As President Biden begins his first days in office, the jury is out on whether his administration will embrace bold and progressive policies, or ultimately be governed by caution and conservatism. I believe his handling of the meat industry could reveal his true colours as a leader.
The Climate Change Test
The most prominent acid test will be to see how Biden squares support for the meat industry with his climate ambitions.
The new President has pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. He’s also offered support for carbon taxation during the primaries and pledged to “hold polluters accountable for the damage they have caused”.
Since animal agriculture is linked to nearly 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and uses up to 80% of the world’s agricultural land , it will be impossible for the world to stay below 1.5- 2 degrees without looking at factory farming. If global animal agriculture was a country, it would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (more than the US and UK’s emissions combined). Biden’s net zero ambitions will need to include a radical overhaul of the meat sector to even be feasible. It’s clear that if Biden is to take meaningful action on climate change, this sector cannot be overlooked.
Animal agriculture is linked to nearly 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for animal agriculture
If global animal agriculture was a country, it would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
So far, Biden appears to be saying the right things but there is little detail on how this challenge will be met. The likes of Michael Regan as EPA Administrator and John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate show positive intent, as did his request for Sanah Baig, current chief of staff at The Good Food Institute (a US not-for-profit that promotes climate-friendly food production) , to take a role in his transition team.
The appointment of these key voices on protein transition shows Biden is taking an interest in the protein sector and alternative proteins as a potential solution. Markets are already embracing alternative proteins as the sustainable way to meet soaring global protein demand. In fact, the market for plant-based and lab-grown ‘meat’ is expected to grow to $17.9 billion by 2025 as investors and consumers seek more environmentally friendly substitutes to a meat industry increasingly losing face for its environmental and health impacts. Research by the $28 trillion FAIRR investor network, of which I am a founder, has looked at the world’s 60 biggest meat, fish and dairy companies and found that the number of companies investing in alternative proteins rose by 46% this year, with the number of major meat firms diversifying into sustainable protein sources soaring from 5 in 2018 to 22 in 2020 .
A sustainable protein transition relies on global leadership too. Other major governments already have a head start. The EU’s Farm to Fork strategy includes a framework to promote plant-based diets and cut antimicrobial use in food chains. Biden would be wise to include an equally progressive approach at the heart of his climate policy and invest in the research and development needed to develop more sustainable food systems. We know that leadership on protein production could bring sizeable climate benefits. For example, a study by plant-based meat alternative producer, Beyond Meat, found its plant-based burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions (and requires 46% less energy, 99% less water and 93% less land) compared to a typical quarter pound of US beef. Incentives to shift the food system to more plant-based options can fast-track progress.
Real change at the meat packing plant?
Another good example will be whether the new President acts on his pledge to protect workers at meatpacking factories from Covid-19. On the campaign trail, Biden told Yahoo News, “No worker’s life is worth my getting a cheaper hamburger,” and he urged measures to ensure workers stand six feet apart in meat factories, and receive proper protective equipment.
Yet most meatpacking plants are specifically designed to have hundreds of employees standing elbow-to-elbow while working at breakneck speed. If social distancing between workers becomes mandatory then the industry will need to build new factories, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It will require real and deep change. Is Biden willing to force (and finance) that?
If social distancing between workers becomes mandatory then the industry will need to build new factories, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It will require real and deep change. Is Biden willing to force (and finance) that?
So far Biden has erred with the forces of conservatism. He’s appointed Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, who served that role in the Obama administration and oversaw several controversial policies including scaling back USDA oversight of the US’s largest slaughterhouses and permitting faster line speeds . Policies that came despite pushback from workers and food safety advocates – and a move that benefited four large poultry corporations: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride (JBS), Purdue and Sanderson.
The Vilsack appointment also raises questions as to whether Biden’s team will support less consolidation in the US meat and dairy sector. The DNC platform explicitly supports a transition away from anti-competitive agricultural mergers, and an end to large Concentrated Animal Feeding operations (CAFOS) – as advocated by last year’s Farm System Reform Act supported by Elizabeth Warren.
But whether Biden is bold enough to shift away from monopolistic agribusiness and years of consolidation – remains to be seen in the months and years ahead.