There's a bigger lesson here than just the absurdity of the situation. But first, the news itself.
The US Department of Agriculture had been promoting the Meatless Monday campaign in an interoffice newsletter, saying, "One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the Meatless Monday initiative." (New York Times)The newsletter went on to explain the environmental impact of raising animals for meat:
The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the UN, animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7000 kg of grain to make 1000 kg of beef.
For those that don't know, Meatless Mondays is exactly as it sounds, an initiative aimed at cafeterias, restaurants and schools, as well as individuals, encouraging vegetarian meals one day a week. TreeHugger has covered it a number of times, so check out the links to the left to get up to speed.
But apparently, even suggesting that one day a week without meat is one too many for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, as well as Rep. Steve King (R-IA). The former called the USDA recommendation, "a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table."
Reacting to the outrage, the USDA retracted their support, simply saying "USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday."
The outrage from the NCBA is to be expected, however misplaced, in that there's nothing in the USDA dietary suggestion that isn't accurate from an environmental perspective. Reducing your meat consumption does indeed reduce your environmental impact. Doing so one day a week is a worthy starting point in starting to eat a more environmentally friendly, as well as healthier, diet. A fully meat-free diet is even better, but one day without is better than nothing.
On a broader level though the statement from the NCBA is even more tiresome. In it's myopic focus solely on the intimated potential impact of people not eating beef one day a week on beef producers, it misses entirely the bigger picture, giving an entirely un-nuanced perspective on the impact of beef production.
It's unfortunately something that every single trade association I've encountered does—green product associations too—unquestioningly zealously promoting their business group, seldom if ever admitting that there could ever be anything wrong (environmentally, socially, medically, what have you) with their product or production method.
Some may argue that this is all to be expected and is even perhaps a good thing, with the truth of the situation resulting from the interplay of opposing debate points. But I'm not so sure.
Rather than working from starting points of confrontation, contradiction and defensiveness—an adversarial approach—why not instead work from a common starting point that recognizes that all the stakeholders in the discussion are part of a larger community (overlapping interdependent communities, actually) in which no position is an absolute, entirely good or bad, incapable of improvement, or without socio-environmental impact.
In this case, that would require livestock producers and their representatives acknowledge that their product has significant environmental impacts, and that from this perspective (as well as a health perspective) eating meat every day is not a good thing. Which is the very moderate, reasonable starting position of the Meatless Monday movement. At no time does this position even suggest that livestock producers cease to exist. It merely and meekly requires an acceptance that the optimal level of meat consumption is different from the maximal level.