Cattle industry blasts NYC mayor's Green New Deal plan to reduce beef purchases

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Trays of ground beef sit on a rack in the meat department of a supermarket.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to slash meat consumption in schools and other city facilities is being criticized by the U.S. beef industry.

"We think that the mayor's attempt, while maybe having the best intentions, is pretty misguided to single out beef as something that can have a significant impact," said Jennifer Houston, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a lobbying group for beef producers. "Lately, we've been the flavor of the month to combat the environment, and people are not really looking into the true facts of it."

Last month, de Blasio unveiled New York City's Green New Deal, a wide-ranging initiative that includes reducing purchases of beef by 50% at all city-controlled facilities, including schools, prisons and hospitals. It follows the mayor in March announcing "Meatless Mondays" in the public school system.

New York also plans to phase out all processed meat products purchased by city agencies. One of the most significant impacts will be to the school system, where there are about 1.1 million students, and nearly 900,000 meals are served a day, including breakfast and lunch.

"The mayor has missed the point on the purpose of these lunches, and that's a nutritious meal for the people," said Zachary Yanta, a farmer and rancher in south-central Texas. "Of course, meat is still very good for you and nutrient dense — and that means that only a small amount is needed to provide the recommended daily allowance."

There was no reference to "farting cows" in de Blasio's plan, although it was linked to the national Green New Deal plan championed in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Both plans seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and some researchers have estimated the livestock sector — especially gassy cows — is responsible for more than half of methane emissions in some states.

"We need to rethink our relationship to consumption across the board, and beef consumption, in particular, has a pernicious and outsized impact on global warming," Mark Chambers, director of the Mayor's Office of Sustainability, said in a statement. "New York City is taking a closer look at what we eat to create a healthier planet and a healthier future."

De Blasio's plan to combat global warming is part of a drive to achieve a nearly 30% additional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It also includes investment in thousands of jobs retrofitting buildings and expanding renewable energy.

"Every day we wait is a day our planet gets closer to the point of no return," de Blasio said in a report released April 22. "New York City's Green New Deal meets that reality head-on."

Methane is created in cattle production when cows burp, pass gas and defecate. While methane can be short-lived as a climate pollutant, it is considered at least 25 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

Overall, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that cows contribute about 4% to greenhouse gas emissions.

But NCBA's Houston challenges the U.N. statistics and adds that the cattle industry "cares about the environment as much or more than anybody because it allows us to do what we do."

As for the numbers, Houston maintains that "agriculture in a whole only contributes about 9% and cattle about 2% to greenhouse gases." She said her industry gets singled out by some of the same people who might ignore "the biggies of transportation and electrical production."

"Although it sounds good in theory, what's going to happen is the schoolchildren, and all of New Yorkers who are under this, will miss a high-quality source of protein as well as other nutrients — zinc, iron — plus, it's delicious," Houston said.

Houston said the livestock industry produces 33% more beef compared with about 30 years ago and with fewer cattle, too. "That's all the strides we've made in becoming more efficient," she said.

At the same time, the beef official said cattle use a lot of land for grazing throughout the U.S. that isn't suitable for other purposes, whether shrub-covered hilly areas or arid lands. Researchers also have identified cattle grazing as one way to reduce wildfire risk for some areas, such as grasslands where there's a constant threat of lightning strikes causing fires.

"If we don't use our resources wisely to turn those grasslands into a productive protein source for people, that's just inefficient and not good use of the land," said rancher Yanta. "Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and start to realize that, wait a minute, this may not be the best situation for everybody."

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