March 25, 2021

The Beef with Beef

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

A quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and land use – and a big portion of those emissions come from producing meat. Adopting a plant-based diet is one of the biggest steps an individual can take to reduce their own carbon footprint. So, should we all stop eating meat? Or is it more complicated than that? This week, we take a tour through the bodily functions of cows, millions of acres of corn, and the hidden policy that shapes the American food system to answer that question once and for all.


Calls to action

  • Sign up to track the latest U.S. Food & Agriculture bills, and contact Agriculture Committee members (House and Senate) about supporting a climate-friendly Farm Bill.
  • Contact the places you eat regularly about providing beef-less options – maybe it’s the cafeteria at work or school, or a community gathering space. Meatless Monday has resources for institutions that want to provide more climate-friendly meals.
  • Get involved with a local organization fighting food insecurity, a mutual aid group, a community garden, or a co-op. We also talk about mutual aid in our Unnatural Disasters episode!


Learn More


Check out our Calls to Action archive here for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail Form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

How to Save a Planet is reported and produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music from Emma Munger.

Where to Listen

Transcript

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.


Alex: I got one word for you.


Ayana: What?


Alex: Are you ready?


Ayana: What is the word?


Alex: Hamburgers. When I say hamburgers, what do you think?


Ayana: I think Hamburglar. Do you remember the Hamburglar? Like McDonald's has? Who had, like, a striped—like a hamburger thief?


Alex: Yes! Okay, but childhood memories aside—I also remember the Hamburglar fondly—but we are here to talk about the climate, so in the context of climate, when I say hamburger, what comes to mind?


Ayana: I just think drama! It's just this shorthand for which side are you on?


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: Like, on one side, you have the anti-climate action, science-denial crowd saying, "Environmentalists are gonna steal your hamburgers."


Alex: Right. [laughs]


Ayana: And then on the other side, there's these hardcore folks saying that anyone who ever eats a hamburger is clearly trying to burn and melt the planet single-handedly as soon as possible. So it's like both ends of the spectrum around the climate conversation somehow revolve around hamburgers. [laughs]


Alex: Exactly.


Ayana: And I just want to be like, "Whoa, drama. Slow your roll. Maybe we should have a chat about this."


Alex: That is what we are going to do on today's episode, because ...


Ayana: Well, look at that.


Alex: Meat, right, is a big, hot-button issue when it comes to climate. And a lot of people wonder, should I be cutting meat out of my diet for the climate? For example, we recently got this voice memo from a listener, which sort of sums up, I think, a lot of feelings about meat. So let's just play this.


Ayana: Let's hear it.


Paige: Hi there. This is Paige in Seattle. I've seen a lot of contradictory information about how helpful a plant-based diet can be for the environment. I went vegetarian last year for environmental reasons. And it's mostly been fine, except I find myself more and more resenting friends who, no matter how much I talk to them about it, refuse to change any of their eating habits. So before dying on this hill, I'd love more information to know is this actually the way that we as individuals can have the biggest impact in helping to save our planet?


Ayana: Paige, thanks for this question. The short answer is no, changing your diet is not the number one thing that an individual can do to help save the planet. And in fact, as we discussed in a bunch of detail in last week's episode, the greatest impact you can have as an individual is to be part of accelerating our transition off fossil fuels. That matters much more than your individual carbon footprint. Although it's a little more complicated. And even when we think specifically about your own carbon footprint, there are other things that rank higher than your diet. Like, whether or not you get on airplanes, for example.


Alex: Right. But as we said in last week's episode, when we looked at the sources of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture and land use.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: And a big chunk of the emissions that are attributed to agriculture and land use is from producing meat.


Ayana: And so it makes sense to think, as Paige says, that a very clear thing you could do in your own life to be a part of climate solutions is to cut out meat and animal products out of your diet. But, as she also mentioned, this can impact your social life.


Alex: Right. As Paige said in her voice memo, she's starting to resent her friends for not making the same choices she's making. And I'd wager her friends might be picking up on that resentment, and feeling something about it themselves.


Ayana: It's like the situation where my friends know never to go out to sushi with me.


Alex: [laughs] Exactly.


Ayana: You knew what you were getting into by, like, having dinner with someone who spent a career working in ocean conservation.


Alex: But I think this is a kind of thing that, like, people are wrestling with a lot, right? Like, it's just I'm making these choices in my life. The people in my life are or are not making those choices, and how much should this impact my relationships with the people that I'm close to?


Ayana: Is this the battle I should fight?


Alex: Right. Well Paige, I'm happy to say that we can help you out with this question. We actually have the perfect person on our team to help answer it.


Ayana: Yep.


Alex: Anna Ladd!


Ayana: Anna Ladd.


Anna Ladd: Did you just call me perfect? That's what we love to hear.


Alex: [laughs]


Anna: I am our official trademarked, patented How to Save a Planet staff vegan. Of all of us, I'm the only one.


Alex: You're the only one. I eat meat, although less of it than I used to, but I still do eat meat. One of my favorite things is, like, a carnitas taco.


Ayana: So I eat eggs from my mom's farm, and this is something that I never talk about because there's so much judgment, but I do eat meat occasionally, in part because after being vegan for seven years, after being vegetarian also, I was severely anemic. And iron pills didn't do it for me, no amount of kale and dark leafy greens would, like, get my iron levels back up. And so I started eating meat as medicine.


Alex: So Anna, being in the presence of two meat eaters, do you feel the same way about us as Paige feels about her friends?


Anna: I don't, but I do very much understand how Paige feels. And I certainly felt it in my early vegan and vegetarian years, which is like, this is so good, I don't understand why everyone isn't doing it. And I've been lied to my whole life.


Alex: Right.


Anna: So I used to feel some of that resentment, but I don't anymore. And you should know that I also didn't go vegan for the climate. I stopped eating meat because I was 19 and didn't know how to cook and bought frozen, uncooked chicken breast instead of frozen chicken tenders and thought it was really gross, and just never ate meat again. Like, the climate was not the reason I did this.


Alex: [laughs] You were just like, literally literally grossed out by uncooked chicken, and so you were like, "Screw this."


Anna: Right.


Alex: Yes.


Anna: And, you know, now I'm vegan because I have what we could call a handful of gripes about how animal products are produced. But when it comes to, like, my diet and the climate, I have a lot of the same questions as Paige does, which is that, is this a climate solution? And if it is, should I also be trying to convert other people to follow it too?


Alex: At the risk of, perhaps, those very relationships.


Anna: I have always annoyed my friends and I'm not gonna stop now.


Ayana: [laughs] But, like, how much? How far do you go on this? In other words, is this really the hill that you and Paige should die on?


Alex: Is going vegan or vegetarian the best way to address greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture?


Ayana: We will get to the bottom of this after this short break.


***


Ayana: So our fearless resident vegan Anna Ladd did the research for this episode, and probably thought more about meat in the last few weeks than she has in many years.


Alex: And then she shared what we found with me.


Ayana: Yeah, I was out that day and obviously bummed to miss meat chit chat.


Alex: Fortunately, we recorded it. As we do.


Ayana: As we do.


Alex: Because we're making podcasts. So Ayana, you can enjoy the chat that Anna and I had along with our listeners.


Ayana: I'm sure I'll be delighted. Over to you, Anna Ladd. Take it away.


Anna: So our listener Paige asked about meat and plant-based diets more generally.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: But as I was looking into this, it became very clear very quickly that the biggest issue in the diet and climate problem isn't meat or dairy or animal products in general. It is one meat in particular. And that meat is beef.


Alex: Beef.


Anna: So of all the foods we eat, beef has the biggest climate impact per calorie.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Anna: And it's not beef by, like, a little bit. It's beef by a pretty dramatic long shot.


Alex: Okay.


Anna: I've looked at most of the bar graphs that exist comparing the climate impacts of certain foods, and beef is always all the way up top. The line is way longer than all the other lines. Even other meat like pork and chicken, and even the other food that comes from cows—dairy, which is usually next in line after beef on the bar graph, but still not as bad.


Alex: Right. I mean, I've looked at some of those graphs too and, like, there's the bar graph of here's chicken, here's pork, here's coffee, here's almonds, you know, and they're all sort of like within the same range, and then the beef, where the bar is over twice as long as the next-highest food.


Anna: Yeah. Which is why we're gonna talk about beef and beef specifically today.


Alex: Yes.


Anna: Around 11 percent of emissions in the US come from agriculture, and a quarter of those are just from producing beef.


Alex: Wow!


Anna: So as far as impact, if Paige wants a hill to die on, beef is probably the place to start.


Alex: [laughs] That hill is called Beef Hill.


Anna: [laughs]


Alex: And why is beef so much worse than the other food products out there, even other meat products out there? Like, it's way ahead of pork and way ahead of chicken. What is it about beef that sets it apart?


Anna: So the first reason is methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, just like CO2, except it's 28 times more potent, which is not good.


Alex: Right.


Anna: And if you have heard anything about cows and climate change, then you have probably heard someone say that cows release methane into the atmosphere. Like this. Let me show you something.


[VIDEO CLIP]


Alex: So that was a video of a cow farting?


Anna: Yes.


Alex: [laughs] Got it. So yes, cow farts.


Anna: There have been lots of stories blaming cow farts for all the methane emissions from producing beef. But those stories are false.


Matthew Hayek: They're not farts, they're belches.


Anna: So this is Matthew Hayek. He's a researcher studying the environmental impact of our food system. And he told me yes, cows do emit methane, but it's in their burps, not their farts.


Alex: Burping, not farts. Okay.


Anna: and I asked him where the fart/burp mixup came from, thinking that there was something scientific going on and he was like, "No, I'm pretty sure this is just happening because farts are funnier than burps." He also said that beef producers do not think that cow fart jokes are very funny.


Matthew Hayek: If you talk about cattle farts, they'll be like, "Oh, grow up." And it's just like, no, farts are objectively funny.


Alex: Even the researcher—even the researcher has to admit yeah, it would be funnier if it was farts.


Anna: Yes. Cows are burping this methane because of this process called enteric fermentation, which only happens in the stomachs of grazing animals. And it happens because of how the grass they eat gets broken down in their stomachs.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: So it doesn't happen with other non-grazing livestock like chicken or pigs, which is why we don't have a bunch of chickens running around burping methane.


Alex: Right. Because cows alone among the big three meat animals consumed in America have a potent greenhouse gas as the byproduct of eating.


Anna: Right. And there are other animals that do this too, like sheep and bison, but we have way more cows than we have sheep or bison. We have so many cows that around two percent of US emissions are just from cow burps.


Alex: [laughs] That is crazy!


Anna: The other reason that beef has such a big climate impact is land use.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So per calorie, beef takes the most land to raise. And again, this is by a big, long shot.


Alex: Right.


Anna: And this land use is a problem for the climate for different reasons, kind of depending on where you are in the world.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So in the US, the way cows are generally raised for food is that for the first six months or so of their life, they graze, they're out on a pasture eating grass.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: After that, they go to what's called a feedlot, which is where they eat a bunch of grain crops—mostly corn. And raising cows this way uses a lot of land, because you need land for cows to graze on, and you need land to grow the crops to feed them once they're not grazing anymore.


Alex: Right.


Anna: So all in all, around 40 percent of US land is used for raising livestock in general. Around 30 percent is grazing land, most of which is for cattle, with the other 10 percent growing crops that feed cows, chickens, pigs, sheep. So basically, about a third of the US is dedicated to beef production.


Alex: That is insane!


Anna: And this is a climate problem because, if you remember from our regenerative agriculture episode, lots of these crops that cows eat are currently grown in a way that degrades the soil and releases carbon.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: There's a similar problem with grazing land. So when you have cows eating on the same piece of pasture over and over again with no break for that piece of land, that's called overgrazing. And that also degrades the soil and releases carbon. And it's estimated that over half of US pasture land is overgrazed.


Alex: Okay. Got it.


Anna: So that's the big land-use problem in the US. Globally, the land-use problem is more of a deforestation problem, particularly in the Amazon, where it's estimated that 80 percent of the deforestation has been just to clear land for cattle to graze.


Alex: Right.


Anna: Which matters because trees, as I have mentioned a couple of times on this show, suck carbon out of the air. And when we cut them down, the carbon gets released.


Alex: Right.


Anna: And as the demand for beef grows globally, the more trees have needed to be cut down globally to make room for more grazing land. That's less of a problem in the US because we've got tons of grassland and not so much tropical rainforest. And land use isn't as cow-specific of a problem as the methane is. Like, we also grow crops to feed to chickens and pigs, but the amount of land used per cow is also bigger than any other livestock animal.


Alex: Okay. Got it. So cows burp methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and they take up more land than any other animal raised for food. Which is a problem because the way that land is managed is releasing a ton of carbon. So it would seem to follow that eating fewer of them, eating fewer cows would help. Now, Anna Ladd, we should point out, in our last episode, we dove into the question of, like, personal responsibility and your own personal actions and their impact on the climate. And we concluded that just changing your own behavior by itself, doesn't have that big an impact. But if you are changing your personal behavior and that is rubbing off on other people, then it does start to help.


Alex: So if you stopped eating beef just by yourself, it doesn't really matter. But if you did convince other people to stop eating beef, and they convinced other people and your actions sort of rippled, if enough people did it, it would send a signal to the people who are raising the beef and selling it. It would be like, hey, you know what? We're good with all this beef, stop making so much of it.


Anna: This is starting to sound like a beef pyramid scheme. Just get three of your friends to stop, and then they'll get three of their friends to stop. And, like, nine layers later, the whole world has stopped eating beef and we've solved the problem.


Alex: It's an underground pyramid scheme somehow or something. Yes, exactly.


Anna: So this is a reasonable conclusion to draw. This is like, what I thought.


Alex: Uh huh. And it would seem to argue in favor of Paige's sort of contention that, like, yes, this is a hill to die on, my own personal relationships with my friends be damned. I'm gonna hector them. I'm gonna keep hectoring them to go vegan.


Anna: But the people I talked to did not seem to think that the most probable path to getting beef to have less of a climate impact was to try to convince everyone to stop eating it. So here's Matthew again.


Matthew Hayek: So this can't just be up to turning everyone vegetarian. That is probably not going to happen.


Alex: Hmm.


Anna: And this is me taking my vegan hat off and putting my strategy hat on. For an entire country that's very accustomed to eating beef, shifting millions of diets through education alone is just really unlikely for all sorts of cultural and societal and economic reasons.


Alex: Do you have data on this?


Anna: I do. Do you know what percentage of the US identified as vegetarian 20 years ago?


Alex: No, I do not.


Anna: It's five percent.


Alex: Five percent!


Anna: Five percent. Do you know what percentage of the US identifies as vegetarian now?


Alex: I would have to say that there's more people now than then.


Anna: It's still five percent.


Alex: Still five percent? That is sorta crazy.


Anna: And for every five people who go vegetarian, four of them switch back to eating meat.


Alex: Oh.


Anna: Relying on millions of people to change their diets and keep them that way is just not, like, a very good strategy.


Alex: Well, there's certainly no historical precedent that would suggest that that is something that will happen.


Anna: But there is a way that we can reduce beef production and emissions in agriculture at scale.


Alex: All right.


Anna: By changing nearly century-old policies about corn.


Alex: Wait, wait. [laughs] I think this is the first time on the podcast that I've been literally speechless.


Anna: I will explain that to you. After the break. [laughs]


[00:17:52.14]***


Alex: Welcome back. We are answering once and for all the great hamburger question: do your hamburger choices and your beef choices matter when it comes to the climate? And Anna Ladd, our resident vegan ...


Anna: That's me.


Alex: Is here, is talking us through the research and science on this. And Anna, you said getting millions of people to stop eating beef is not the solution to this problem. But then you said there was a solution, and it has something to do with corn? So I think you're gonna need to explain that.


Anna: I guess that's what I'm here to do, isn't it?


Alex: Exactly.


Anna: So in this half of the show, I'm going to focus just on the US. In part because the US is a big part of the global beef problem. We consume a fifth of all the world's beef, and we produce a quarter of it. But also, the story I'm going to lay out here, the dynamics are very similar in lots of other beef-producing countries.


Alex: Okay. Got it.


Anna: So to understand what corn has to do with all of this beef in the US, we need to understand that the task of feeding America is a very delicate balancing act. We want enough food to feed people and we want that food to be affordable, but we also want farmers to be able to make a living.


Alex: And these two things can sort of be in opposition to one another, right? If farmers sell their food for high prices, they make more money, but food is less affordable.


Anna: Right.


Alex: And if food is super cheap, it's easier for people to afford it, but farmers make less money selling it.


Anna: Exactly. And the US government has been trying to figure out what to do with this problem for a really long time. But that balancing act came to a head during the Great Depression, where farmers had grown a bunch of crops, but lots of people weren't able to afford them.


Alex: Right, because it was the Great Depression, people didn't have jobs, they didn't have money. And so they were just cutting back on everything, including food.


Anna: Right.


Alex: Yes.


Anna: And farmers tried cutting their prices then, in order to sell more food.


Alex: Right.


Anna: But when they cut their prices, they weren't making enough to cover their costs. So they tried to bring in more money by growing more crops, thinking if we can sell a lot, we can make up for the low prices. But the more they grew, the lower the prices went. And here's the president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt talking about this in a fireside chat.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Franklin Roosevelt: We found ourselves faced with more agricultural products than we could possibly consume ourselves, and with surpluses which other nations did not have the cash to buy from us except at prices ruinously low.]


Alex: Yes. Supply and demand, right? The more there is of something, generally, the lower the price of that thing goes. And so farmers were sort of in this vicious, downward cycle. Because prices were low, they had to grow more food to bring in the same amount of money, but growing more food only lowered the prices further.


Anna: Yeah. So as part of FDR's New Deal legislation, he introduced something called The Agricultural Adjustment Act. And that would later become legislation that we now know as the Farm Bill.


Alex: Ah-ha. So it's out of this that what we now know as the Farm Bill emerges.


Anna: Yes. Yes.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: It's renewed every five years, and it's since the start, but the goal since the start is to use policy to keep prices low enough for consumers, while making sure that farmers can still make money.


Alex: Trying to keep everybody happy.


Anna: Yes. Hard thing to do.


Alex: I mean, in a certain way, this is the tension that's at the heart of everything, right? Like, if I'm making something, I want to sell it to people at the highest price possible, because then I make the most money. On the other hand, you want to buy it from me at the lowest price possible because you don't wanna spend your money. And with food, because we need food to live, it's like that tension is, like, ratcheted up to 11.


Anna: Yeah. And different farm bills have tried to handle that in different ways. Like, there's crop insurance, there's minimum prices for crops, there's just straight up direct payments to farmers. But the one important thing to note is that, regardless of what the subsidies and incentives have looked like, they have not been directed across the board to all the crops. Most of them go towards a few staple crops.


Alex: Gotcha.


Anna: 70 percent of them are going to corn, wheat and soybeans. In simple terms, for nearly a hundred years, the government has basically said, "Grow as much corn, wheat and soy as you can, and we will find a way to get you paid for it." And so farmers did that. [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] Got it. Right.


Anna: And that worked very well. Basically, these subsidies, combined with advances in farming technology, gave us a bunch more of these staple crops. Take corn. We have so much corn. We have more corn than we could ever possibly eat. And this, like, rise in cheap, abundant corn since the '30s has brought us a whole handful of new industries.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Like ethanol.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: What's Texaco doing in a field of corn? Not growing it! Texaco's making gasohol. It's a mixture of 90 percent Texaco unleaded gasoline and 10 percent ethanol made from renewable crops like corn!]


Anna: This also gave us high fructose corn syrup, which became the cheapest available sweetener in the '70s because of a combo of sugar import tariffs.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Anna: And corn subsidies.


Alex: Got it. So high fructose corn syrup, this thing that is now in so many processed foods you find in the supermarket and has been linked to all sorts of health risks in the United States, that arose out of this subsidy structure?


Anna: It did. And finally, another thing we started using all this corn for was feeding it to livestock. 30 percent of all the corn grown in the US is fed to livestock. But that was a new development. Before World War II, our beef was grass-fed with some corn as a supplement. Farmers had to purchase or lease land for grazing. And it would take, like, two to three years for those grass-fed cows to get to the weight they needed to be sold—known as their market weight.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: After World War II, corn production is skyrocketing, economy's doing really well. And when the economy's doing really well, people eat more meat.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So at this time, there's a huge growth in demand for beef.


Alex: Got you.


Anna: So ranchers started feeding cattle something that would get them to their market weight more twice as fast as grass—corn.


Alex: Ah-hah. And because the corn is sort of like artificially cheaper than it would otherwise have been because of all these subsidies, this is a profitable path.


Anna: Exactly. So from 1940 to the late '70s, the number of beef cattle in the US more than quadrupled, from around 10 million to over 45 million.


Alex: 10 to 45? That is crazy! What did the population do? The population of people didn't quadruple too, right?


Anna: The population went up around 50 percent.


Alex: Okay. So we as a population just started eating way, way more cows per person, basically.


Anna: We did. And basically, these corn subsidies combined with, like, advances in farming technology made it much cheaper and quicker to do something that is otherwise not very cheap or quick to do, which is raising huge grazing animals for food.


Alex: Yes.


Anna: And then on the other side of that, that makes beef cheaper and more available for us. And this policy really, in more ways than just beef, shaped the standard American diet in a way. Like, when it came to the popularity of hamburgers.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: The burgers are bigger at Burger King. The bigger the burger, the better the burger. The burgers are bigger at Burger King.]


Anna: This is a Burger King ad from the late '60s, and the message is: gigantic hamburgers for all!


[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: The burgers are bigger at Burger King, home of the Whopper. Groovy!]


Alex: So you're telling me that, like, the reason that we eat so much beef isn't necessarily about how much we want it or how much we're demanding it in our diets. I mean, that's part of it, but a big part of it is how cheap we've made it available through these subsidies. And so if we change the subsidies, would that change our beef consumption?


Anna: So I talked to Marco Springmann about this. He's a researcher at Oxford who's been looking into what would happen if we changed around the subsidies, and this is what he told me.


Marco Springmann: If you would just spend half of all the subsidies on the production of, let's say, horticultural products, right? Like fruits, vegetables, legumes, all the products that are associated with improvements in health and have very low greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental footprints, then you could dramatically affect the production mix. So in places that have high subsidies, we found that production of fruits and vegetables, for example, would increase by almost 50 percent, which is huge. At the same time, the production of beef, but also of staple crops like corn would be reduced, and associated with that, you would have a reduction in environmental footprints, especially in greenhouse gas emissions.


Anna: In basic terms, stop subsidizing the foods and practices that hurt the climate and subsidize the ones that help it. And of course, there are constraints here, like nutrition and keeping a stable national food supply, but the overall picture is shifting more incentives to climate-friendly foods.


Alex: So if we're living in Marco Springmann's perfect world of agricultural subsidies, what does that look like for us?


Anna: So basically, we go to the grocery store, there's less beef on the shelves, and the beef that's there is way more expensive.


Alex: Hmm.


Anna: And the common estimation I've seen is that a $5 Big Mac would cost $13 with no subsidies.


Alex: Whoa!


Anna: The flip side of this is that climate-friendly foods would then become cheaper.


Alex: Oh.


Anna: But also, no one that I spoke to said the end goal of this is turning everyone into a vegan or a vegetarian.


Alex: Right.


Anna: They did say that over time, these sort of financial incentives and education would mold our diets to become more plant-based. And being more plant-based doesn't require removing any food group from your diet forever. It just means that, like, a bigger portion of your diet would come from fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds.


Alex: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I guess the way—if like, one tactic is to sort of convince as many people as possible to fully eliminate meat from their diets, you're saying that the people that you talk to are like, actually the tactic that we need is to sort of like, we don't need everybody to go to zero, we just need everybody to reduce by some percentage.


Anna: Right.


Alex: Given that, like, the number of people who go to zero is about five percent of the population, if we can get everybody to just reduce a little bit, that'll have a way bigger impact than somehow trying to get, you know, the percentage of vegetarians from five percent to eight percent or something.


Anna: Right. And that's the kind of thing that policy would actually nudge to happen.


Alex: Yes. Uh-huh.


Anna: We're not going to have everyone be vegan.


Alex: Right.


Anna: But we can—this feels to me almost like a reasonable target. And the World Resources Institute put out a big report on this. And they said that the goal would be to shift to about one and a half servings of beef per person per week in countries where people currently eat a lot of beef, like the US.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And this accounts for the fact that the demand for beef will keep growing globally. As a country becomes more wealthy, they also tend to start eating more meat—including beef.


Alex: And other meat would still presumably be in there. So you could be eating chicken and stuff, but this is just beef.


Anna: Yeah. And the report even said that. Like, even if just everyone who eats beef just switched to chicken, that would help mitigate a big chunk of the problem.


Alex: Right. So this all seems very, very sensible to me and, like, really interesting. My one question though is, like, if you're talking about reducing the amount of cows, but not eliminating them, when we talk about the things we need to do, you know, we have to eliminate essentially coal-fired power plants. We have to eliminate fossil fuels, or really significantly reduce it and have some carbon-capture technology or something, right? Like, so there's certain things that we just got to get rid of. If cows are this bad, right, because of the methane and because of the land use, don't we need to get rid of all of them too? Or not?


Anna: We don't, because there are ways to cut down on emissions while still producing some beef. We don't need to just get rid of it all.


Alex: Gotcha. Okay.


Anna: So on the methane side, Ayana mentioned in the kelp episode that there's this certain type of seaweed called asparagopsis, and when you add it to cattle feed in small amounts, it reduces the methane in their burps anywhere from 60 to 80 percent.


Alex: Okay, that's a pretty big reduction.


Anna: And on the land use side, I talked to a researcher, Paige Stanley, who's studying grazing and soil interactions, about the overgrazing problem. And she told me that there's a set of grazing management practices that would help the soil sequester carbon instead of release it, that fall under the umbrella of regenerative grazing.


Paige Stanley: Regenerative grazing entails rotations. So you're moving them across the landscape. And that they're not overgrazing. So that's quite different than business-as-usual grazing, which is just, like, leading cattle out to a pasture to graze at their leisure. And then also providing that land with plenty of rest before the cattle make it back there.


Anna: And we should note that these regenerative methods take up more than twice as much land as we already use for grazing—and we already use a lot of land for grazing. So it's not quite as simple as taking all the conventional beef operations and swapping them out for this. But the methods can be absolutely improved and emissions can be reduced. And this is usually framed as, like, an either-or, either reduce production or do production more sustainably. But the people I talked to said that we really need both.


Alex: Right. So if we dramatically reduce the amount of cattle in production, they could be raised more sustainably. And if we could feed them seaweed so they wouldn't burp as much methane, then sort of where they are on the graph now, which is sort of with the line that goes literally off the chart, their line would be more in line with all the other sort of animals on the graph.


Anna: Right.


Alex: Which is to say sort of something a lot more manageable.


Anna: Right. But of course, when we lay this out as, like, a theoretical model, it seems very simple. You just reallocate some subsidies, and the amount of beef produced and the amount of beef eaten changes.


Alex: Done and done!


Anna: But this, what we are talking about is a remaking of the entire American food system.


Alex: Right. Right, right, right.


Anna: It involves people's livelihoods. It involves a lot of tradition. It involves people having access to food. Like, this is a much bigger deal than it sounds than just sort of on the "stop subsidizing corn" theory.


Alex: Yeah. Well, it's like anything when—it's like any of these big changes that we talk about. Just, like, stop using coal. Like, you're talking about—like, there's lots of people whose livelihoods are tied to coal. And that's scary.


Anna: Yeah. And there's entire parts of the country whose economy relies on growing corn.


Alex: Yeah.


Anna: And, like, I think a useful way to think about this is the same way that we think when we talk about, like, transitioning away from a fossil-fuel economy, which is the idea of the just transition.


Alex: Yeah. This is the idea that as we transition to this new low-carbon economy, we need to take care of the folks whose livelihoods depend on the old fossil-fuel economy, right? Like, we can't be transitioning to wind farms at the expense of coal miners. We need to take care of the coal miners as we go forward.


Anna: Right. And it's not an exact parallel in that we're not talking about eliminating beef or eliminating ranching or eliminating corn the way that we're talking about eliminating coal.


Alex: Right.


Anna: But the idea is still the same. Like, that transition needs to be really carefully considered. And we need to support, you know, entire pieces of the American economy through it.


Alex: Right.


Anna: It is not just as easy as, like, a policy tweak and then the beef problem goes away.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Especially because there's not really a precedent for what it looks like to transition from animal agriculture to a plant-based agriculture. There's one-off farms around the world that have done this. And there's some pilot programs with plant-based companies that are like, oh, maybe we can pay a dairy farmer to instead grow oats for our oat milk, that kind of thing. But it's not happening on the kind of scale that we're talking about.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And I think the closest example to this would be farmers who transitioned from a conventional operation to an organic or regenerative one, like Grant and Dawn, the farmers we talked to in the regenerative episode.


Alex: Yeah.


Anna: And they said it took a lot of time, it took a lot of money, and there was a huge learning curve to, like, learn how to do the thing that, you know, three generations before them had done differently. And Marco told me that he thinks policy could actually help with this transition. The government could provide financial support for farmers who are trying to change to something new.


Alex: Right.


Marco Springmann: And it's not that, you know, ranchers basically want to wreck the planet consciously, right? I mean, very often they just do what their parents have done and previous generations have done. And I mean, most of them have very close contact to the land that they work with, right? So they have an interest in preserving that to some degree. So access to really insurance schemes that would allow them to change production, and buffer the sort of short-term reduction in production that they would have when they changed their mix of commodities is very important.


Alex: Well, this was a fascinating march through history and policy and economics. And my takeaways are, our listener Paige doesn't need to die on this one particular hill, on Beef Hill. And to address climate change, we don't need everyone to go vegan, but we do need to reduce the supply of beef, which means changing our subsidies around.


Anna: And I want to say there are still things individuals can do here that, at least to me, feel a little less daunting than trying to convert the diet of everyone we know and love. Which brings us to our patented How to Save a Planet calls to action.


Alex: Let's do it!


Anna: So if you are Paige, or if you are one of the listeners that feels like her, something that we're gonna need is that if we have a world where beef is less available and more expensive, we're going to want eating less beef to feel sort of normal and accessible to people. And, like, the way to sort of normalize this and make it available to people isn't by telling all your friends they should be vegetarians, it's by sort of zooming out and thinking more about your community and where are the places there that people eat.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Anna: And what can you do to make a beefless option available there that is tasty and not, like, a sad sort of undressed salad, where you then have to go to the end of the table and get a spoonful of hummus and be like, maybe this can be my dressing. I'm saying this from experience.


Alex: [laughs] That's what I was gonna say. We've left the land of the theoretical very quickly here. Come back, come back, Anna Ladd, it's okay. You're not at that cafeteria anymore. You're here with me.


Anna: [laughs] But this is to say that you probably have a cafeteria where you go to school, or maybe the place you work caters lunch sometimes. Can you ask for there to be a tasty beefless option there?


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So that you and the people around you get just kind of used to eating less beef.


Alex: Right.


Anna: And then beyond that, it is worth thinking more broadly about feeding our communities in general. Like, we are talking about taking a primary source of protein, making it more expensive and less available. And even if, you know, the other foods would become less expensive, there's still a learning curve, and there's still, like, an access curve to getting those fresh foods anyways.


Alex: Right.


Anna: So if you are an individual looking for something to do in the food and climate problem, a place to start is getting involved with a group that fights food insecurity, a mutual aid group, a community garden, a co-op. Something that would help people access this transition when it makes its way to us.


Alex: Right. That's really good advice.


Anna: Thank you. I wrote it myself.


Alex: [laughs] And if you want to do something about the farm bill, it's up for a new version in 2023. We're gonna list all the members of the House and Senate ag committees in the show notes and in the newsletter. And if you want to let them know that you want a farm bill that supports more climate-friendly foods and diets, by all means do so.


Anna: Also, we will have bonus readings for you. You can sign up for the newsletter at howtosaveaplanet.show to check out some of the reports that we read in making this episode.


Alex: All right, Ayana!


Ayana: Hey!


Alex: You want to come back for the credits?


Ayana: I would love to. I love giving credit where it's due.


Alex: Let's do it.


Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Although today, Anna Ladd did hosting duty and guided us through a meaty topic.


Alex: It's also hosted by me, Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our intern is Ayo Oti.


Ayana: Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music from Emma Munger, Peter Leonard, and Catherine Anderson.


Ayana: Our fact checker this week is Angely Mercado. And special thanks to Tom Philpot. Do you want to say it together, Alex?


Ayana and Alex: Thanks for listening. And we'll see you next week.


Ayana: [laughs] You're so slow!


Alex: That is the dumbest thing we've ever done.