If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That seems to be what Epicurious was thinking when it announced this week it was cutting beef out of its digital diet. The popular food and recipe website’s pronouncement was greeted with the entirely predictable howls of outrage from beef producers and freedom-loving conservative culture warriors across North America. After all, Epicurious actually made the move more than a year ago and hadn’t published a new recipe featuring beef since early 2020. But given that it appeared to go mostly unnoticed, they reiterated the choice earlier this week.
“Our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders,” former digital director David Tamarkin and senior editor Maggie Hoffman wrote. “We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet.”
As it happened, that particular climate offender was already getting plenty of airtime. The Fox News misinformation machine was deep into the throes of an invented scandal about beef, one that claimed Joe Biden wanted to reduce beef consumption in America by 90 per cent. As congressional freshman and QAnon enthusiast Lauren Boebert tweeted, "They want to limit us to about four pounds a year. Why doesn't Joe stay out of my kitchen?"
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former Trump administration economic adviser Larry Kudlow and Fox host John Roberts were among those who conscripted themselves into this non-existent war on beef, although Roberts was later forced to admit the Biden administration actually had no such plan.
The offending figure, it turned out, was from a 2020 study that modelled what sorts of dietary changes would be required to reduce our collective carbon footprint. That study was weaponized by the Daily Mail and linked to Biden’s recently announced climate plans, despite the fact the actual study in question was done when Donald Trump was in office.
"The study shows that if we eat less meat, especially beef, we could substantially reduce our dietary carbon footprint,” lead author Diego Rose told the Austin American-Statesman. “But that change in behaviour is a choice that individuals will make."
It’s not one that will come easily. There’s no question eating less red meat is good for the climate, although the degree to which it’s helpful depends on a number of different factors. Grass-fed beef, for example, has much lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production than the kind of mass-scale factory farming that has destroyed much of the Amazon rainforest. And while methane emissions associated with cattle farming are the leading driver of beef’s climate costs, experiments with using lemongrass and seaweed as feedstock are showing promising results.
Other sources of protein, meanwhile, have their own associated greenhouse gas emissions, even if their emissions per calorie are smaller. But there should be even less question about the beef industry’s willingness to fight back against any effort to curb consumption. In 2016, Earls replaced its Prairie suppliers with a so-called “Certified Humane” source in Kansas — and then spent the new few months dealing with the blowback.
Far-right agitators like Ezra Levant attacked the company for its apparently unpatriotic decision, and it was eventually forced to back down and find a compromise with Canadian ranchers. “We hurt a lot of people,” concept development chef Phil Gallagher said at a 2017 Manitoba Beef Producers meeting. “We hurt a lot of people’s feelings, and we hurt a lot of people who work hard every day to produce the food that we consume in Canada.”
At some point, though, we have to find a way to get past those hurt feelings if we’re going to meet the climate targets being set on our behalf right now. It’s tempting to think we can let corporations and governments do the heaviest lifting, and that our preferences and priorities can remain unaffected.
As @epicurious cuts beef from its digital diet and conservative culture warriors cook up a scandal over steak, we have to find a way to reckon with what our diet does to the planet, writes columnist @maxfawcett.
But that’s no more realistic than eating hamburgers every day for dinner and hoping that you don’t keel over from a heart attack before the age of 50. Choices have consequences, even if we’re not necessarily the ones who will feel the brunt of them on something like climate change. And while we’d all like to have our metaphorical steak and eat it, too, the climate math gets pretty ugly when billions of people are all doing it at the same time.
I’m hardly without blame or guilt here, by the way. I’ve started so-called “meat clubs” — that is, semi-regular gatherings at meat-oriented restaurants of repute — in no fewer than three cities over the last decade, and the very thought of a fatty cut of brisket is enough to set my mouth watering. To me, the idea of giving up red meat seems a lot like the idea of giving up oxygen or sleep, neither of which I routinely entertain.
But I can’t ignore the math when it comes to climate change here, or my responsibility to do something to improve it. Until we all get a bit more serious about making different choices in our lives, we’re going to continue narrowing the range of choices available to those who will come after us.