Big Beef

A nutrition panel’s common-sense advice could spark Washington’s next major climate fight.


Vegetables are greener in more ways than one.

Photo by James Emmerman

Last week the nation’s top nutrition advisory panel unveiled 500-odd pages of advice for the federal agencies tasked with writing the nation’s dietary guidelines. Tucked among the usual recommendations—eat more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; eat less fat, salt, and sugar—were a few small coffee- and egg-themed surprises and one giant green one. Americans, the panel said, should consider the environment when deciding what to eat and what not to.

If that sounds like common-sense advice, that’s because it is. Climate scientists and nutrition advocates have been saying it for years. But the simple recommendation may end up sparking Washington’s next knock-down, drag-out climate fight between Big Business and the Obama administration.

“Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased [greenhouse gas] emissions, land use, water use, and energy use,” reads the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report. “This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower.” The chapter goes on to conclude that Americans should eat a diet that “is higher in plant-based foods” and “lower in animal-based foods.” Translation: Eat less meat.

The climate case for such a suggestion has been well-covered by now, but a quick refresher: Livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of the world’s human-caused emissions, nearly half of that coming from the resources needed to grow and ship the corn and soy that most of the animals eat, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. A meat-eater’s typical diet, meanwhile, is responsible for almost twice as much global warming as your typical vegetarian’s and almost triple that of a vegan, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change last summer. That Oxford University study suggested that cutting your meat intake in half could cut your carbon footprint by more than 35 percent. Beef is particularly damaging to the planet. According to the National Academy of Sciences, it results in five times more GHG emissions than pork or chicken, while requiring 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water.

So what’s the problem with telling Americans to eat a little less of it? Historically, that type of advice can’t so much as be whispered in the nation’s capital without being swiftly beaten back by the livestock industry’s considerable muscle. By now the president’s nutritional advisory panel has largely learned not to pick this fight. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed before they unveiled its latest report. “This is a dramatic departure,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert who served on the advisory panel in mid-’90s, told Politico about the latest crop of recommendations. “They’re just telling it like it is.”

The question now becomes whether the White House is willing to listen.

The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services don’t have to follow the panel’s advice when they finalize their updated nutritional guidelines later this year. While the agencies have traditionally hewed closely to the expert recommendations, the panel’s never gone toe-to-toe with the meat industry quite like this before, despite conversation about meat consumption dating back at least four decades.

If Obama does decide to press forward, it will open up yet another front in Washington’s climate wars—with Republicans denying the science while decrying what they see as the nanny state run wild. That’s not to suggest Obama shouldn’t press forward—as my colleague Alec MacGillis has explained, the president’s come to terms with the fact that if he wants to go at all on climate, he has to go it alone—just that doing so will take political capital.

As expected, Big Beef and its conservative allies in Congress have already launched a pre-emptive strike. The North American Meat Institute blasted the report as “flawed” and “nonsensical,” sentiments echoed by other industry groups. A spokesman for Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Agriculture Department’s purse strings, likewise branded the report “politically motivated” and even threatened that the department could be subject to budget cuts if it follows the nutrition experts’ advice.

The panel knew that this would be the GOP reaction, and the fact that it wasn’t cowed (sorry) by Congress is remarkable in its own right. But if the green-themed advice ultimately makes it into the government’s final recommendations in its current incarnation, it’ll be an even bigger surprise. The industry has an excellent record of coming out on top when it feels as though its bottom line is on the chopping block (sorry again).

To get a sense of the power of the industry, consider how it has reacted to so-called Meatless Monday programs, voluntary initiatives that encourage people to go vegetarian for one day a week. In 2012 it took the industry only a matter of days to squash one such small-scale program in Capitol Hill cafeterias. The industry notched an even more convincing win the year before when the USDA published an interoffice newsletter that read, in part: “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative.” Almost immediately after the industry voiced its anger, farm-state lawmakers scrambled to fall in line, vowing, in Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s words, to “eat more meat on Monday to compensate for [this] stupid USDA recommendation.” Within 24 hours, the newsletter was taken offline, and the department issued a statement saying that it “does not endorse Meatless Monday.”

Americans aren’t obligated to follow the USDA’s nutrition guidelines, regardless of whether they come in the form of a plate or a pyramid. But they still represent an exponentially bigger fight than small-scale Meatless Monday initiatives. The federal guidelines shape the health narratives that influence the diets of millions of consumers and, more directly, dictate school lunch menus and what foods are eligible for food assistance programs.

Given the stakes for the industry, the president could choose to focus its climate change-fighting attention elsewhere. Then again, given the stakes for the environment, that’s probably why he shouldn’t.