Eleven Madison Park, a top Manhattan restaurant, is going meatless. The Epicurious cooking site stopped posting new beef recipes. The Culinary Institute of America is promoting “plant-forward” menus. Dozens of colleges, including Harvard and Stanford, are shifting toward “climate-friendly” meals.
If this continues — and the Boston Consulting Group and Kearney believe the trend is global and growing — beef could be the new coal, shunned by elite tastemakers over rising temperatures and squeezed by increasingly cheap alternatives.
“Beef is under a whole lot of pressure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communications. “It was the shift in market forces that was the death knell for coal. And it’s the same thing here. It’s going to be the shift in consumer tastes and preferences, not some regulation.”
Americans do claim to want a shift. Seventy percent say it would be healthier if the country ate less meat and 58% would like to eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, according to a 2020 survey by the food market research firm Datassential. Worries about climate pile on top of long-standing health concerns about red meat.
Yet, while long-term trends back the change, U.S. consumption of beef actually ticked up slightly during the 2020 pandemic, to 55.8 pounds per person. It has been slowly rising since 2015 after plunging during the 2007-2009 Great Recession. Consumption last year remained 11.4% below 2006 and nearly 40% below peak 1970s levels, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Tastemakers are pushing. Popular culinary personalities including chef Jamie Oliver are promoting plant-centric meals. Bill Gates is urging developed nations to completely give up conventional beef. Many school and corporate cafeterias have dropped all-beef patties for “blended burgers” made of one-third mushrooms.
Meanwhile, a backlash is stirring among rural Republican politicians who scent a new battleground in the partisan culture wars. In broad swaths of the Heartland, cattle and the rows of corn grown for animal feed are central to livelihood and identity. More than a third of U.S. farms and ranches are beef cattle operations, making it the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture. Burgers sizzle from countless backyard barbecues.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts seized on a suggestion by his Democratic counterpart in neighboring Colorado that the state’s residents cut red meat for one day to counter with a “Meat on the Menu” Day. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds outdid him, declaring all of April “Meat on the Menu Month.” Fox News later spent days promoting phony accusations the Biden administration had launched a “War on Beef.”
It hasn’t, but there is no escaping the fact that beef is a climate villain. Cows’ ruminant digestive system ferments grass and other feed in multiple stomach compartments, burping methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Cattle’s relatively long lifespan compared to other meat sources adds to their climate impact.
Globally, 14.5% of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production, with cattle responsible for two-thirds, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Per gram of protein, beef production has more than 6 times the climate impact of pork, more than 8 times that of poultry and 113 times that of peas, according to a 2018 analysis of global production in the journal Science. U.S. livestock producers generally have lower emissions than worldwide averages because of production efficiencies.