The Coming “Meat Vortex”

Meat Is the Third Rail of Climate Politics; Here’s How to Break the Cycle

Meat is a touchy topic.

At the beginning of 2021, right-wing media jumped on a rumor that President Joe Biden would force American consumers to reduce their red meat intake. The rumor was false, but the backlash was nonetheless swift. Conservative politicians, pundits, and organizations immediately denounced meat reduction as “un-American.”

Their reaction echoed the outcry two years earlier when a leaked document about “green new deal” legislation suggested that, to address climate change, Americans would need to eat far less beef. Public anger was so strong that climate advocates had to spend the next two years ensuring that the real Green New Deal would leave hamburgers alone.

But serious environmental policy can’t do that. Agriculture is responsible for approximately 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 25 percent of emissions globally. Meat is responsible for a plurality of agricultural emissions, as well as serious water and air pollution, increased morbidity from overconsumption, deforestation due to high land use, and biodiversity loss. Not all meat is equal in its environmental harms: beef production is the largest user of land and produces emissions four times that of pork and 14 times that of chicken per unit of final product in the United States. But the sector as a whole has a long track record of deplorable labor conditions, anti-social-ecological behavior, and grotesque animal treatment.

And yet animal protein remains enduringly popular, and any policies that suggest a personal responsibility to avoid it or that would result in an increase in its price are largely dead on arrival, as the leaked “green new deal” document showed. Meanwhile, systemic reform of the meat industry consistently bumps up against the fact that extremely profitable producers hold outsized political power in agricultural states. Meat, in short, may well be the third rail of climate politics.

But there are lessons that can be learned from the relative success of other climate policies. The United States needs to replicate, for meat, the politics that have allowed clean energy to get cheaper and opened political space for further innovation—in short, what journalist Robinson Meyer dubbed the “green vortex.” As Meyer explains in The Atlantic, the “green vortex” is a virtuous cycle: as green “technologies develop, they get cheaper. As they get cheaper, more companies adopt them. As more companies adopt them, their leaders grow more comfortable with climate policy generally—and more supportive of pro-technology policy in particular. As more corporate leaders support climate policy, coalitions change, governments can pass more aggressive measures, and the cycle expands and begins again.”

We need a “meat vortex.”

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The Limits of Meat Politics

American meat politics have always been hard, and new regulations have consistently focused on getting Americans to eat more rather than making the industry more sustainable. Even the most important pieces of meat regulation in US history—the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (FMIA) and the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 (PSA)—were about protecting consumers’ access to meat rather than limiting it.

Inspired in part by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the FMIA sought to protect consumers from tainted meat products by setting standards for sanitation and mandating that livestock be inspected prior to and after slaughter. But FMIA’s scope did not match the critique that Sinclair had lobbed at the meat industry. Sinclair had hoped that his portrayal of the brutal labor conditions and stomach-turning filth of the Chicago meatpackers would inspire a shift in cultural attitudes about meat and, more importantly, capitalism.

Although The Jungle was immediately influential—and has remained relevant as an artifact of early 20th-century Progressive muckraking in the decades since—it did not inspire the US public or lawmakers to rethink their reliance on meat or on highly exploited, often immigrant, low-wage laborers. Instead, they saw it as a call to make sure that the meat they still wanted to consume wouldn’t make them sick. As Sinclair famously quipped, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The PSA was another piece of legislation aimed at protecting consumers’ access to meat rather than diminishing their demand for it. The PSA is sometimes seen as a product of Progressive Era antitrust attitudes, but it was just as much about the meat price shocks associated with the United States’ entering World War I. The act established rules and regulations to limit corruption among the major meat-packers of the time, making sure that they couldn’t control both the stockyards that held livestock and the processing facilities that purchased the animals. In that way, the PSA curbed the power of the major meat-packers not to reduce meat consumption, but rather to keep meat prices low.

Although American meat politics has mostly centered on greater and safer consumption, there have been exceptions. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act into law. The act required slaughterhouses to anesthetize or stun animals prior to slaughter to minimize their suffering. The bill was one of the first successes for the animal rights movement, which catalyzed popular support for the act by framing American consumers as moral actors, who ought to live up to their conception of the United States as an inherently principled place.

While the act required some shifts in the process of slaughtering animals, it sidestepped many problems (notably, poultry has never been included under the act’s legal protections) and produced little change in terms of consumption, price, or convenience because it solely addressed the practices of slaughter rather than questioning the act of slaughtering itself and thus drew little ire. As a result, it sits comfortably with the pieces of legislation that came before it.

Since each bill was passed, they have been amended, but never to the extent that the average meat consumer could tell the difference. And that was perhaps the point.

Today, meat might as well be synonymous with unsustainability. High emissions, degraded and unhealthy public waterways, foul-smelling and lung-damaging air pollution from manure pits, and COVID-19 outbreaks at processing facilities are all part and parcel of the cheap meat many love. Animal agriculture is in dire need of real reform.

Stuck in the Middle, Today

Recognizing the many harms associated with animal agriculture, activists have recently called for real political action. From environmental and family farm advocacy groups taking aim at agribusinesses they deem responsible for the ecological and economic degradation of rural America, to animal welfare activists seeking to improve the lives of the billions of animals that are raised and slaughtered for food, to labor advocates who organize to improve the brutal practices and poor working conditions at livestock facilities and meat-processing plants, and, finally, to consumer welfare advocates and antitrust groups that are concerned with price-fixing and other anticompetitive and anticonsumer activities from meat companies—all these groups hope to put the kibosh on big meat and curtail the excesses of the industry.

But those looking to regulate meat today find themselves in the same trap as their FMIA- and PSA-era predecessors: they’re caught between the price that consumers pay; the costs of production levied on workers, animals, land, water, and air; and a powerful meat industry. In a recent essay, journalist Jenny Splitter summed up this problem well, writing, “there really isn’t a set of solutions where consumers can just avoid thinking about the food system and not make any changes at all.” Everything in meat is a trade-off, and most ways to deal with the problems associated with meat’s production entail raising consumer prices.

Three recent efforts to regulate the industry highlight these meaty tensions and trade-offs. The first is California’s Proposition 12, passed by public referendum in 2018, which bans meat produced with the use of gestation crates. The second is US Senator Cory Booker (of New Jersey) and US Representative Ro Khanna (of California)’s recently reintroduced Farm System Reform Act. This legislation aims to limit and, in the future, ban concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, and make meat companies internalize their externalized costs—pay for their emissions, local pollution, the healthcare and welfare of their workers, and the rest of the costs borne by the public for its addiction to cheap meat. The third is the Biden administration’s apparent intent to put antitrust pressure on meat companies through new rules at the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to keep meat prices low.

These are all products of the recent acceleration in meat politics, yet they will do little to address the industry’s real problems. Proposition 12 is a small win for animal welfare that may create more animosity toward the animal welfare movement. The Farm System Reform Act is a performative national bill that will not pass in Booker’s wildest dreams. And the new GIPSA rules may benefit smaller producers but will allow systemic problems to persist. Not only are all three at odds with each other, but none can do much to mitigate the problems associated with meat production.

Take California’s Prop 12. Despite pushback from the pork industry, banning gestation crates for the production of meat sold in California does little to actually alleviate the suffering and environmental harms of the industry. Gestation crates, which limit the movement of and prevent jostling among pregnant animals, are just one of many practices that diminish the welfare of animals that go through factory farms and other animal agricultural facilities. Of course, banning them in one market is a start. The animal welfare movement ought to be happy with the success of Prop 12, but it is a win in one small battle in a larger war that will rage on as long as the American demand for meat remains high. And it is a victory that will come with a cost: cultural backlash to increased prices that may contain the seeds of future opposition to similar incremental reforms.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Prop 12 passed as a referendum. Thus, while it does show that at least some people are willing to sacrifice a bit of money for the welfare of animals, it also reveals the limits of lawmaking. At the national level, where there’s no possibility of a referendum, measures are even more watered down. Just look at the Farm System Reform Act. In the unlikely event it passes, the act would not have the radical environmental or welfare benefits that its proponents may hope. By focusing on farm size, and not on the most harmful practices of farms, the Farm System Reform Act will do little to improve the environmental impact or labor welfare of meat production. After all, getting rid of the largest CAFOs will simply disperse the harms of animal agriculture, not reduce them. If highly lucrative meat giants are forced to shutter their largest facilities, they will surely open lots of smaller ones rather than closing down entirely. There’s little reason to think that such a reshuffling of the industry will somehow be better for animals, workers, or the environment.

Take the relatively straightforward problem of hog manure. CAFO facilities across the American South and Midwest produce more manure than can be used as fertilizer on nearby farmland. That issue isn’t going away, even if the CAFO facilities grind to a halt. If a single hog CAFO in northern Iowa is replaced with five smaller facilities in the same general area, there still would not be enough cropland to safely spread the manure, and water and air pollution would continue unabated. Enforcement of existing regulations might even prove more difficult in a less centralized production system.

No matter its potential impact, the Farm System Reform Act is unlikely to pass in its current form. When Booker originally proposed it in 2019, it received little support and ultimately flailed into oblivion. Even under a new president, the pathway to passing the law today is as winding as it was the first time around.

It is telling, moreover, that none of these three efforts has much to say about the demand side of the meat equation. For much of the past century, per capita meat consumption (using the US Department of Agriculture’s proxy measure) has steadily risen. While beef reached its peak in the 1970s and has declined fairly significantly since, and pork consumption has remained flat since the 1960s, per capita chicken consumption has increased dramatically from the 1940s to today—now at a level higher than both pork and beef. That means that the total amount of meat consumers are eating is staying steady or is slightly on the rise—and that despite a concurrent rise of veganism in the United States from around 1 percent of the population to between 3 and 6 percent over the last decade. Indeed, American consumers are blasting their way through chicken wings at a faster pace than poultry producers can supply—especially with COVID 19-related production lulls. It is such high demand for meat products that gives large meat firms—with their long history of questionable practices, political savvy, and ruthlessness—outsized power to begin with.

And so the meat conversation is stuck in the same place it has been for a century. The Right has no interest in touching it, and the Left can’t, unless it is to tinker at the margins in ways that don’t affect prices or consumption. On that score, the content of the Biden administration’s first foray into meat politics should have come as no surprise. In early September, the White House released a blog post decrying market concentration in meat processing. But unlike most activists focused on animal agriculture, the blog called for action from the federal government to make sure that meat prices remain low and that consolidation in the meat industry does not harm consumers’ interests.

Technology and Meat Politics

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Karl Marx wrote, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill[,] society with the industrial capitalist.” Marx understood that technological systems helped create the political and economic realities of a given time.

And it is undoubtedly true that the technologies defining modern animal agriculture have shaped the structure of our food system—and the stuck politics surrounding it. The tools that have enabled mass-produced cheap meat have also been central to arranging a cultural-political obsession with that very same product. In Red Meat Republic, historian Joshua Specht shows how the meatpackers were able to combine technological progress—railroads, early refrigeration, and the modern corporation—with local, regional, and national politicking to become the industry giants that Upton Sinclair exposed in The Jungle and bring cheap beef to markets throughout the country.

In the years after World War II, the poultry and hog industries also took advantage of new technologies to scale production and drive the price of chicken and pork down. Incredibly low-cost chicken—and to a lesser extent its “other white meat” counterpart, pork—has reshaped the consumption patterns of the average American. While beef is still often what’s for dinner, chicken and pork show up in many American meals now, too.

That counts as progress compared to a counterfactual in which the American appetite for high-emissions and high-land-use beef grew unchecked. But less so if the goal is for total beef—and meat—consumption to fall. Rather, meat has become yet another mass-produced consumer good. New cheap antibiotics allowed large, confined hog and chicken populations to avoid disease outbreaks, while also boosting animal growth rates. Improved breeding, biosecurity measures to keep both herds and humans safe from communicable diseases, and increasing standardization of breeding, management, and logistical practices turned live animals into widgets on an assembly line.

But technology can also break the United States’ meat cycle today. That’s been one of the promises of meat alternatives, like popular plant-based burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, and the more futuristic cultivated—also known as lab-grown—meat that has yet to reach commercial markets other than in Singapore. Meat alternatives, especially cultivated meat, have a high potential to change how Americans consume and think about meat.

Critics are quick to point out that meat alternatives have so far been slow to reduce meat consumption, arguing that they are likely to displace already existing vegetable alternatives rather than animal meat to the benefit of a few tech investors and start-up founders. But if cultivated and plant-based meats eventually become as cheap or cheaper than conventional meat products—all while keeping quality and convenience high—it could prompt a meaningful shift in the production of animal meat. As political economist Jan Dutkiewicz and historian Gabriel Rosenberg recently argued, broad adoption of meat alternatives could have major implications for politics around agricultural land use in the United States. They argue, for example, that land no longer needed for meat production could be used towards progressive ends, such as the creation of worker-owned farms, returning land to Indigenous nations and peoples, rewilding, and other conservation uses. In turn, the way American consumers weigh animal ethics in their choices between meat and its alternatives could also change.

Even beyond that, though, it could be the start of a meat vortex. Meat alternatives have largely been a private venture, but the success of the industry—and, arguably, the ability of the United States to abate the environmental harms stemming from agriculture—is dependent on federal government support for the technological innovation and industrial production that can bring plant-based and cultivated meat to the masses. Pursuing the innovation and industrial policy that can make meat alternatives tasty and affordable would potentially overcome both the political barriers and consumer fears that have blocked or limited other meat politics. It would also quickly expand what is possible technologically. With each new innovation happily adopted by consumers and producers, new space would open up for further changes. And so a cycle would start: high-quality cultivated meats and plant-based alternatives alleviate the fears of more consumers, who then demand more of the products, so producers build more capacity and benefit from economies of scale, which lowers prices, which results in more consumers giving the products a try, and a reduction in animal meat consumption.

Like Meyer’s green vortex for renewable technologies, triggering a green vortex for meat could move slowly and then all at once as existing meat alternatives are quickly improved using better industrial practices, ingredients, and technologies.

A world in which plant-based and cultivated meat is tasty, nearly universally available, and as cheap or cheaper than conventional meat is also a world with vastly different political and cultural possibilities. More than changing the politics of land use, the ethics of eating animals, and the technological capacity of alternative meat firms, a reduction in animal meat consumption in favor of alternatives could create the political opportunity for stricter regulation of meat production and agriculture-related climate action, without the risk of consumer pushback. With new technologies come new political economies. To butcher the phrase: the meat technologies of the 20th century give us a society with a meat lobby; alternative meat gives us a society with environmental protections.

On the industry side, there would also be change. Facing real competition from cheap meat alternatives, producers of meat from animals would either have to pivot themselves or find other technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here, incentives for technological innovation could, too, lead to a cycle of greater change. But, for almost all of this to work, alternatives must actually replace meat consumption, reducing the power of the meat industry and enabling the kind of regulatory oversight that could force meat producers to toe the line without making regressive price hikes.

All of this is to say that, instead of pursuing marquee legislation that has slim to no chance of passing, those interested in curbing the meat industry’s power should seek out the spaces and corners through which policies can slip. This would amount to a kind of quiet meat politics—that is, a politics that avoids political partisanship and culture warring in favor of creating a technological and infrastructural environment that can achieve long-term sustainable change—centered around public R&D investment, industrial policy, and subsidizing the good, rather than taxing the bad.

Over the past several decades, public investment in innovation and infrastructure has reduced the cost of low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels and other existing technologies and allowed for modest, yet decisively important, emissions reductions. For meat, such a strategy could likewise drive cost reductions for cleaner, more ethical alternatives to animal meat, potentially reducing its consumption, making the remaining meat cleaner, and shifting the balance of political power away from meat production, all the while resisting the pitfalls of increasing prices and consumer culture war.

To be sure, a “meat vortex” may do little in terms of nonenvironmental concerns. It is unclear that labor practices would be better simply because consumers ate more meat alternatives, for example. Meat, like much else in American politics, is full of trade-offs. No single policy strategy can solve all the problems of animal agriculture in the short term, but breaking free of today’s stuck meat politics is a necessary first step for any kind of reform.