How Pro-Planet Pioneers Could End the Culture War Over Meat

A butcher carries out rump steak cuts.
A butcher carries out rump steak cuts.
Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP (Getty Images)

Two things can be true: President Joe Biden will not ban burgers and we also need to consume less of them. This tension is central to what could be the most pitched culture war of this decade as the U.S. grapples with reducing emissions as part of a global effort to address climate change.

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Conservatives already have their strategy, and it’s a simple one: Lie their asses off. But for everyone else, there’s an important, nuanced discussion that needs to happen, and that includes champions that can help make the transition to diets that are healthier for us and the planet easier. Enter Epicurious. The food site made official on Monday a policy that had quietly been in the works for the past year. It announced it would no longer be publishing recipes featuring beef.

Epicurious’s decision was met with the expected conservative backlash with people shitposting meat photos, claiming they were unfollowing the site, and whining about soy and cancel culture. It’s all for show, of course; these culture warriors ready to die for the right to access a new beef bourguignon recipe didn’t say a word as the site quietly implemented the policy for a year.

“The spat about red meat by the right-wing media, based on false assertions that people will be forced to greatly reduce their intake, is one more indication of personal greed by those who care nothing about the wellbeing of others and future generations,” Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard who has studied diets and climate, said in an email.

The editors behind the decision declined to comment for this story, but in the announcement, they noted why they made the choice and acknowledged the inevitable pushback they expected (emphasis added):

“We know that some people might assume that this decision signals some sort of vendetta against cows—or the people who eat them. But this decision was not made because we hate hamburgers (we don’t!). Instead, our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders. We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet.

This type of radical honesty and approach is in line with what’s needed to spark the dietary shifts we should be considering if we want to bring our eating habits in line with the planet’s carrying capacity. To date, Republican talking points have dictated how society talks about meat and eating less of it. The lies about banning hamburgers have led to a dominant frame of “anti-meat.” By calling this a “pro-planet” decision, Epicurious has turned the tables.

“I think the decision that Epicurious has taken is brave and important because it makes a strong statement about the need to reduce beef consumption if we are to avoid climate change disaster,” Willett. “Equally important, this will allow them to demonstrate how meals can be delicious, inspiring, and nutritious without the need for beef.”

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And it could end up being an effective avenue for change. The site’s announcement indicated traffic and engagement with non-beef recipes showed there’s an appetite for them (though the post doesn’t get into specifics on how they compared to beef-based recipes). But there’s a growing segment of the population willing and ready to make changes in their diets, and offering them recipes to do so could reduce the barrier to entry for many.

Data published last year from the Yale Program on Climate Communication shows that two-thirds of Americans “would be willing to eat more plant-based foods instead of meat if plant-based foods tasted better than they do today.” By serving up tasty recipes, including the bomb-looking grilled cauliflower Epicurious posted in their Instagram announcement about the recipe shift, the site could end up being an avenue for change.

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“Having a recipe site that is widely read decide to dedicate more efforts to recipes that don’t include beef plays an important role in enabling Americans to start incorporating plant-based foods in their diets,” Karine Lacroix, a postdoctoral associate at Yale who worked on the analysis, said in an email. She also added people should share plant-focused recipes they’re digging with friends and family because the research also shows that “social support goes a long way when it comes to changing our diets.”

Having older beef recipes remain while not adding new ones is also very much in line with the ethos of where we need to go with the future of food. What we eat is a very personal choice, one informed by culture, socioeconomics, and personal taste. But it nevertheless intersects with the choice of how habitable the planet continues to be. Yes, government policies to fix an agricultural system that produces billions of tons of greenhouse gases are vital. Agriculture also produces more food than the world needs, yet people go hungry. The system is broken in ways no personal diet change will fix.

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Yet dietary changes still have a role to play. The EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of medical and climate scientists that includes Willett, released a report in 2019 outlining what a “planetary health plate” could look like that would allow everyone, in a world of 10 billion people, to enjoy a healthy diet that also is within the bounds of climate change. It included a recommendation of eating roughly a quarter-pound (90 grams) of red meat a week, a drastic reduction from the American average of more than 1 pound (500 grams) per week. The report also includes wide-ranging recommendations for policymakers to fix agriculture and end food insecurity as well as reduce waste. These bottom-up and top-down approaches, the report argues, are a way to bring our entire food system into balance.

Countless other reports and studies have warned about the dangers of rising meat consumption, the need to set a limit for “peak meat,” and so on. The truth is we need to do something.

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“We don’t need to completely eliminate beef consumption, but it will be helpful to help everyone learn more about alternatives that can be good for both human and planetary health,” Willett said.

Right now, the discussion is about the absence of meat. But what Epicurious offers is a new path forward, not focusing on what might be missing but what we stand to gain. Their announcement said it’s not about setting an agenda but “to inspire home cooks to be better, smarter, and happier in the kitchen. The only change is that we now believe that part of getting better means cooking with the planet in mind.” Normalizing meals where beef isn’t the center of the plate could radically change how people treat their diet in the context of the climate crisis.

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Heck, it could even empower people to push for more radical actions from governments to make sure the transition is accessible to all, and not just those able to afford fresh produce and fake meat options like Impossible Burger, which is basically as good as the real thing but still somewhat pricey compared to good ol’ ground beef. It may also help us to slow down and enjoy the beef we still eat. Having done the planetary health plate thing myself, I can definitely say when I have steak, I savor it rather than just treating it as fuel to throw in my body.

Whether other food journalists follow in Epicurious’s footsteps could dictate whether the effort to eat right by the planet becomes a way of life or a bitter fight to the end.

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Update, 4/26/21, 1:46 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from Karine Lacroix.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.

DISCUSSION

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Slider6294

The so-called “culture war” over meat will never end.

Nor will I stop eating it. Yummy, yummy animals.