The midterm culture war over plant-based meat

Last week, Nebraskans elected Republican businessman Jim Pillen to be the state’s next governor. It’s no surprise he won: Nebraska has picked a Republican in every gubernatorial election since 1998. But what made Pillen’s campaign so peculiar — and alarming to those who care about animal welfare and climate change — is that no other political candidate has campaigned so vehemently against veggie burgers and soy milk.

Throughout his campaign, Pillen vowed to “stand up to radicals who want to use red tape and fake meat to put Nebraska out of business,” and promised to work to pass laws that ban plant-based food producers from using words like “meat” and “milk” on their packaging.

While Pillen has a financial interest in such a ban — he runs Pillen Family Farms, the nation’s 16th largest pork company — “fake meat,” or more accurately, plant-based meat, currently poses little actual threat to Nebraska’s farmers, as it accounts for just 1.4 percent of US meat retail sales. Plant-based milks like oat milk or almond milk have captured a much bigger share of the dairy aisle — around 16 percent — but the dairy industry says it’s a minor factor in the decline of milk sales.

Pillen also has a financial interest in maintaining Nebraska’s hands-off regulatory landscape: His giant hog operations have been trailed by air and water pollution complaints since the 1990s. Pillen’s campaign did not respond to an interview request for this story.

The real aim, it seems, of his vitriol toward bean burgers — a tactic increasingly deployed by Republican politicians — is to ensnare plant-based meat into the culture war and further cleave an already divided electorate.

Real meat is for real Americans, while the stuff made from plants is touted by “coastal billionaires,” Pillen’s campaign asserted. The same message lit up right-wing media last year when the Daily Mail speculated — with zero evidence — that President Joe Biden’s climate change plan might limit red meat consumption. (What became the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed a year and a half later, didn’t touch meat; ensuring an abundant, cheap meat supply is a goal that still has bipartisan consensus in the US.)

The message resurfaced this summer when Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene nonsensically warned that the government was going to surveil and “zap” people who eat cheeseburgers. Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, who served as the White House physician for five years and who won reelection last week along with Greene, tweeted “I will NEVER eat one of those FAKE burgers made in a LAB. Eat too many and you’ll turn into a SOCIALIST DEMOCRAT. Real BEEF for me!!”

Alarmism over imagined threats to meat consumption is nothing new. In 2012, an internal USDA newsletter about the agency’s sustainability efforts mentioned Meatless Mondays, which prompted pushback from congressional Republicans. But the sparring over meat has escalated in recent years, which is terrible news for the planet. Leading environmental researchers warn that even if we do stop all fossil fuel use, we’re still cooked if we don’t change what we eat.

Agriculture accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat, dairy, and eggs making up the bulk of those emissions. And farmers won’t be spared from the effects of a changing climate. Extreme weather events, like droughts, wildfires, and floods, can destroy harvests and kill farmed animals. Rising temperatures and changing ecosystems lower livestock productivity, reduce crop yields, and degrade nutritional quality.

Dragging plant-based meat into the culture war could also hurt Nebraska farmers’ bottom line in another way: The state is devoting more acreage to crops that go into plant-based meat. Late last year, the ingredient company Puris, which subcontracts for Beyond Meat, told the Independent it had increased pea production in Nebraska by 81 percent from 2019 to 2021 and expected further growth in the state. (The farmer interviewed also raises cattle and joked that he’s grabbing “both of these markets.”)

Nebraska is also a leader in growing beans, a longtime staple of plant-based products.

Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs — a Nebraska-based nonprofit that works to improve quality of life for small farmers and rural citizens — said farmers in the state don’t see plant-based meat as a significant threat. “It might be a humorous line in a conversation or a political punchline that gets good laughs and cheers,” he told me. “I don’t hear anybody having serious conversations about it.” Hladik’s family farms corn, soybeans, and cattle, and he raises animals himself that he sells directly to consumers.

According to Graham Christensen, a corn and soybean farmer and the head of a renewable energy company in Nebraska, plant-based meat and other issues invoked by Pillen — like state agriculture regulation, the EPA’s clean water rule, and the Biden administration’s conservation programs — are trotted out as boogeymen to distract from problems wrought by large meat producers like the governor-elect.

“This is a psychological scheme that has been deployed over and over on good rural Nebraska people and beyond, in order to allow business to go forward as is,” said Christensen, who isn’t a fan of plant-based meat but agrees the US needs to cut back on meat consumption.

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