January 20, 2023

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Changing the Climate by Changing Our Food: Legislative Initiatives for GHG Mitigation in the US Meat Industry - Alison Cunningham


Changing the Climate by Changing Our Food: Legislative Initiatives for GHG Mitigation in the US Meat Industry


This blog will discuss the impact of meat consumption in the United States on the environment, as well as address legislation to implement solutions. Commercial production of both meat and dairy drastically increases soil, water and air quality degradation, as well as being the largest contributor to deforestation for stock grazing. Additionally, subsidies in the food industry result in artificially low prices for meat that do not capture the environmental cost of production. Across the states, legislators face harsh pushback from the commercial meat industry, which has worked to overturn numerous dietary programs and laws to support a transition to alternative foods. While lobbyists work to protect industry norms, the United States government has implemented change on the federal level, to mitigate methane emissions. The Biden Administration has recently passed the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, to address industry methane production, and the state of California proposed a 2019 Climate-Friendly Food Program aimed to challenge the status quo of diets in schools, to meet the same end. These, in tandem with other proposed legislation, would help to transition the US towards methane-neutral practices, to meet national and global climate goals while feeding a growing population.


Climate scientists have long argued that a reduction in global greenhouse gas production will mitigate the human impact of expansionism, if the planet does not warm up by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).[1] According to a study published in April 2022, nations are currently on track to uphold the 2 degree pledge set forth by the Paris Agreement, later affirmed by the 2021 Glasgow Agreement. Most nations have agreed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with countries like India and China agreeing to net-zero by 2055. According to the National Climate Task Force under the Biden Administration, the US has 4 major goals for climate mitigation:

  1. Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030
  2. Reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035
  3. Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050
  4. Delivering 40% of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities[2]

Alongside other major national producers of greenhouse gasses, these initiatives will help achieve the ultimate goal of staying under 2 degrees Celsius. Though carbon offsets will drive climate change initiatives in the long run, methane is a culprit that must be dealt with in the short term. Once methane emissions reach the atmosphere, they exhibit an 80% increase in warming capacity over carbon within the first 20 years. According to data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the current COVID-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented 7% decrease in carbon emissions as transportation and industries were halted, yet methane emissions actually increased from previous levels[3]. If global governments do not reduce the impacts from methane emissions, carbon may not be a future worry–we might not have a chance in the first place.


One of the largest producers of greenhouse gases via methane emissions is the commercial meat industry. In the history of the industry, there has been little to no regulation; the practice of farming for meat has been intrinsic in society since hunting was abandoned as the dominant practice. Until recently, the concept of commercial meat production as a major contributor to GHGs has been met with extreme criticism and pushback from investors and lobbyists. Additionally, differences in lifestyle and culture across the globe causes variance in meat consumption levels, though most countries trend towards an increase in meat consumption, especially developing nations. The FAIRR Initiative, an investor network focused on the environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities of intensive livestock production[4], tracks global meat practices, consumptions and generates trend data.In the Initiative’s recent investor letter to the US Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)“Global Roadmap to 2050 for Food and Agriculture”, food systems account for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and three-quarters of crucial habitat deforestation is driven by the expanse of the cattle industry for grazing in meat/dairy production. They write, “While the environmental degradation caused by food systems is multifactorial, evidence shows that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food system emissions alone would make it impossible to reach 1.5°C, and sustainable diets play a key role.”[5] As of this letter published in June 2022, the Initiative urges the FAO to develop a “global roadmap” to 2050 that addresses the 40% of methane emissions resulting from agriculture. At the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, special envoy Dr. Agnes Kalibata argued,

“There is no path to a [degree] target without putting food front and center in our COP conversations. We must talk about food to address the climate crisis. We must ensure food systems are adapting to climate change and resilient enough to continue nourishing people and advancing prosperity and equitable livelihoods. The intersection between climate and food is profound – if we do not address food systems-driven climate emissions, we simply cannot make our [degree] target; and if we don’t, food systems will suffer the most. So, for many of us, postponing this conversation is a luxury we cannot afford[6]


The interplay between commercial agricultural practices and the impacts of methane are as crucial to address as carbon, and in a rapidly growing global population, these impacts will only compound in the next 25 years, making the 2050 goals listed above nearly impossible to meet without direct and immediate mitigation. In the same 2021 Glasgow COP26 meeting as above, numerous nations pledged to reduce these emissions by 2050, but producers in the United States are already failing this pledge and are on a path to not meet goals by the target year. The FAIRR Initiative states in its research that meat and dairy industries serving intermediary sellers such as McDonald’s, Costco and Walmart are not tracking their emissions or their third party suppliers. In fact, the research showed that in 2021, only 18% of industry emitters tracked emissions, resulting in a highly underestimated emissions sector, as data is simply not available to allow a clear understanding of the impact.[7] Even without the data, researchers have used projection models to argue that the impact of methane and the volume of methane currently produced may be much higher than currently understood.


The United States is currently taking multiple steps to address methane emissions, from industry regulations to changes in US dietary recommendations. The Biden Administration released the U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan in November 2021, in response to the COP26 Glasgow meeting, where parties addressed methane emissions in relation to environmental health. The executive summary of this plan states, “…working in partnership with the European Union to lead a Global Methane Pledge…to reduce overall methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030”[8]. Section D of this plan delineates the administration’s specifications for the agricultural industry, including alternative manure management, climate-smart partnerships, promoting on-site methane use for energy alternatives, and investments in methane monitoring for agricultural producers. These specifications include: alternative manure management to sequester methane for further use, climate-smart partnerships to promote climate friendly commodity supply chains, renewable energy from methane, which establishes a task force to advise Congress on technology and policy, and agricultural methane monitoring, which facilitates increased carbon monitoring.[9]


In addition to industry approaches for methane mitigation, there is also support from local and state governments to transition U.S. diets and perceptions about meat consumption. As stated above, most countries are trending towards an increase in meat consumption overall, but in the U.S., perceptions about red meat and impact on health have led to a switch to alternatives. According to Anthropocene magazine, studies of U.S. meat consumption in the last 15 years show that “daily beef consumption plummeted by an average 40% per person, which accounted for nearly half of the diet-related dip in emissions…a slow shift away from all animal-based foods, including dairy, eggs, chicken, and pork—all of which US citizens gradually consumed less of in 2018 than 2003. This overall shift away from meat occurred slowly but steadily: on average, the food-related carbon footprint of US consumers declined by 127 grams each year of the study period.[10]


In response to methane mitigation, as well as changing attitudes about “traditional” U.S. diets, the California Legislature proposed the 2019 Climate-Friendly Food Program (AB 479). It sets forth a plan to reduce the impact of climate degradation in school meal programs, in addition to promoting plant-based and alternative foods and education. In California, livestock production specifically contributes to 55% of the state’s methane emissions. The bill intended to “improve student health while reducing greenhouse house gas emissions associated with the estimated 540 million school lunches served each year by incentivizing more plant-based school meals.[11] A pilot program at an Oakland, California school saw a 14% reduction in emissions, as well as a 6% reduction in water consumption over the trial, in addition to a 23% increase in student satisfaction from consumption. Alternative protein sources such as legumes are shown to be 26-34 times less carbon-intensive than meat products.[12] Additionally, AB 479 provided reimbursements for schools willing to provide plant-based meal options, up to $0.20 per meal.[13]Unfortunately, this bill was approved by the Senate, but stalled and died to competing interests and was not voted into law. If it had passed, California schools would have been able to mitigate millions of pounds of both methane and carbon emissions annually, making a significant mitigation impact. This initiative would’ve also led to a better fed and educated young population, setting the stage for meat alternatives to be preferred by adults in the next 20 years.


Despite the success and approval of different legislative measures in the last decade, the United States needs to increase focus at the federal level to help reduce methane emissions, in order to help keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. While aiming to mitigate methane through technology, regulations and education about consumer choices, reduction in other greenhouse gasses–carbon, fluorinates, and nitrous oxide–tend to follow suit, as the chemical processes of industry production are multifaceted. Subsidies and incentives proposed by the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan will help to increase innovative technology and transition industries towards better practices, but this will not change the underlying consumer desire for cheap, quick and reliable meat products. Further legislative action should address the issue of pricing subsidies in the food industry, to correct inequity in the pricing of food. The defunct AB 479, Climate-Friendly Food Program would have provided a simple, educational pathway to both increase nutritional meals for children that rely on school-provided food, but would have also reduced greenhouse gas emissions within the state, possibly paving the way for the rest of the country to implement similar programs. The most

current legislative nod towards methane emissions is found in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act[14]; though it is hailed as an able-bodied piece of environmental legislation, the Act does not adequately address methane emissions any more than previous legislation. Like other federal initiatives for GHG mitigation, it relies on voluntary actions to meet environmental needs, which will not be fast enough to meet COP26 goals.


In order to meet these important climate goals, the U.S. needs a paradigm shift in dietary trends–to signal broad industry change and reduce, not mitigate, methane emissions. States and the federal government need to do all they can to facilitate and promote this shift.

[1] “Global Roadmap to 2050 for Food and Agriculture.” FAIRR, 11 Nov. 2022, https://www.fairr.org/article/roadmap-to-2050/.

[2] Stein, Theo. “Despite Pandemic Shutdowns, Carbon Dioxide and Methane Surged in 2020.” NOAA Research News, 7 Apr. 2021, https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2742/Despite-pandemic-shutdowns-carbon-dioxide-and-methane-surged-in-2020.


[3] Ibid, NOAA

[4] “Global Roadmap to 2050 for Food and Agriculture.” FAIRR, 11 Nov. 2022, https://www.fairr.org/article/roadmap-to-2050/.

[5] Ibid, FAIRR

[6] “UN Special Envoy Calls for a Focus on Food at next Climate Talks to Limit Global Heating and Prevent Future Famines.” COP26 Food Systems Summit 2021 , 10 Nov. 2021, UN Special Envoy calls for a focus on food at next climate talks to limit global heating and prevent future famines. Accessed 5 Dec. 2022.

[7] “Global Roadmap to 2050 for Food and Agriculture.” FAIRR, 11 Nov. 2022, https://www.fairr.org/article/roadmap-to-2050/.

[8] “U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan.” White House , Nov. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/US-Methane-Emissions-Reduction-Action-Plan-1.pdf.

[9] Ibid, White House


[10] Bryce, Emma. “A 15-Year Snapshot of US Diets Reveals a Gradual Shift Away from Beef.” Anthropocenemagazine.org, 20 May 2022, https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2022/05/a-15-year-snapshot-of-us-diets-reveals-a-gradual-shift-away-from-beef/.

[11] United States, Congress, School Meals: Plant-Based Food and Milk Options: California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program. 2019.

[12] Hamerschlag, Kari. “California Senate Education Committee Approves Nation’s First Climate-Friendly Plant-Based School Lunch Program.” Foe.org, 3 July 2019, https://foe.org/news/ca-senate-approves-plant-based-lunch/.

[13] Ibid, School Meals

[14] Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5376/text. Accessed 5 Dec. 2022.