We Need to Talk About Ranching

Activists, researchers, and at this point, a large proportion of the general public all know that reducing beef consumption in high-income countries would have substantial climate benefits. If every American replaced four of every ten meals containing beef with chicken or pork, it would reduce US agricultural emissions by about 20%.

But for lower beef consumption to have the environmental benefits that reducetarians imagine, the beef industry must suffer — there is no plausible way around it. This presents a dicey political prospect given the prominent place of the livestock industry in the American food system and cultural landscape. So while eating less beef may be a potentially eco-friendly consumer action, producing less beef is a challenging political and societal problem.

For the industry to survive lower consumption, one of two things would have to happen, neither of which would fully resolve the tradeoff between industry and climate. The industry could be kept alive by government subsidies, price supports, and direct purchases, which would nullify the environmental benefits. Or the US could export more beef. While increasing exports to countries with more carbon-intensive production could be a win-win for US producers and the climate, exporting enough to compensate for reducetarian goals would require a revolution in US trade policy and would endanger the livelihoods of producers overseas.

In principle, realizing the environmental benefits of eating less beef while also respecting the interests and identities of producers requires that they be engaged in any transition-planning process from the start. Yet it is entirely unclear what it would look like for producers to participate in a process they so strongly oppose.

Beef consumption has already been on the decline. While total production has stayed relatively similar since the mid-1970s, per capita disappearance — the amount of product purchased from groceries and wholesalers — has fallen almost 40% from 89.5 lbs per person in 1976 to 54.7 lbs per person in 2018 (see figure 1). The recent arrival of popular plant-based alternatives, like Beyond and Impossible, poses further risks to the increasingly threatened beef industry. With recent reports predicting that plant-based meat will take a large bite out of the beef industry, it is becoming more and more likely that beef producers will soon face severe disruption.

Figure 1, USDA ERS historical data

In the past, the USDA and the US federal government has supported industries facing economic pressure from declining consumption. The Commodity Credit Corporation — currently acting at max capacity in the face of trade-deal and late-summer weather fallout — was created to support the American agricultural industry during the Great Depression when prices dropped and farmers couldn’t support themselves. Since the 1930s, the CCC, along with other federal and state-level programs, have tried to keep agricultural producers solvent across farm crises, abnormal weather, and shifting economic patterns.

At the same time, the federal government has aided domestic producers by negotiating increased export deals. Increased exports of US beef could actually solve both goals we have set out: decreasing GHG emissions and protecting producers’ welfare. In 2018, the United States had record beef exports, sending 1.4 million metric tons of beef, worth approximately $8 billion, out into the world. Of that exported beef, 82% went to the six largest markets: Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Hong Kong, Canada, and Taiwan. If the US could continue to find a way to increase exports to countries where beef production is more emissions-intensive than in the US, net greenhouse gas emissions would potentially decrease. For example, the US exported almost 72,000 tons of beef to the Republic of Korea in 2017. If that beef were produced locally in Korea — where beef production is 25% more emissions intensive than in the US — it would release an additional 300,000 tons of CO2 equivalent.

But if domestic consumption dramatically declines, the possibility of solving both producers’ economic and the world’s environmental problems becomes slimmer. For example, if consumption decreases by 25%, US beef exports would have to almost triple in volume in order to maintain current production levels. At that rate, the US would have to find new markets for roughly 3.0 million metric tons of beef above current export rates. Where that excess beef would go is the primary question.

One hypothetical answer would be to raise exports to developing countries in Africa, Southeast and Central Asia, and South America. While this could have the highest impact on net GHG emissions — as developing countries, on average, have higher-intensity beef production systems — the potential political limitations and social consequences may be too high. First off, for many developing nations, agricultural imports can threaten their domestic agricultural economy by bringing in lower price goods in large quantities. Secondarily, governments often fear a growing dependence on the United States and other developed nations for their food supply.

At the end of the day, solving the problem of declining American beef consumption through exports would require a revolution in how the United States trades with the world. Despite potential dual benefits, if we see a dramatic decline in consumption, the sheer quantity of beef exports needed to match contemporary production would be infeasible. In short, realizing the environmental benefits of lower beef consumption means putting producers out of work.

Fairness and social responsibility require that beef producers have a voice in this conversation. The “just transition” framework, developed within the American labor movement, has been put forward as a guide to addressing climate change while protecting workers in emissions-intensive industries.

But the egalitarian values informing the just transition framework paper over the unavoidable conflict. Proponents would like to speak for the same people they advocate putting out of business, asking them to participate in a process they vehemently oppose. Unsurprisingly, there has been no “just transition” in places like Appalachian coal country because of such opposition. Ranching, like coal mining, represents more than a career. The desire of ranchers to keep ranching is rooted not just in material self-interest, but in identity, and should be understood against the backdrop of the role of the cattle industry in America’s nation-building and cultural mythology.

As a society, we have yet to devise a good answer for the social impact of the transitions that deep decarbonization will require. In the words of longtime labor leader Richard Trumka: “just transition is just an invitation to a fancy funeral.”