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What’s the Latest Beef With Beef?

What Biden’s burger boondoggle tells us about partisan politics and spin-doctoring

(Photo by SIphotography/iStock)

Originally Published in The Magazine of the Sierra Club, on May 7, 2021

For a couple of days in April, my Twitter stream was abuzz with alarmist “the libs are coming for your burgers” headlines. The social media fire was sparked by news outlets and rogue posters asserting that President Biden’s Earth Day pronouncement for climate action—which set an ambitious goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030—included a command to strip America of its burgers. Fox News host John Roberts rallied viewers with this battle cry: “Say goodbye to your burgers if you want to sign up to the Biden climate agenda.” Meanwhile, an on-air graphic declared, “Bye-Bye Burgers Under Biden’s Climate Plan.” In fact, Biden’s plan included nothing of the sort.

The false claim seems to have stemmed from a British tabloid alleging that Biden would soon be scolding Americans to cut their red meat habit down to a measly four pounds a year. While the story was outlandishly off—Biden’s plan largely focused on massive decarbonization of the economy and didn’t mention beef at all—the tabloid had tapped into the findings of a real 2020 University of Michigan study. The punchline of that research was that, yes, dietary change in the United States could be a powerful tool to lower the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Based on a large body of evidence of industrial animal agriculture’s climate footprint, particularly red meat, the researchers estimated that if Americans ate 90 percent less red meat and halved all other meat consumption, US greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 50 percent.

In a retraction that aired several days after his burger fear-mongering, host Roberts even acknowledged as much. While the network was wrong about Biden’s meat-reduction demands, he said, the science was right: “Cutting back how much red meat people eat,” Roberts told Fox News viewers, “would have a drastic impact on harmful greenhouse gas emissions.”

Despite the clear message embedded in this retraction—that eating less meat can reduce our climate impact—the damage had already been done: Those who heard the original spin were left believing there was truth behind Biden being pegged as a draconian hamburger-stealer-in-chief and were uninformed about the underlying takeaway: that by choosing to eat less meat, the typical American would benefit the climate, and their own health. What’s worse, the debate around reducing meat consumption became further positioned as something partisan, as opposed to, say, a matter of common sense.

For years, advocates have been trying to sound the alarm that if we want to fix the climate crisis, we have to talk about food, and in particular, the environmental damage wrought by industrial-scale meat production. Although connected to nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, food systems are not only a major climate crisis culprit; sustainable farming practices are a key part of climate resiliency and mitigation. So I was thrilled to see the University of Michigan study driving home the impact meat reduction could have—but much less than thrilled to see it misused as fodder for Fox News spin.

Let’s be clear, this spin is not random; it’s a deliberate tactic: Politicize science so that common-sense decisions feel like partisan posturing. (And it’s not the first time it’s been spun around beef. Remember in early 2019 when Republicans seized on a comment made by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that “maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” to claim that her Green New Deal would outlaw hamburgers?) We’ve seen this spin strategy deployed to try to sideline individual climate action for years: Driving a Prius makes you a progressive. We’ve even seen it around the COVID-19 response: Donning a mask marks you as a Democrat. And now, we’re seeing it about the food and climate connection: Reaching for a lentil burger makes you a leftie.

This spin is not random; it’s a deliberate tactic: Politicize science so that common-sense decisions feel like partisan posturing. And it’s not the first time it’s been spun around beef.

Portraying these kinds of actions as partisan politics is a strategic means of sidelining their seriousness and silencing those who are uplifting the science behind them and pushing needed policy reforms. It’s also a way to keep the debate narrowly focused on individual action, not on a highly consolidated industry with undue influence on Capitol Hill that’s been working hard to thwart regulations. In one New York University study, researchers found that all 10 of the US-based meat and dairy companies they reviewed had contributed to efforts “to undermine climate-related policies.”

But perhaps the ludicrousness of this spin is a sign of just how desperate the fossil fuel industry and its allies have become. That’s the take of my colleague Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media, who has been tracking the ways in which industry has used PR to fight climate action. Industry “knows climate action is popular,” Henn shared with me via email, “and that the public would be happy to ditch polluting fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable energy.” He then added, with a semi-forgivable dad joke (his daughter is two months old), “when all you're left clinging to is a burger, you know your buns are on the line."

The truth is simple. The amount of meat this country produces is out of whack—out of whack for our climate and for our health. The USDA estimates that we produce 222.4 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018 for every man, woman, and child for domestic consumption alone—theoretically enough to have a burger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The University of Michigan study notes that about one-third of that ends up on our plates as the meat and poultry we eat—a total of about 133 pounds a year, among the highest in the world. From all food sources, the typical American is eating about twice as much protein as our bodies can use. In other words, we can cut back, way back, on meat consumption without worrying about our protein needs; in fact, we’d see health benefits. Overconsumption of meat, after all, carries worrisome health consequences—researchers have found red meat consumption to be tied with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, among other illnesses. Not to mention the fact that processed meat has been declared “carcinogenic to humans” by the world’s preeminent cancer authority—and that plant-based foods are an ample source of protein.

The overarching message is that an industrial meat industry that is allowed to operate virtually unchecked impacted our health and the environment. And, whether we are a Fox News watcher or an NPR listener, we all can make choices—including, yes, cutting back on burgers—that align with our and the planet’s health. So let’s not take the bait from the burger boondoggle and instead be aware of why and when the spin-masters are trying to spin us.


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