Where is the (sustainable) beef?
Posted April 17, 2012
It seems that every week brings a new piece on food these days, whether it’s the ills of pink slime on the bad end of the debate, or the benefits of organic foodstuffs on the other side of the spectrum. The public’s interest in what we eat is rising, and that is obviously very good. The quality of the reporting is of a decidedly mixed quality though, and last week’s The Myth of Sustainable Meat by James McWilliams was decidedly one of the more mixed pieces. Its chief failing is the reductiveness of virtually all of its arguments. This is all complicated stuff, and one needs to pay attention to the interconnectivity of all its parts. In short, one has to be holistic. The answers don’t lend themselves to simple numeric outcomes; unless you pick a discrete topic, measure one isolated variable and ignore the broader connectivities, something this article does time and again.
On the one hand, I don’t even feel like rebutting line-by-line the article’s main view, and that is that industrial meat production is more economic than its healthier, grass-fed and grass-finished alternatives. Isn’t it enough to realize that what we are doing to cattle, pigs, chickens and other industrially raised animals is simply torture, and that it is reprehensible? To give one relatively benign example: in a typical feedlot, manure is allowed to accumulate in the animals’ living area for 4-6 months before being removed. That’s right. 4 to 6 months. I realize that such a sweeping argument – while enough for me personally – is perhaps not granular enough.
So let’s look at a few points raised in the article. For instance, McWilliams claims that corn- and grain-finished cattle emit less methane than their grass-fed and grass-finished counterparts. First, while we need to pay attention to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock as part of our emissions reduction strategy, we need to appreciate that cow digestion (called enteric fermentation) is not the major driver of their GHG footprint. Rather, the main driver is deforestation—which explains why the per pound footprint of the Brazilian cattle industry (due to Amazon operations) is so much worse than our own. Second, while it is true that some studies have indicated that less methane is produced by industrial production, part of the reason is because the grass fed animals simply live longer to gain sufficient weight (which McWilliams claims, in tension with his thesis, is a good thing). Third, much depends on how each method is implemented. Emissions from grass-finished cattle depend on what other plants the grass-finished cows are eating when grazing (legumes, for example, tend to reduce emissions). Industrial beef emissions depend on how feedlots manage their manure (typically stored in “lagoons” or applied to croplands as fertilizer), which emit nitrous oxide (N20). One of the things McWilliams fails to point out is that the N20 produced by industrial operations has a 100 year global warming potential (GWP) of 310. This compares very unfavorably to methane produced by enteric fermentation which has a much lower GWP of 21 (this metric essentially measures the potency of gases in terms of their heat trapping potential). As noted in a 2012 paper published by UC Davis researchers Sara E. Place et al, reducing the impact of feedlots (or eliminating them) would have a significant and positive impact on beef and dairy productions. So, as you can see, it’s not so simple.
And how about the land use implications of producing corn and grain to feed the vast majority of our cattle? No matter which information source you choose, the vast majority (95%+) of corn in this country is produced to feed cattle and / or ends up as biofuel. How about the greenhouse gas emissions, irrigation, fertilizer and other land use issues associated with these industrial practices? It is now known that the dead zones in the Gulf are directly connected to fertilizer and other runoff from our corn belt – mostly used to feed our cattle, specifically the cattle that emit “less methane”.
McWilliams also decries the implications of hypothetically putting all our cows on pasture, and says we simply don’t have nearly enough land for this purpose. Again, very simplistic and ultimately not useful. He fails to mention that all cattle spend a part of their lives on grass anyway – and only then they are “finished” in feedlots with grain and corn. In this light his hypothetical is a lot less scary. And it becomes even less scary when you factor in 1) all the land saved by not having to grow grain and corn to feed the cattle, 2) the increased stocking density of cattle if certain grazing methods (like IRG, or Intensive Rotational Grazing) are used (again, alleviating the pressure on land), and 3) the positive impact on soil from methods like IRG, resulting in improved water, nutrient and carbon cycles. To be sure, one shouldn’t graze cattle everywhere. The achievable stocking density ranges from about 1 head of cattle per 1 acre in the Northeast to about 1 head of cattle per 20 – or even more – acres in the arid Southwest. As there are about 3 million unused pastureland acres in New York state you could satisfy the entire beef demand in the state by producing grass fed and grass finished beef – and this while improving soil quality and creating a carbon sink.
What is needed is research, not potshots. It is disappointing that McWilliams chooses to effectively provide cover for an industry that has invested incredible sums (and has caused the American taxpayer the same) to develop extractive agriculture that treats soil -- which under proper stewardship is regenerative -- as if it were a limited resource like copper or iron or coal. The externalities of this process are manifest, including the widespread use of antibiotics and other unwelcome substances in concentrated feedlots, all ending up on our plates and in our bodies. If a small percentage of the public and private investment were redirected to studying scaling up regenerative production, prices would fall, access would increase and some of the complex issues he glosses over would be better understood.
I would hope that serious journalism would respect the numerous connectivities among the individual issues and not simplify the debate to unhelpful and ultimately misleading reductive sub-arguments. For many reasons, including our health and the health of the planet, we should eat less meat and enjoy it more. And it should be healthily and sustainably produced. The more we learn about this complex topic the more it appears that this is achievable. Here is to the occasional sustainably produced steak, of course with a nice glass of red.
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