The Green New Deal Progressives Really Are Coming for Your Beef

The Green New Deal could change how livestock are raised. ( Multimedia Graphic Network, Inc. )

President Donald Trump says progressives want to take away your burger. He’s not exactly wrong.

While the Green New Deal and its proponents don’t call for mass cow culls, their goal to reach zero emissions by 2030 includes dealing with factory farms. Agriculture is responsible for one-quarter of global greenhouse gas pollution -- with burping and flatulent cattle creating a big chunk. If they want to keep eating meat, the New Dealers say Americans will have to rethink how it gets on their plate and what it costs.

The expansive environmental program backed by about 100 Democrats and championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey envisions financing for smaller-scale and sustainable farming, where the government would offer benefits for reducing their carbon footprint. That could mean choosing poultry over beef, or cutting waste. Incentives are the “carrot" farmers need to change production, but the proposed legislation doesn’t include carbon pricing that activists and economists see as necessary to curb climate change.

Repricing Livestock

“You can eat meat but you have to pay the price," said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. “The fundamental reality is that when you’re eating meat, you’re doing immense damage to the environment that is not being priced into the product." Environmental damage to local communities and health issues created by livestock are among the costs not included in the product, he said.

Here’s the stinky truth: Globally, livestock production accounts for nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with beef and milk cattle production comprising 41 and 20 percent of the sector’s total, respectively. Greenhouse gases also stem from feed and animal transportation, manure storage and processing, and cutting down forests to expand farmland for crops and grazing, particularly in developing economies.

Research shows it’s possible to lower emissions while also keeping steak on the menu -- it just comes at a cost.

Yale University economist William Nordhaus developed a model that accounts for the social cost of carbon that could apply to farming. In 2020, for a goal of staying below 2.5 degrees Celsius warming, polluters should be paying $230 per metric ton of CO2 emitted, he found. Currently only a handful of U.S. states and a minority of countries have a carbon pricing program in place, with most using a price tag under $30.

Mark Paul, a Roosevelt Institute fellow who’s writing a paper on the eco of a Green New Deal, crunched data based on Nordhaus’ estimates to find that a methane tax for the sector would amount to about $2,000 per cow. That’s based on their average mass-farmed life span and the EPA’s estimate that each emits about 100 kg of methane annually. He found that would result in a 30 percent increase in the price of dairy and beef for consumers.

The criticism isn’t going away. It’s a topic Republicans have returned to many times since Ocasio-Cortez’s office first released the bill along with a document that mentioned getting rid of “farting cows," which her office said was a mistake. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Trump -- who’s served burgers at the White House-- poked fun at the proposal and former White House official Sebastian Gorka even likened the socialist Democrat environmental push to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

“It’s not about coming for burgers or specific food groups," said Paul at Roosevelt. “It’s about transforming our agriculture and recognizing the planetary limit."