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Food World Ramps Up The War On Meat

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

First of all, nobody is taking away your meat. Let's just say that right up front. In recent weeks, claims of a quote-unquote "war on meat" are being pushed by the usual suspects in response to the Biden administration's moves to address climate change. It was falsely suggested multiple times on Fox News and by some Republican members of Congress that President Biden's climate plan will limit red meat eating in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Biden has not proposed a limit on red meat consumption.

However, some in the food world are taking seriously the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and the beef we consume. Last week, Epicurious, one of the largest cooking websites, announced that it will no longer publish new recipes that include beef in an effort to promote more sustainable cooking. But it won't remove the old ones. And on Monday, a high-end New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, announced that their return to in-person dining next month will come with a twist - an entirely vegan menu.

We wanted to understand what all these decisions add up to, so to help us answer that, we've called Mark Bittman. He is a food writer and has been eating, cooking and advocating for more plant-forward diets now for more than a decade. His new book, "Animal Vegetable Junk," is out now. Mark Bittman, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARK BITTMAN: A pleasure. Great to be here.

MARTIN: So could you just, you know, set the table for us as it were? (Laughter) You see what I did there?

BITTMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: How much impact does beef have on climate change and the planet or maybe meat more broadly? Could you just tell us the baseline there?

BITTMAN: First of all, separating the environmental impact of animal products from climate change is kind of tricky. And separating the impact of agriculture from fossil fuel production - since agriculture is so fossil fuel reliant - is also tricky. But it is safe to say that agriculture in general and animal production in particular - and most particularly beef - so sort of in that cascading order are huge contributors to climate change. And the production of beef alone generates around - and a real broad around - 10% of our total greenhouse gases.

MARTIN: Why are the emissions from meat so much more significant than, say, the fossil fuel inputs of big farms and things like that? Why does the production of meat caused so many more emissions than the production of plants?

BITTMAN: Well, because, A, you have to farm plants in order to feed animals. So whatever, you know, whatever greenhouse gas generating you're doing from producing corn and soybeans and other commodity crops for all purposes, those are part of animal production.

MARTIN: How long have people in the food world been talking about encouraging people to eat a more plant-forward diet? As I said, you know, you've been doing this for years. And you've got cookbooks on all kinds of subjects. I mean, you have, you know, "How To Cook Everything." You have "How To Cook Vegetables" (ph). I mean, you've got - you're not an ideologue on this point, if I can sort of put it that way. But how long have people in your field and in the world of kind of food writ large been talking about encouraging people to move toward more of a plant-forward diet?

BITTMAN: I'm going to hat tip here to Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote "Diet For A Small Planet" in the '70s. And "Diet For A Small Planet" argued that by feeding animals grain, we were depriving less-well-off people around the world of nutrition. So that's a 50 year old - at least a 50-year-old conversation. It accelerated - it really accelerated in 2007, when the U.N., the FAO produced a report called Livestock's Long Shadow which said - at the time said 17% of greenhouse gas production could be attributed to industrial production of animals. Now that number is not current and it could be more and it could be less, but that was the first report that said significant amounts of greenhouse gas, significant progress in climate change can be attributed to the way we raise animals.

MARTIN: So what do you think about the decision for Epicurious to stop publishing beef recipes? It's just been interesting how much of a reaction that it's gotten, some just really sharp criticism for making the move away from beef. I'm just interested in it. First of all, what's your take on it? And what do you make of the reaction to it?

BITTMAN: I mean, there's no reason to be critical of it, I mean, no reason at all. First of all, if anyone invents a beef recipe that doesn't already exist, kudos to them because that's a really hard thing to do. Second of all, they're not saying we're not publishing beef recipes. They're saying we're not publishing new beef recipes. They have thousands in their archive. Third, it's brought the issue a lot of attention. Here we are talking about it. It's a great move by them. Look. Joe Biden doesn't have the power to get us to stop eating meat, obviously. But we do need to eat less meat for a variety of reasons, and that is the trend. It's going to be the trend. We're going to be eating less meat 50 years from now than we do now. It's to everyone's benefit. So the fact that we're talking about it, the fact that people are doing it - these are good things.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think there's such a reaction to it, though? Why do you think there's such an intense reaction to it? I mean, it just seems like it's so visceral for some people. Why is that? Is there something about beef that's connected to feeling affluent or something? What is it?

BITTMAN: I think it's more that there's something about beef that's connected to the same kind of rights that we associate with guns. I think it's just - people - there are people who don't want government to govern, to make decisions that are beneficial for all of us like reducing the number of guns in the United States would be a good thing. Reducing the amount of meat that we eat in the United States would be a good thing.

MARTIN: Why do you say we're all going to be eating less meat in the future anyway? Why do you say that?

BITTMAN: Well, the amount of meat that we're producing even in the United States is unsustainable. For everybody to eat as much meat as Americans eat, we would need four times the resources that the world has now. And we're talking about petroleum. We're talking about land. We're talking about water. We're talking about waste disposal. There just isn't the room or the resources for all of this to happen.

MARTIN: That is Mark Bittman. He is a longtime food writer, author of many, many books, as you know. His latest is "Animal Vegetable Junk," which is out now. Mark Bittman, thank you so much for talking to us.

BITTMAN: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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