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The Potency of Republicans’ Hamburger Lie

The GOP's latest attack against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is dishonest. But history shows why it might work.


Conservatives are starting beef with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez again. Earlier this month, on Showtime’s Desus & Mero talk show, the freshman congresswoman said her plan to fight climate change—the Green New Deal—would require the meat industry to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. “We gotta address factory farming,” she said. “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

The right-wing media pounced, bleating that Ocasio-Cortez wanted to rip hamburgers from Americans’ hands. Then, last week, it seemed she was caught red meat–handed: Republican strategist Caleb Hull tweeted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, eating a hamburger. The hypocrisy was supposedly self-evident.

Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, Corbin Trent, calls this claim “absurd,” noting that the Green New Deal doesn’t call for banning meat. We want to restart America’s industrial capacity, revitalize economic growth, and ensure America’s leading in the development of new, bourgeoning green energy industries,” he told me. “That’s what the focus of the Green New Deal is. Not to take way anyone’s right to eat cheeseburgers.” Ocasio-Cortez, speaking to The New Yorker’s David Remnick last week, argued that “it’s hard for the Republicans to refute the actual policy on its substance. They resort to mythologizing it on a ludicrous level.”

Trent and his boss are right on the merits, but there’s a grain of truth to the Republicans’ hyperbole. Any serious plan to slow global warming must call for reducing the carbon output of the meat industry. That won’t require banning hamburgers entirely, but it does mean producing (and thus, eating) less meat. Democrats can’t afford to wave away that reality—and the gun control debate shows the risks of doing so.

This all started with cow farts. On February 7, the day Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Senator Ed Markey released their Green New Deal resolution, her office released a FAQ that said the resolution “set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast...” Cows fart and burp methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The document was a draft version unintended for release, and Ocasio-Cortez’s office retracted it. But the damage had been done. On February 9, President Trump slammed the Green New Deal on Twitter for its attempt to “permanently eliminate” cows. On February 12, Republican Senator John Barrasso said that if the Green New Deal became law,Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches.” Then Ocasio-Cortez was asked about cow farts on Desus & Mero, and her reply gave conservatives just the ammunition they needed.

Look, the cow flatulence stuff made for easy jokes, but the truth is they want to ban meat,” Tim Murtaugh, the director of communications for President Trump’s re-election campaign, tweeted on Wednesday. The House Natural Resources Committee Republicans posted photos from a press conference in which ranking member Rob Bishop ate a hamburger while lambasting the Green New Deal. “If this goes through, this will be outlawed,” he said between bites. “I could no longer eat this type of thing.”

The House of Representatives’ Republican-dominated Western Caucus tweeted out a cartoon depiction of Ocasio-Cortez as a superhero, slaying the evil hamburger.

And at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka said Democrats want to “take away your hamburgers,” adding, “This is what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved.”

Liberals largely have responded to these attacks with mockery. “The hamburger confiscation section of the Five Year Plan never got enough play from Stalin biographers,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, quipped on Twitter about Gorka’s speech. Parker Molloy, an editor-at-large at Media Matters for America, dubbed Gorka’s comments over a video of McDonald’s Hamburglar.

There is nothing in the Green New Deal that suggests outlawing the meat industry, and Ocasio-Cortez didn’t even say she wanted to take away hamburgers. “She said maybe you shouldn’t eat burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Trent noted. “So does everybody’s doctor. I don’t think that’s a bold statement.”

But the Green New Deal resolution does call for “removing ... greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” Farming is responsible for about 9 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions; almost half of that comes from animal agriculture. Two-thirds of the animal sector’s emissions are from animal farts and burps—and cows fart and burp the most, by far. This isn’t just a problem in the U.S.: More than two-thirds of global emissions from the livestock industry are due to cows—not just their farting and belching, but their endless eating. Cows consume immense amounts of grain, which requires a lot of fertilizer, which emits nitrous oxide, another powerful greenhouse gas.

This is why any comprehensive climate plan must take cows into account, with one obvious solution being to reduce their population. That doesn’t mean taking away people’s hamburgers, but it does mean making it a rarer, and thus more expensive, product. This is hardly the greatest sacrifice that will be required to prevent a civilizational catastrophe. But if the world’s population simply reduced its meat and dairy consumption, scientists say the effect would be massive.

The gun debate serves as a cautionary tale for what might happen if Democrats don’t embrace this reality. For years now, conservatives have accused Democrats of wanting to take Americans’ guns away. Most Democrats propose no such thing, instead advocating for sensible gun policies such as expanded background checks and closing the gun-show loophole. But many Democrats do support a ban on assault weapons. As the most recent legislation from Senator Dianne Feinstein makes clear, that doesn’t mean the government would take away assault weapons that Americans already own, but it would prevent them from buying more.

That idea is unacceptable to many gun owners, and more importantly to the National Rifle Association, which continues to peddle the claim that Democrats are trying to “take away” guns. It’s not true, but it’s proven effective enough to prevent any meaningful gun-control legislation from becoming law over the past two decades—even though a majority of Americans supports stricter gun laws.

Only 30 percent of Americans own a gun, while the percentage who eat hamburgers is surely higher: On average, Americans eat three per week. So the accusation that Democrats want to take away hamburgers could resonate with many more people than the claim that they want to take away guns. And the meat lobby has the resources to be vastly more influential in politics than the gun lobby. The gun industry estimates it contributes $51 billion to the economy per year; the meat industry estimates it contributes about $864 billion.

If there’s anything more quintessentially American than guns, it’s meat. As food historian Bruce Kraig told me, there exists a “deep American ideology in which abundant food, especially meat, suggests ‘the promise of America,’ the American cornucopia, and defines who we are as Americans.” Conservatives are appealing to this sentiment with their attacks on the Green New Deal: Real Americans eat hamburgers. Can the Democrats convince Americans otherwise?