(Bloomberg Opinion) — At a rally in Iowa last week, Vice President Mike Pence warned farmers and ranchers of a coming war on red meat. “Senator Kamala Harris says she would change the dietary guidelines in this country to reduce the amount of red meat Americans can eat,” said Pence to a spirited crowd. “We’re not going to let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat!”
Pence’s battle cry echoed Trump’s declaration in 2016 that Democrats were waging a “war on coal.” Having failed to revitalize the coal industry, Trump and Pence want to make red meat the new coal. Biden and Harris should be careful not to take the bait — as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, when she vowed to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Let’s be clear, Harris and Biden have never expressed opposition — let alone declared war — against meat. “I love cheeseburgers,” Harris said in a 2019 CNN town hall meeting. But she also urged the audience to ease up on its meat intake. She advocated for “creating incentives that will … encourage moderation” in consumers’ daily meat consumption, and for educating them “about the effect of our eating habits on our environment.”
This might be a rational message, but it’s not a winning one. Biden and Harris should take a bolder stance on America’s changing relationship to meat — one that focuses on economic opportunity, not the loss of a way of life.
Less than 5% of Americans are vegan or vegetarian. I’m among the 95% of meat eaters in this country, but I struggle with the fact that U.S. consumers eat more meat per capita than almost any other nation — 214 pounds a year on average, about 50% more than Europeans, according to the World Economic Forum.
Yet the U.S. meat industry today is where the coal industry was a decade ago: in the early stages of consumer-driven disruption. In recent years, U.S. startups have become global leaders in alternative meat production, and in recent months, the pandemic has forced many Americans to take notice.
Demand for alternative meat products in the U.S. increased by 264% in the 9 weeks leading up to May 2. The top brand in plant-based meats, Beyond Meat Inc., now has a market cap of $7.7 billion — up from $3.2 billion just before the pandemic. Impossible Foods, another popular brand, has raised $1.5 billion in funding. It sells its plant-based burgers in Walmart, Kroger, Starbucks and Burger King. According to the company, nine out of 10 consumers of Impossible Burgers are meat eaters.
Instead of declaring a war on the meat industry, Biden and Harris should celebrate its evolution. They could emphasize that meat giants like Tyson Foods Inc., JBS and Smithfield — whose processing plants have become Covid-19 hotspots — are themselves investing in a plant-based future.
In recent months, JBS launched Ozo, a producer of plant-based meat products. The pork processor Smithfield has launched Pure Farmland, a line of plant-based burgers, meatballs and breakfast sausage. Hormel, producer of SPAM, is selling meatless meat under the brand Happy Little Plants.
Cargill Meats has invested in the cellular agriculture startup, Memphis Meats, which grows meat from cells sampled from animals. Tyson Foods has followed suit, with investments in both Beyond Meat and Memphis. “If we can produce the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?” Tom Hayes, the former Tyson CEO who spearheaded these investments, told me in a 2018 interview. He acknowledged that ethical meat consumption “has just begun to build momentum” and reasoned: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?”
There is a strong case to be made that the growth of alternative meats can buoy American farmers who have been struggling for years by helping them diversify their crops. The key ingredients in plant-based meats are soy, dry peas, legumes and pulses. As demand grows for alternative meats, so will demand for these crops.
In 2019, for example, dry peas were planted on more than 1 million acres in seven states — a 30% increase from 2018. When I spoke with Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, he argued that alternative meats can propel “a revolution in American agriculture … Net-net, as plant-based meat products and markets mature, many American farmers can make more money.”
Biden and Harris would also be wise to emphasize the health benefits of alternative meats. They could highlight, for instance, findings like the one published last week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which showed that when participants swapped their protein from animal to Beyond Meat plant-based meat, their weight and cholesterol levels dropped, as did their risk of heart disease.
The environmental benefits are also significant. According to a University of Michigan study, producing a quarter-pound burger from plant-based ingredients requires 99% less water, 93% less land, 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 50% less energy than does a conventional quarter-pound beef burger.
We can’t build a sustainable food future without transforming the meat industry. This doesn’t mean the end of animal meats. Rather, innovation in the industry is a big step forward for consumer choice.
Biden and Harris may not have to remind voters that the conventional meat industry is archaic and inefficient: One billion pounds of meat were destroyed in the second quarter of 2020, because supply chain disruptions during the pandemic prevented them from being processed. The Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted longstanding problems in meat production, from the unethical treatment of animals in slaughterhouses to unsafe conditions for workers at processing plants.
Trump and Pence want to fight a culture war over red meat. It’s one Biden and Harris can win handily if they describe a future of sustainable food production that can strengthen the economy, feed consumers affordably and help the environment. Rather than asking voters, “Where’s the beef?” they can tell America exactly where beef is going.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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