.” Crucially, it notes the broader systemic costs that a narrow focus on emissions might miss. As a result, it urges bigger-picture thinking rather than siloed solutionism.

If anything, doubling down on feedlots forecloses some of the most promising strategies for emissions reduction and sequestration. In wonk-speak, it has significant opportunity costs. If land currently used for feed production were reforested (or rewilded) it would dramatically increase planetary biotic carbon-capture capacity. Shrinking feedlots would also introduce some exciting political possibilities for land use. In the U.S., land currently dedicated to feed production might be used for sustainable agriculture based on perennial polycultures. Or it could be returned to native peoples from whom it was forcibly taken. Or it could be used to support farmers from communities dispossessed by the Agriculture Department’s long history of racism. All of these ideas have merit, and none of them are possible in a world in which our addiction to beef is sustained.

Reporting on mitigation strategies isn’t necessarily a bad-faith exercise. Sure, the New York Times piece fails to include quotes from critics and refers only in passing to the beef industry’s “windowless slaughterhouses, staffed largely by immigrant workers.” But the broader issue is that a lot of journalism on this topic falls into an all-too-common trap: reducing all environmental politics to greenhouse gas metrics—and hoping against hope that the evil humans wreak upon each other and the world can be engineered away, no soul-searching necessary.