Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What About this War on Meat?

There has been a war on meat, especially on beef, over the past few years, and, especially in the context of "sustainability" and "climate change". I wish I had a nickel for every prominent headline I've seen from just about every prominent news source and writer proclaiming with one fell swoop that meat is "the problem" and if we'd just stop eating it we'd solve water, greenhouse emissions, food supply, and health problems. Just today another major story, or study, hit the press, this from World Resources Institute, "Shifting Diets from Meat to Plants Can Cut Environmental Impacts Nearly in Half."

First and foremost, you can't make a broad sweeping generalization proclaiming that meat is the problem when "meat" encompasses such a wide range of types and ways in which it was produced.

If we speak globally, then much of the red meat eaten in the world is goat meat. Goats are pretty resilient animals capable of producing both milk and meat for subsistence farmers. Is that bad?

In Peru, some cultures keep guinea pigs next to their houses for quickly accessible meat. In the Middle East, pigeon houses are set up to be accessed for meat to cook with. Currently, in Zimbabwe there is a craze to raise quail for meat. Are these things bad?

Hunter-gathers ate meat from the wild, and today, hunters continue to harvest sustainable wild boars in Italy, deer, ducks, turkeys, and pheasants here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Is that bad?

Pastured or free ranging livestock or poultry including beef, lamb, goat, pork, bison, and chickens are healthier meats to eat than those produced in industrial settings. These humanely raised animals convert grass to protein and add manure back to the landscape as Nature intended and as the large herbivores like bison once did. By encouraging and subsidizing a higher quality standard of meat production we could remedy much of what ails industrial agriculture here in the U.S. Would that be bad?

Cattle grazing in North Dakota Prairie Pothole Region
Photo credit: Rick Bohn
One of the best agricultural systems this country has ever known was rotational grazing used in the rich Midwestern farmland region during the Midcentury decades. Farms were smaller and more self-sufficient. Farmers rotated their beef through their own farm fields and fed their own grain and silage to their cattle. Alfalfa, which utilized Nature to add nitrogen to soil was part of that mix, as were grassy pastures which lined waterways, preserved soil, and allowed for trees on the land. Was that bad?

Contrast that rotational grazing system of yesterday to today's Midwestern agricultural trends. We see, primarily, two monoculture crops, corn and soy, grown on ever-larger sterile fields, too often owned by remote landowners, and, subsidized by taxpayers. These two crops are being produced to turn into feed for industrial livestock, or, into ethanol and biodiesel which is shipped by rail across country to be burned in urban cars and SUVs under the label "green". The land use changes involved, including the lowest Conservation Reserve Program Land acreage seen in almost three decades, have led to a threatened Monarch butterfly, scarce bird populations, depleted soil microbes, and other losses of biodiversity which formerly inhabited the Great Plains. Sterile fields growing monoculture crops has led to contaminated and depleted ground water in rural areas and communities, tons upon tons of topsoil loss, and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This, yes this, is bad.

An updated version of yesterday's rotational grazing that serves as smart regenerative agriculture today is that of North Dakotan Gabe Brown. He advocates regenerative holistic farming by using cover crop mixtures, no-till crop production, and integrative livestock grazing on pasture. He sees increased yields and profits through improved soil health and biodiversity. Is that bad?

Meat from smaller animals is more efficient, too. Free range chickens and their eggs are about as healthy and efficient as it gets. Ask Joel Salatin. Is that bad?

There are artisan farmers raising heritage breeds of beef, pork, and poultry. Restaurant chefs are embracing these rich tasting meats and we should all laud the great contribution these people are making to preserve the genetics of unique evolutionary livestock from various parts of the planet. I have studied many of the heritage breeds and marvel at what each has to offer. Is this bad?

In my mind, eating beef and other livestock, if not in excess, pales as a sin environmentally in comparison to over-fishing our seas, depleting the oceans small fish for aquaculture, and, converting large areas of land to biofuels production, such as palm oil, corn ethanol, and other biofuels.

Cattle grazing in North Dakota
Photo credit: Rick Bohn

Then, there's the health and dietary aspect of meat. Eating too much meat is not good, but meat for flavor, for protein, and other nutrients helps ensure a healthy diet. Is that bad?

It is an unfortunate situation that there are good farmers out there who produce more natural meats using methods more like those from yesterday. But, unless those producers have local outlets for their meat, and they probably don't if they raise only 25-100 head, it gets thrown into the same bidding market that the worst  of the industrial offenders participate in. Their meat is not labeled any differently and it doesn't reap more money for that farmer. If you can, vote with your dollars and support your local meat producer.

Another big problem with the war on meat articles is that many things are being ignored about plant based diets. Last week, economist Tim Taylor wrote "Tradeoffs of Cultured Meat Production" in which he discussed this very thing, raising the question that a shift away from meat and toward fruits and vegetables could create larger environmental effects.

On a philosophical level (important since many war on meat articles are a bit preachy) growing plants is not without its own disgraces. Plants, too, are alive and are known to communicate in very sophisticated ways via their leaves and their roots. And lest vegetarians think that eating plants is harmless to animals, I'll quote poet and former organic (Zen) Green Gulch Farm grower, Wendy Johnson:
"...Little sparrows, quail, robins and house finches who have died in our strawberry nets;
Young Cooper's Hawk who flew into our sweet pea trellis and broke your neck;
Numerous orange-bellied newts who died by our shears, in our irrigation pipes, by our cars, and by our feet;
Slugs and snails whom we have pursued for years, feeding you to the ducks, crushing you, trapping you, picking you off and tossing you over our fences;
Gophers and moles, trapped and scorned by us..."
You get the picture. Life eats life, and everything comes with unintended consequences. Because we are living in the Anthropocene age with abundant fossil energy, we have conquered both the land and the sea in what we eat. Between industrial farming, processed foods, too much sugar, refrigeration, packaging, and the modern grocery store, we have become a sedentary species which eats too much and is obese. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who farmed the upper Midwest years ago ate naturally raised livestock, poultry, garden produce, and cooked with animal fats, and many of them lived very long and healthy lives while living quite lightly on the land.

Next, I'd like to include in this writing, two recent comments seen elsewhere on the web in defense of meat.

The first was sent to me by web-friend rjs. The comment is by Helix from Peak
First, let me state that I agree with the authors of the article "What The U.S. Can Learn From China’s New Diet Restrictions" that Americans -- and people in the developed world generally -- could reap health benefits by reducing their meat intake.

Having said that, I am truly wearied by the old canard about meat production and greenhouse gas emissions being "more than all the world’s vehicles combined." First, this simply doesn't jive with the most recent figures I have -- from 2014 -- which showed agriculture being responsible for 9% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation was responsible for 26% of these emissions.

Beyond that, there are so many fallacies hidden in this statement that it's hard to know where to begin, so I'll just focus on the most obvious ones -- obvious but unmentioned.

First, all carbon emissions from livestock are already part of the "surface cycle." That is, the carbon released into the air by the livestock was obtained from plants. Those plants, in turn, obtained that carbon from the atmosphere in the form of CO2 by plant respiration. It's a cycle.

Motor vehicles, on the other hand, burn gasoline or diesel fuel. These fuels are obtained from petroleum extracted from deposits in the earth's crust -- definitely NOT previously part of the surface cycle. Motor fuels essentially introduce previously buried carbon into the surface cycle. So comparing livestock to vehicle emissions is somewhat misleading when it comes to their effect on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a concept that the authors of this article -- and all others of its ilk -- seem reluctant to mention.

Secondly, carbon in the surface cycle can only be in one of four places, in the air, in the ground as organic matter, dissolved in water, or in the tissues of living organisms. (Carbon that gets locked up in, say, limestone essentially leaves the surface cycle until the limestone is exposed and weathered.) The only way to fundamentally alter the proportion of carbon in each of these repositories -- read "reduce greenhouse gases" -- is to push the carbon from one to the other of these sectors. In particular, reducing the number of livestock can only make a difference in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere if there is a corresponding increase in carbon stored in other life forms or in organic matter in the soil. (I'll leave aside organic matter dissolved in water, which is largely out of human control.)

About the only way that humans can increase the biomass locked up in plants is to allow forests to regrow. But there's a problem here. Most of the vegetable material eaten by humans is either from annual plants or from fruit and nut trees. By far the largest amount is from annual plants -- corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soybeans, garden vegetables, etc. Enormous tracts of land have been "cleared" -- that is, trees have been removed -- to provide land for growing these food crops. And therein lies the true dilemma: insofar as agricultural practices are concerned, producing edible plant foods implies fewer trees; reducing greenhouse gases implies more trees.

I could go on. Not all land is suitable for crop production, whereas it serves adequately well for livestock grazing, for example. But before everyone gets bored with my diatribe, I'd rather mention one further point made in the article -- "red meat consumption is clearly linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes." Another canard! And one that I suspect is the crux of the author's views on this topic. I hope you followed the link to the study that "clearly linked" red meat consumption with obesity. I'll just point out that the researchers were curiously disinterested in, for example, total food consumption or carbohydrate consumption while they were investigating red meat consumption. I leave it to you to decide whether these factors might also be relevant.
The second is a letter to the Scottbluff, Nebraska Star-Herald Newspaper Editor, written by Teresa Dye of Alliance, Nebraska.
I am writing in response to the letter from April 27, 2016, advocating a vegan diet to slow climate change. The author referred to some statistics regarding agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases, but the noted statistics appear to represent greenhouse gas production on a global level rather than in the United States where agriculture is much more efficient than in developing countries. In the United States, EPA data from 2014 shows that all of agriculture contributes only 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and animal agriculture accounts for only 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions are due to transportation (26 percent), electricity (30 percent), and industry (21 percent). If the entire population gave up red meat and dairy one day per week, it would only reduce the carbon footprint by 0.44 percent. 
Meat is part of a healthy diet. It provides high quality protein and key micronutrients (including iron, zinc, phosphorus, vitamins B6 & B12, niacin, selenium, choline, and riboflavin) that are essential for health. A substantial body of evidence shows that protein helps in maintaining a healthy weight, building muscle, and fueling physical activity. Studies have shown that children who eat meat have improved cognitive function and physical development as compared to children who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
A 3 ounce serving of lean beef provides almost half (48 percent) of the daily recommended intake for protein in only 150 calories. It would take almost twice as many calories to obtain the same amount of protein from a vegetable source. Additionally, animal sources of protein tend to deliver all of the amino acids that we need whereas plant sources often lack one or more essential amino acids.
Raising livestock is a 24/7 job, so not many want to do it these days. So, there is that, and it's no small thing. Imagine never being able to take a vacation or leave your workplace for 24 hours (or less). It is easy for writers to criticize migrant farm worker wages and we all sympathize with that issue, but the farmer who produces healthy livestock might be getting paid even less than that in today's world.

The industrial livestock production pendulum has swung too far in one direction, so it is time to swing back, something that seems to be happening due to the voice of the consumer. Meat is not bad. Too much meat is bad. Inhumanely produced, hormone and antibiotic laden meat is bad. As Temple Grandin said, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."

Enough with the oversimplified headlines about what a villain meat is. Let's focus on good meat choices instead.

--by Kay McDonald 6/8/2016


  1. Thanks, Kay, this is great. A useful leverage point here, I think, would be better data around the different types of meat production systems and their environmental impacts. Like you said, if we lump everything together, we lose the helpful granularity that can point to positive practices. Now we just need to incentivize investment in this kind of research :)

  2. Thanks, Sarah. Livestock academia has data already and I'm sure continues to collect it, but the variations in the way different farmers raise livestock are so enormous that the generalizations and conclusions may sometimes be hard to come by. I like to eat wild salmon, anchovies, cured meats, occasional chicken, beef, or pork, and we get some local goat and lamb from our farmers market (on the days I do eat meat, that is). Will there be a day when my assortment of meat has a known environmental impact? That's a tall order so I see the consumer's dollar votes and common sense and policy incentives as huge players.

  3. Besides being a backyard homesteader I'm also an organizer in my community supporting home and neighborhood food production.

    The 'argument' (its actually more of a Vegan attack) regarding home meat production gets frightening at times.

    My own efforts to inform and educate our detractors PALES in comparison to this essay.

    I'll be posting this link to every group within my reach. We're having a community chicken harvest this Sunday and this will be one of the handouts. With attribution of course!

    THANK YOU. Come check out what we're doing on Facebook.
    Grow Gainesville, the Gainesville Meat Collective, Gainesville Urban Homestead Project.

    1. So glad to have your endorsement of what I wrote, Faye. If I did Facebook, I'd follow you. Good luck!

  4. Thanks for the article. There are a lot of lies being told about meat production. I would like you to address the claims about the huge amount of water to produce a pound of beef. I think the amount they claim is greatly exaggerated.

  5. Really? So the methane from livestock (23 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) doesn't count more heavily towards climate change?

    The study cited that says livestock is responsible for as much warming as human transportation turns out to be was from the UN, and included livestock transportation. But still, livestock consumption has increased five-fold since the 1950s, and worst of all, the increase is largely coming from factory-farmed meat. This sequesters the benefit of livestock excreta from the land denuded to provide its feed, as Wendell Berry says "Neatly dividing a solution into two problems."

    ...and never mind the ill health that comes from eating meat raised with the antibiotics that produce super-anti-biotic-resistant germs, meat is implicated in a whole host of human ailments.

    The source for that last statement is Colin Campbell's "The China Study," the largest study of the connection between diet and health ever conducted. (Commissioned by Chou En Lai as he was dying of stomach cancer.)

    Campbell is a Columbia biochemist, previously famous for discovering aflatoxin, a mold-produced carcinogen.

    Diseases with a statistical connection to animal products include: cancer, arteriosclerosis, stroke, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (lupus,M.S), osteoporosis (*caused* by milk!) and Altzheimers.

    Campbell himself was raised on a dairy farm, and consumed lots of meat and milk. He currently travels the country trying to encourage people to eat vegan.

    So...I might buy this argument if the meat were grass-fed, and compassionately slaughtered (if that's possible), but not under current circumstances.

    Take a look at for testimonials about those helped by changing their diet for more. This is *not* little stuff.

    1. Anon,

      Neither Wendell Berry nor Michael Pollan are vegans. They understand the merits of the holistic farming system, that is for optimal soil microbe health, manure is the magic potion.

      There are those who see faults with the China Study, and especially with McDougall's ideas. Nutritional news has been changing surrounding the subject of fats and how they affect our brains and bodies. Everything in moderation is always a wise motto to live by.

      I think what you are missing about methane and cattle (if you even read what I wrote above) is that good farming practices make up for the methane produced by the livestock and I reference Gabe Brown’s methods above using paddock rotational grazing and cover crops. This would mean smaller farms and more vibrant farm communities, too, although someone has to do the work of 24/7 caring for the humanely raised animals and not many are willing to do that these days, plus it deprives them of the opportunity to have second jobs and work off the farm, something many farmers feel is necessary to make a living. So, in the end, it always comes down to policy, doesn't it?

      When you said "But still, livestock consumption has increased five-fold since the 1950s, and worst of all, the increase is largely coming from factory-farmed meat." I refer you to my newest post charting meat consumption. Telling the developing world that they cannot eat meat is akin to telling them they cannot use fossil fuels.

      I hope this helps clarify.

    2. On pasture in well managed systems, the methane created via methanogenesis by methangoens in the cattle rumen is also offset by the methanotrophic soil bacteria that oxidize atmospheric methane. The ecosystem includes the soil, not just the emissions. Remember too that even feedlot grain finished spend approx 2/3 of their lives on grass. So better land management techniques may also be applied to cow/calf and stocker operations where the vast majority (approx 67 out of 81 mill head) of beef cattle inventory is (in addition to integrated farms).

      Additionally when the land is tilled or exposed or given synthetic nitrogen, the soil microbiology is destroyed including the methanotrophs, so the cultivated land no longer functions as a methane sink. Thus in many ways, annual crop systems increase atmospheric GHG's by emitting carbon and not absorbing methane.

      As for Colin Campbell his observational population based studies are egregiously flawed. Too many confounding factors he doesn't account for when he parsed data to confirm his biases. Plus his animal studies also had serious issues. If very flawed science is the basis for your arguments, you're not making a very compelling case no matter how prolix you are.