Could a change in administration affect America’s meat consumption? Purdue University economist Jayson Lusk says its possible. Speaking with AgriTalk host Tyne Morgan on Monday, Lusk said researchers are noticing more partisan divide in terms of meat demand.
“That’s particularly true for highly educated, more liberal consumers who show weaker meat demand compared to more conservative consumers,” Lusk said. “That gap has been widening over time, so it’s not surprising to see it starting to show up in some of our political debates.”
Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris suggested earlier this summer she would like to see a change to U.S. dietary guidelines to reduce meat consumption. However, Lusk said it could be difficult to change those dietary guidelines immediately.
“There’s a dietary guidelines committee going on right now,” he said. “The way the administration would affect that process is by who they appointed to that committee. Can they undo that now? I doubt it. But that is a lever (a new administration would have).”
Lusk said if a new administration sought certain types of environmental regulations or climate regulations, that could have an impact on the cattle and beef industry. He sees some pros and cons for agriculture under a Biden/Harris administration.
“You could imagine policies where they try to incentivize certain practices that might do a better job sequestering carbon. Could farmers be paid for adopting those sorts of practices? If we see a sweep of all the legislative and executive branches of government, it’s more likely we’ll see that kind of move towards those sorts of policies,” Lusk said.
Morgan questioned whether politicians are listening to the scientists who are showing that livestock’s impact on climate change is exaggerated by activists.
“Livestock does have an impact on the environment,” Lusk said. “The question is how big and how much? Our own EPA suggests that maybe 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, maybe 3% or 4% of that is cattle. We have to put that in context relative to the other impacts that we have.”
Lusk said any efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions for livestock should be done in a way that actually incentivizes producers to adopt practices that actually achieve the desired outcome.
“My fear is that something like a cow tax will just (treat) all animals the same, no matter how they are raised and what part of the country they are raised in, no matter how they are fed, no matter how productive they are,” he said. “I think that would be unproductive. We want to make sure if we go down that route that we have a system that actually incentivizes folks to move in a good direction.”
One issue Lusk has observed during the coronavirus pandemic is how consumers reacted with their food purchases. While it was predictable that consumers stocked up on pasta and rice or items that are storable, he said the way meat “flew off the shelf was just not what I would have predicted.”
Additionally, Lusk says the sales data for plant-based proteins did not suggest a trend away from red meat.
“Plant-based products experienced some significant sales growth,” he said, “but most the time that is expressed in percentage increases. If you start from a really low base it’s easy to get a large percentage increase.”
During the height of the packing plant slowdowns in April and May, Lusk said plant-based sales didn’t increase much during that period, despite retailers limiting the purchase of red meat items.
“We might have expected a spike in plant-based sales, but I really didn’t see that in the data. It does suggest who is buying those products. Maybe these are not the people that were buying a lot of beef and pork to begin with.”
Lusk says he is also impressed with the strength of meat demand during the pandemic, “especially with the fact that we haven’t come anywhere close to full-recovery of the food service or restaurant sectors.”