Put away your meaty photographs, everyone: President Joe Biden is not banning burgers and steaks nor limiting you to 4 pounds of red meat a year. However, if you’ve heard reports that his administration is plotting this, you’ve come across a clear example of how online misinformation can take root and flourish.
The past weekend has seen a flood of mainly Republican politicians and Fox News personalities falsely claiming that President Biden is planning to force Americans to stop eating red meat in order to fulfill his new climate plan to slash carbon emissions by up to 52 percent by 2030.
Fox News showed an infographic suggesting that Biden’s climate plans would require Americans to only consume about 4 pounds of red meat per year, which would limit people to one burger a month. The news item implies that these figures are part of a policy drawn up by the Biden administration, but they are not.
“There is no effort designed to limit people’s intake of beef coming out of President Biden’s White House or USDA,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a virtual briefing on Monday.
Many prominent Republican figures, including Donald Trump Jr, took to Twitter to vent their rage at the nonexistent policy, namely by sharing photographs of all the steaks and burgers they’ve recently eaten.
So, where did this idea of individuals cutting meat by 90 percent a year as part of Biden's climate plan come from?
Fox News, it appears, got this idea from an article published by British tabloid The Daily Mail, called “How Biden’s climate plans will affect everyday Americans.” The article reads: “Americans may have to cut their red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent and cut their consumption of other animal-based foods in half. Gradually making those changes by 2030 could see diet-related greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 50 percent, according to a study by the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems.”
The Mail article appears to have conflated a study that came out in 2020 with Biden's announcement of his administration's ambitious carbon emissions goal for 2030 at the recent White House climate summit he hosted.
This 90 percent meat cut or 4 pounds of red meat figure is based on the annual fact sheet produced by the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems released in 2020 that looks at the environmental impact of a range of foods, products, materials, energy sources, etc. It is just one of the many hypothetical suggestions the paper puts forward as a means to cut greenhouse gases.
However, the research has no link to Biden’s policy, which doesn’t suggest a government-mandated cap on red meat consumption. There is no mention of mandating changes to American's diets in Biden's speeches at the climate summit or in the policy papers released by the White House.
The Daily Mail actually states in its original article: "While Biden hasn't released details on what life could look like for Americans, experts and recent studies have laid out what would need to change by 2030 to reach the goal."
This story follows a pretty typical cycle of misinformation: a legitimate piece of information gets taken out of context by a news article. Other media outlets pick up the story, further separating the information from its original context. It’s then posted on social media by a few big names with a large following and it’s shared tens of thousands of times. At this point, the original information is so diluted it bears little grounding in reality, but it’s become so widely propagated it’s treated as fact.
The climate crisis has long been a source of misinformation, but it’s not just about a few social media posts sharing false claims. Recent research has shown that the climate denial movement is propped up by billions of dollars through a well-orchestrated network of corporations, think tanks, and industry groups (many of which have clear links to the fossil fuel industry). In particular, a recent study has highlighted how the meat industry has spent millions lobbying against climate action by throwing doubt on the links between animal agriculture and climate change.
While there will not be a government-imposed limit on red meat, it is clear that animal agriculture is a significant contributor to the climate crisis. Livestock is responsible for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. As such, the production and consumption of red meat will have to be addressed if the world wants to address the deepening climate crisis, but a government-mandated cap is currently not on the table.