The Biden nutrition conference can ignite the climate debate on meat

A White House conference on hunger and nutrition announced this week already has the meat industry preparing to fight.

Of all the food and agricultural interests that are required to be represented in the discussions of the Biden administration, meat, and especially beef, may have the greatest messaging challenge, extolling its value in the diet against the charges that the Americans already eat too much and they raise and send cattle. in the market contributes to climate change.

“We look forward to being part of this important conversation and sharing science-based data-based research on the immense environmental and nutritional benefits of livestock and meat production,” said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a commercial producer group. E&E News.

In its announcement, the Biden administration promoted the conference, the first of its kind since 1969, to promote healthier eating and reduce twin crises of hunger and obesity. Officials did not mention sustainability or climate, although this is likely to be part of the discussion about how virtually any food, especially meat, is produced.

The White House said the conference, which will begin with a series of listening sessions, “will accelerate progress and drive significant changes to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related illnesses. and close the disparities around it. ” It is backed by a $ 2.5 million endowment over this year’s overhead bill.

While meat is a well-established source of protein, the basis of cells, and red meat also provides an increase in vitamin B12, it also poses health disadvantages, according to years of studies.

One such report, published in the February 3, 2020 issue of the Journal of Internal Medicine, found a small increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease due to a higher intake of processed or unprocessed red meat, with lower risks. for poultry and head of importance for fish. Studies have shown a higher risk of colon cancer with a high intake of red meat, although the meat industry points to other research suggesting that the evidence for cancer risks is not so convincing.

The federal government emphasizes “lean” meats in its recommendations. In its dietary guidelines for 2020 to 2025, the Department of Health and Human Services calls for moderate use of red meat in general.

“Dietary patterns characterized by a higher intake of red and processed meats, sugary foods and beverages and refined cereals are, in and of themselves, associated with adverse health outcomes,” the guidelines say.

The climatic impacts of livestock are a more recent issue. Animal farming contributes more than other types of exploitation to greenhouse gases, thanks to methane emissions and the carbon footprint of food and livestock. In general, agriculture contributes 10 to 12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and farms have the ability to sequester carbon through soil practices. The issue has caught the attention of Congress.

Trend lines are not positive for those who want to drastically reduce meat consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, could increase by 60 percent globally by 2030 if emissions are kept up to date with projected increases in the number of greenhouse gases. livestock, although changes in manure management and feeding practices could reduce the increase.

Environmental and health groups say policymakers should heed warnings.

“It’s impossible to talk about nutrition without addressing that we are eating more protein than is healthy,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the environmental working group. But the EWG has urged the White House to hold the next conference focused on hunger and nutrition, rather than the climate debate, Faber said.

The issue has been politically risky for the Biden administration, as evidenced by last year’s false rumor that the president’s climate targets included a 90 percent reduction in American meat consumption.

Environmental group Earthjustice urges the USDA to make sustainability and climate change a bigger part of the conversation about diet. Agricultural emissions are likely to be higher than official EPA estimates, which account for up to a third of global warming according to some research, said Peter Lehner, a staff lawyer who runs the food program and agriculture of Earthjustice.

“While food and agriculture are often a reflection of post-climate change discussions, the stark reality is that we will not achieve our climate goals without food and agriculture reform,” Lehner told E&E News in a statement. e-mail.

On the other hand, Lehner said, focusing on meat, while playing an important role, provokes immediate opposition and misses the biggest point about climate change and agriculture as a whole.

“And much of the impact of meat is indirect: the hundreds of millions of acres of land that are used to grow feed, deforestation and the like,” Lehner said. “So while we’re trying to figure out where the emissions are coming from, we think it’s important to talk not just about meat, but about the climate impact of food in general, with a disproportionate footprint of animal farming.”

Even within the meat industry, conversation can reveal differences of opinion. Proponents of pasture-fed beef say the United States produces and consumes too much “industrial meat” mass-produced in food parks, contributing to environmental problems, overuse of antibiotics, and poor animal health. and that a federal conference could help spread the message.

“By analyzing the problem and learning the real cost of food and pointing out these differences, with true cost accounting we believe consumers, armed with this information, will realize that there is a difference,” Carrie Balkcom said. executive director of the American Grassfed Association.

The White House announcement coincides with the start of National Beef Month, a promotion endorsed wholeheartedly by state lawmakers like Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley pointed to the occasion in a speech in the Senate this week and in a call with agricultural journalists on Tuesday. He cited research by the USDA that suggests little reduction in the global reduction in greenhouse gases if the whole world becomes vegan.

“Looks like you couldn’t go a week without reading an article about how we all have to go from eating beef to eating insects,” Grassley said, though strict vegans and vegetarians can also ignore these sources of protein. “This month I’ll do my part by eating juicy burgers and hopefully a loin fillet from time to time, if I can afford it.”

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