Can Beef Become the New Coal?

By Hari Yellina
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Eleven Madison Park, a prestigious Manhattan restaurant, is eliminating meat off its menu. Epicurious.com has stopped publishing new beef recipes. “Plant-forward” cuisine are promoted by the Culinary Institute of America. Several universities, including Harvard and Stanford, are switching to “climate-friendly” meals. If this tendency continues—and the Boston Consulting Group and Kearney believe it is worldwide and spreading—beef may become the new coal, despised by elite tastemakers due to rising temperatures and squeezed by cheaper alternatives. Anthony Leiserowitz, head of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communications, said, “Beef is under a lot of pressure.” “Coal’s demise was precipitated by a shift in market dynamics. It’s the same situation here. It will be a shift in consumer preferences.

Americans claim to desire a change. According to a 2020 survey by the food industry research firm Datassential, 70% believe it would be better if the country ate less meat and 58 percent want to consume more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy grains. Worries about the environment are compounded by long-standing health concerns about red meat. Despite the fact that long-term patterns support the transition, beef consumption in the United States increased somewhat during the 2020 pandemic, to 55.8 pounds per person. After dropping during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, it has been slowly rebounding since 2015. According to the US Agriculture Department, consumption last year was 11.4 percent lower than in 2006 and over 40% lower than in the 1970s.

Tastemakers are exerting pressure. Chef Jamie Oliver, among other well-known chefs, is advocating plant-based meals. Bill Gates is asking rich countries to abandon traditional beef entirely. Many school and business cafeterias have switched to “blended burgers” made out of one-third mushrooms instead of all-beef patties. Meanwhile, rural Republican lawmakers are reacting angrily, seeing a new front in the partisan culture battles. Cattle and the rows of corn farmed for animal feed are fundamental to subsistence and identity in large parts of the Heartland. Beef cattle operations account for more than a third of all farms and ranches in the United States, making them the single largest part of the industry. Countless backyard barbecues sizzle with burgers.

Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska seized on a recommendation from his Democratic counterpart in neighbouring Colorado that Nebraskans cut red meat for one day in order to retaliate with a “Meat on the Menu” Day. Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa outdid him by proclaiming April to be “Meat on the Menu Month.” Later, Fox News spent days spreading false claims that the Biden administration had begun a “War on Beef.” It hasn’t, but there’s no denying that meat is a climate detractor. The ruminant digestive system of cows ferments grass and other feed in several stomach compartments, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more strong than CO2. Cattle have a longer lifespan than other meat sources, which contributes to their climate effect.

According to Lisa Feldman, director of recipe management at food service giant Sodexo SA, more than half of the roughly 350 school districts supplied by the company have switched from all-beef to blended beef-mushroom burgers, and many corporate and health-care customers use the blend for tacos and lasagna. Corporate customers are implementing “choice architecture” to encourage staff to consume fewer meat-based meals.


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