No One Is Taking Your Hamburgers. But Would It Even Be a Good Idea?

The hamburger is suddenly embroiled in a political dispute.

Supporters of the Green New Deal, according to a Republican talking point, are anti-patty. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to President Trump, said last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Other Republicans, including Mr. Trump, have made similar claims. But the Green New Deal, a broad climate policy proposal, makes no mention of hamburgers, cows or beef.

Instead, the resolution, introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, underscores the role of agricultural emissions in climate change.

Among its many goals, it calls for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

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Cows and other ruminants are responsible for two-thirds of those agricultural emissions. Their guts produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, though it also dissipates faster. Cows release some of that methane through their flatulence, but much more by burping.

Deer, camels and sheep also produce methane. But in the United States, it’s cows that primarily account for the 26.9 percent of methane emissions, more than any other source. Natural gas accounts for 25 percent.

If cows are such a problem, should we get rid of them?

It’s not that easy, said Robin White, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Virginia Tech.

She was a co-author of a 2017 study that looked at an extreme case — what would happen if all animals were removed from farming. It found that total United States greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by only a modest amount, while nutritional deficiencies would increase.

Other studies of possible agricultural changes “often don’t consider what we currently produce in terms of food in the United States,” Dr. White said. When those studies remove meat, eggs and dairy from the equation, she said, they tend to assume that other foods will be available.

But today’s agricultural system relies on a suite of crops that researchers have spent decades fine-tuning for specific niches. It isn’t clear that the country could easily grow a new set of crops that would make up for the lost nutrition from meat for the entire population. (Many individuals, of course, already opt against eating meat for ethical, religious or other reasons.)

“We don’t make that assumption,” Dr. White said. “We kind of ask the inverse question: Given the food that’s available, how do we feed people?”

Christian Peters, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said much of the country’s current agricultural output was used to feed animals. “There is a large amount of what we call co-products that come out of the food production system,” he said. “We have these things that we would otherwise turn into a waste, and we use them to raise animals.”

In addition, grazing cows are able to wrest calories from grasslands that are not suitable for growing food for humans.

Cows are also a source of fertilizer, Dr. White said. Her analysis looked at livestock manure that is used as fertilizer and assumed that it would have to be replaced with synthetic fertilizers, which are often made from natural gas. The main component of natural gas is methane, the same gas that makes cows so problematic in the first place.


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