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The midterm culture war over plant-based meat

Nebraska’s next governor made his fortune in bacon and racked up pollution complaints along the way. Now he’s turning his sights on alternative meat.

A colorful illustration shows a black pan and metal spatula with bacon and eggs, with the outline of the state Nebraska over it, all on a yellow background. Amanda Northrop/Vox
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of 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.

Governor-elect Jim Pillen at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on January 18.
Grant Schulte/AP

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.

What most worries farmers and advocates like Hladik and Christensen, more than the rise of plant-based meat, is the rapid consolidation of the meat and feed industries, which has squeezed out smaller farmers, as well as the scourge of air and water pollution across the Midwest that’s been caused largely by industrialized agriculture. Pillen, who has inveighed against “environmental crazies” and “the assault on modern agriculture,” is unlikely to address either.

Pillen’s not wrong that what he calls modern agriculture, a euphemism for large-scale, industrialized animal agriculture, is under attack. But in Nebraska, it’s not necessarily from the specter of plant-based meat or the Biden administration, which has largely taken the same hands-off approach to agricultural pollution that Pillen advocates. Rather, it’s often from Nebraskans angry that their state government has known about its water pollution problem for decades and has only allowed it to get worse.

“Don’t tell me how to farm”

Nebraska is home to around 100 million farmed animals, fattened up with a lot of corn and soybeans. An even bigger proportion of the state’s corn production goes to make ethanol that’s blended with gasoline, which researchers say is an inefficient use of land. Most farmers apply nitrogen-based fertilizers to make the corn and soybeans grow as big and fast as possible, which means they usually need less land to grow more feed than organic farmers — a good thing. But the synthetic fertilizer comes with a steep public health toll: Nitrogen from fertilizer leaks out as nitrate into groundwater, which some 85 percent of Nebraskans rely on for drinking water. Researchers have found that areas with high nitrate levels have higher rates of childhood cancer and birth defects, and high nitrate levels are linked to colorectal cancer and thyroid disease.

Rain, as well as water used to irrigate crops, also carries nitrogen off the land and into rivers and streams, which can kill off fish and pollute waterways.

The other major source of nitrogen pollution comes from farmed animals themselves. Farmers spread their manure onto crops as a natural fertilizer, but some of it — like the synthetic stuff — leaches into waterways and groundwater.

A tractor on a field spraying fertilizer from a small tank attached to the tractor.
A farmer applies fertilizer to a field near Gretna, Nebraska.
Nati Harnik/AP

According to a damning recent investigation by the Flatwater Free Press, 59 of Nebraska’s 500 or so public water systems have violated the EPA’s nitrate limit of 10 parts per million since 2010 — a limit some researchers argue is still unsafe for children.

There are some practical, win-win solutions that Christensen and Hladik would like to see farmers take up to reduce nitrogen pollution, like planting trees and shrubs between cropland and waterways to prevent nitrate runoff, and cover-cropping — planting certain crops alongside corn and soy that can absorb nitrogen or reduce reliance on fertilizer. Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa, told me the benefits of these practices will be limited because they’re voluntary and most farmers will only employ them if they get subsidies, which come and go.

Secchi, Christensen, and Hladik all agree that what’s really needed is regulatory activity and enforcement, such as improving water pollution monitoring and testing, permitting livestock farms so they’re further from homes and schools, fining repeat polluters, and requiring farmers to better manage manure.

But given the outsized political influence meat and animal feed producers wield in the state, it’s a lot to hope for, even at the local level. Nebraska has 23 natural resource districts, or NRDs — local governmental bodies made up of elected boards with the goal of improving water quality (among other issues). One elected NRD member, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told me most NRDs are stacked with farmers or others involved in agriculture who resist reform.

“I hear this almost every board meeting: ‘Don’t tell me how to farm,’” they told me. The NRDs also have little to no enforcement authority: they can issue cease-and-desist orders that, if violated, can result in fines. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) has more authority, but Hladik said it’s underfunded and understaffed.

Even if it had people and money, it would need a mandate from the governor to clean up Nebraska’s wells and waterways. So far, that hasn’t come to pass; neither the NDEE nor any of Nebraska’s 23 NRDs have ever issued a cease-and-desist order or fine for excessive nitrogen fertilizer or manure application, according to the Flatwater Free Press. Meanwhile, cities, towns, and individuals have spent millions to treat water.

Water quality will likely worsen in the coming years, as Costco recently set up hundreds of barns and an enormous slaughter complex in the state to raise and process nearly 100 million chickens each year.

The Nebraska Association of Resources Districts did not respond to an interview request for this story. NDEE, responding to a request for comment, said in an emailed statement that it is “committed to an integrated approach to nutrient reduction that incorporates science-based and cost-effective targeted management practices” and that it “adheres to state statutory requirements and enacts regulatory authority through the department’s rules and regulations.”

Around 75 piglets on slatted floors inside a barn.
Piglets on a farm in Nebraska.
Getty Images/iStockphoto/Kelli Jo

Pillen, who has been on the receiving end of numerous state and citizen complaints against his business, benefits from Nebraska’s weak regulatory environment. In 1997, he received a complaint from the state over odors from one of his facilities. In 2000, a group of 18 plaintiffs sued over the stench of his hog operations, reporting a “musty hog shit smell” that “chokes you.” One woman said she felt she was a prisoner in her house, while another plaintiff complained that they couldn’t spend any time outside with their children and grandchildren. In 2013, a group of more than 100 people opposed new hog barns Pillen wanted to set up in Butler County, and two years later Pillen was cited for water pollution in another county.

“It’s really like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse to elect a guy like that,” said Secchi. The NRD member I spoke to used the same phrase when I asked them what they think of a Pillen governorship, as did a farmer.

Pillen and his family have received at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2019, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidies database.

We can’t afford to drag meat into the culture war

Pillen has entered the political arena during a moment in which agricultural policy is returning to the national political stage; President Biden even mentioned cover crops in his first address to Congress. This is a welcome turn of events. But agriculture is full of counterintuitive trade-offs, and blanket statements made by red-meat conservatives like Pillen, and sometimes by progressive advocates of organic agriculture, only serve to degrade the discourse on a complex, critical issue.

With a global population hitting 8 billion people on a heating planet, we need to be able to ask why we’re growing so much corn to produce so much meat — and ethanol — in the first place, without the conversation devolving to pithy campaign slogans.

America’s meat consumption, at more than 250 pounds per person per year, is simply unsustainable at current levels. If we raised fewer animals in a more ecologically sound fashion, and opted for more plant-based meat, or occasionally swapped meat for Nebraska-grown beans, we wouldn’t need to grow so much animal feed that pollutes waterways and endangers rural communities. It’d be far easier to manage the mountains of waste generated in the US each year by nearly 10 billion animals that makes rural life increasingly unbearable for some. Less meat doesn’t mean rejecting agriculture, but rather rethinking what we devote precious land to — a rethinking that could also help struggling farmers economically diversify, as Christensen told me.

It’s all but guaranteed Pillen would’ve won without his polarizing comments on meat alternatives and his anti-regulatory ethos. But the culture war-ification of meat — intended to shore up rural identity and needlessly divide voters — is something to keep an eye on as the climate footprint of what we eat becomes increasingly impossible to ignore, and essential for policymakers to address.