Climate change is real and human activities are to blame. Meat production has been criticised for having a significant environmental impact and contributing to climate change.
In this article Diana Rodgers, RD, examines claims against meat production, dispels common myths and explains how meat production can be environmentally friendly. Diana is a real food nutritionist living on a working organic farm who is writing a book and producing a film called Sacred Cow: The Case for Better Meat.
In Part 1, Diana compares the exaggerated claims of the media with the actual findings of the IPCC report. In Part 2, you'll learn how reducing animal consumption will increase nutrient deficiencies. In Part 3, Diana explains how cattle can graze on land we can’t crop, which is the majority of agricultural land. In Part 4, you'll learn how cattle really don’t “use up” as much water as the media commonly says. In Part 5, you’ll learn about why cattle aren’t “wasteful” when it comes to converting feed to protein. In fact, they’re a net protein gain for our food system. Finally, in Part 6, Diana shows that the methane numbers used against cattle are blown way out of proportion, and that well-managed cattle can be a net carbon sink.
Part 1: Misinformation in the Media: When News Headlines Don't Reflect Reality
We’ve had some strong anti-meat messages coming from the media lately. A London University has banned beef on campus (horribly misguided) and everyone is freaking out because of lies spread by the press about the latest IPCC report.
Is the media correct in their assessment of this report? Should beef be banned at universities? One UK politician has even said that meat eaters should be treated like smokers, and a former UN official feels that meat eaters should be banished to eat their steaks outside: “If they want to eat meat, they can do it outside the restaurant.”
Meat seems to be the new butter, but even worse — because not only is meat presented as unhealthy, but it’s also seen as bad for the environment and unethical to eat. This trifecta (nutrition, sustainability and ethics) maligns meat as the most evil of all foods possible.
As a dietitian who believes in real food and has lived on a working organic farm for the last 17 years, I’m quite frustrated with the vilification of meat, and the assumptions that it’s going to harm our health and the planet.
It’s quite simple to say “Meat is Murder” but in order for me to unpack this, I need to provide a full and deep understanding on evolutionary biology, regenerative agriculture, and the principle of least harm. This is why I’ve spent the last three years writing a book with Robb Wolf, Sacred Cow and working on a documentary film with the same title. Hardly anyone is pushing back, and what people don’t seem to realize is that when we vilify meat, this gives ultra-processed food companies a free pass to present their junk food products as healthier, more sustainable and somehow magically harming zero animals. HOGWASH!
Facts About the IPCC Report
I’d like to start by directly address the IPCC report.
What Did the Media Claim?
"We must all go vegan right away or the world will explode”
What the Media Should Have Said
“In order to have a food system that provides optimal nutrition, increases food security, and heals the land, regenerative agriculture, which requires ruminants (like cows) is the only way to move forward.”
What Did the IPCC Report Say?
Below are the highlights from the 43 page document that the media obviously didn’t read:
- Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use cause about 23% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
- Grain production has increased by 240%.
- People are overweight. (This is not from increased per capita meat consumption — which has dropped in the US and remained steady globally over the last 40 years — it’s from increased consumption of processed foods and oil crops, which has dramatically gone up.)
- Many people will be experiencing desertification (this is largely due to eroding soils from tillage). We can expect more extreme weather events, flooding, droughts, heat stress, dry spells, wind, and an increase in arid zones in the future. This will make cropping much more risky.
- Greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture are largely due to deforestation and “land use change” (tilling soil that was covered) to plant grain crops.
- Nitrogen fertilizer application to crops contributes significantly to emissions. Animal manure also contributes but what’s not mentioned is the benefits of animal manure vs. nitrogen fertilizers.
- Urban sprawl will put pressure on prime cropland.
- We need to reduce food waste big time. (Most food waste is from the produce industry.)
- It’s important to consider practices that increase carbon sequestration and biodiversity. It’s much easier to prevent desertification (water scarcity) through improved land management than to reverse it. There are many ways of raising livestock that can benefit small-scale farmers. Some solutions to better land management include cover crops, reducing tillage, and maintaining ground cover through managed grazing of livestock. This will also ensure food security.
Towards the end of the report, the IPCC made the following recommendation:
“Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
What did the IPCC report not say? I didn’t once see the words “go vegan” in this document. The IPCC report actually recommends well-raised meat. The diet featured here is a whole-foods based diet, one that includes meat and does not include processed foods.
Now, as a dietitian who also believes that a lower carbohydrate diet is ideal for those who suffer from obesity and diabetes (shocking, I know), and if we are to consider satiety and nutrient density the most ideal traits in a food, I would argue that vegetables and animal proteins make up the majority of the diet. Grains and legumes in particular are higher in calories and carb per gram of protein than meat, and provide less nutrients. They’re a “third world protein source”. Animal proteins are lower in calories and higher in nutrient density, making them ideal for those who are malnourished AND for those who are suffering from obesity.
Before I explain the environmental benefits of well-raised livestock, it’s important to realize the nutritional benefits of animal products to humans. Why raise a food that’s considered unhealthy in the first place? Here’s what would happen with a dramatic reduction or the elimination of animal products…
The recommendation to go vegan was a misinformation spread by the media. The IPCC report never recommended plant-based, vegan diets. It actually recommends well-raised meat.
Part 2: Does Reducing Animal Consumption Increase Nutrient Deficiencies?
Red meat is important to the global human diet and “its contribution of protein and key micronutrients is under-appreciated." ( 1) A recent study looked at what might happen if the entire US eliminated animal products from our diet. ( 2) Overall calories would go up (we’re already having an issue with overconsumption of calories) and nutrient deficiencies would also increase. And what about all of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Overall emissions would be reduced by a mere 2.6%. It turns out, eliminating animals would “create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements.” ( 3)
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency and is most prevalent in women of childbearing age and children. In children, it can cause developmental delays and behavioral issues.
Vegetarians are commonly iron deficient, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. ( 4) Heme iron, found in red meat, is the most absorbable kind of iron, two to three times better than plant-based iron, and absorption is also dependent on current iron stores.
In New Zealand, hospitalizations for iron deficiency have doubled over the last 10 years as red meat consumption has declined. Vegetarianism in New Zealand is up nearly 30%, and of those who do eat meat, they’re eating more than twice as much chicken and pork, yet beef and lamb consumption are dramatically down. Early signs of iron deficiency include fatigue, light headedness, and shortness of breath. In children, iron deficiency is quite serious and can cause failure to thrive. ( 4)
Vitamin A Deficiency
Getting adequate vitamin A is another problem with a diet void of animal foods. Plant foods contain an inactive form of vitamin A called beta-carotene. The conversion into active vitamin A is pretty inefficient. Almost half of the population have a gene that reduces the conversion of beta-carotine to vitamin A by approximately 70%. ( 5)
If we eliminate animal foods, people would suffer from calcium deficiency. The calcium found in plant foods is not as bioavailable as calcium from foods like dairy and sardines. Low calcium, together with vitamin D (another nutrient low in vegan diets) is a very big concern for bone health. (6) Fracture rates are 30% higher in vegans than in those who consume animal products.
Other Deficiencies Common in Plant-Based Diets
Research shows that expecting mothers who don’t eat meat are more likely to experience premature delivery and low birth weight newborns. ( 7) Other nutrients of concern for those on meat-free diets include glycine, selenium, methionine, taurine, creatine, choline, and iodine. ( 8) Iodine deficiency can lead to brain damage and irreversible mental retardation. ( 9) Among the most concerning nutrient deficiencies shown in the vegetarian and vegan population is vitamin B12. ( 10) A deficiency in B12 can cause depression, psychosis and cognitive impairment. ( 11) Plant foods like seaweed, brewer’s yeast and fermented soy contain B12 analogs and not the true form of B12. These analogs actually increase your need for the true form of B12. ( 12)
Reducing animal consumption and going plant-based will increase nutrient deficiencies.
In developing countries where malnutrition is still a very real problem, eliminating or even reducing will have serious consequences. When people don’t have access to supplements or highly processed and expensive veggie burgers, and their land is only suited to grazing animals, eliminating the majority of their nutrient dense food to replace it with grains and nuts from far away is not a sustainable, healthy or ethical solution.
What the IPCC Report Should Have Mentioned
What I wish it also recommended in addition to better meat was regenerative/organically grown fruit and vegetables, since chemical fertilizers and tilling for grain production represent the largest source of agricultural emissions. Shouldn’t the goal be that ALL food be raised in a sustainable way?
In the next part, I’ll explain how well raised livestock actually sequesters carbon, increases biodiversity, improves the water holding capacity of the soil, and can be produced in a way that doesn’t compete with humans for cropland.
Part 3: Don’t Cattle Take Up Too Much Land?
As a “real food” dietitian, I feel that animal products are essential to humans nutritionally, but I’ve also spent the last 17 years of my life living on a working organic farm. We first started growing vegetables but soon realized that animals were critical to the nutrient cycle. Instead of just composting our old produce and applying fertilizers to our fields, we could use pigs, chickens, sheep and goats to do the job for us while also producing food that is more nutrient dense than vegetables.
The idea that “cows are bad for the environment” is an easy one to say. It sounds right to someone disconnected from food production yet requires a PhD dissertation to unpack. This is why I’ve spent the last three years writing a book with Robb Wolf and working on a documentary film that supports the book, Sacred Cow. In it the book, Robb and I fully explain in detail why blaming “farting cows” for our climate crisis is a reductionist view that really misses some key benefits cattle have on our environment. So please bear in mind that this is a highly complex and nuanced conversation, which is spelled out more deeply in the book. In this part, I’ll explain why cattle are actually amazing when it comes to grazing food we can’t eat on land we can’t crop.
Livestock take up valuable land, and if we just got rid of these “inefficient” sentient beings, we’d have more land for plant-based foods? Right? That’s what Meatless Mondays wants us to assume from this graphic:
Animal Protein Calories Are Much More Valuable
You’ve probably heard that one-acre of land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 53,000 pounds of potatoes and 30,000 pounds of carrots but only 250 pounds of beef. That sounds pretty dramatic and wasteful, right? Why would we bother raising beef when we can be so productive with crops?
There’s two problems with this argument. The first one is that we’re not comparing the same “apples to apples”, meaning, we’re not comparing foods of the same nutrient value. As you read in the nutrition section, animal protein calories are much more valuable than carbohydrate calories to humans. You would need to eat 640 calories worth of beans and rice to get the same amount of protein you can get in only 210 calories, about (3.5 oz) of beef, not to mention B12 and heme iron, the most bioavailable form. So as we consider what can be raised on equal amounts of land, let’s be sure to compare foods of equal nutrients, not just overall calories.
We don’t need more calories in our food system, we need better protein.
Most of the World’s Agricultural Land Can't Grow Crops
Secondly, and what is the most important takeaway from this post, is that most of the world’s agricultural land cannot grow tomatoes, potatoes and carrots (or other crops). Think about all of the brittle, dry, rocky, hilly landscapes across the planet. In order to grow large fields of crops, you need fertile soil, enough rainfall or access to water for irrigation, relatively flat land, and the infrastructure to till, harvest, and process the crops that aren’t eaten right away. Well managed cattle and other ruminants can thrive on land where we can’t grow crops, and are actually beneficial to the land. And there’s much more land suitable to grazing than there is land suitable for cropping.
This is a key takeaway: In effect, cattle (and ruminants at large) are not “competing” for space that could otherwise raise crops, they are playing a vital ecological role (if properly managed) AND converting food that cannot be used by humans (forage) to food that is indeed usable. Cattle “upcycle” nutrient poor food into high quality protein, all while contributing to a stable ecology, building topsoil and improving every feature of range lands.
Many traditional cultures, if they were to adopt the nutrition and food production guidelines popularized within affluent developed nations, would be incapable of producing ANY of their own nutrition. They would be entirely dependent on row crops raised sometime thousands of miles away. Row crops, which we have seen, have a likely ecological expiration date.
Ruminants like cattle, bison, goats and sheep actually “up-cycle” nutrients because they’re converting grass to protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals on land we can’t use for cropping, contributing to food security. ( 13)
Cattle can graze on land we can’t crop, which is the majority of agricultural land.
Why We Need Both Animals and Plants to Feed the Growing Population
Unfortunately, cropland is quite valuable to humans for other uses than growing food.
Human sprawl consumes remarkable swaths of valuable space that could (should?) be used for growing crops. Think about all the expanding suburban areas, yes the cookie-cutter houses that seem to spawn strip malls and chain coffee shops with equal alacrity — beyond the repetition and uniformity, suburbia is built on what was once prime farmland.
Today, thanks to the internet, lots of folks want their piece of a few acres out in the hinterlands. Country living comes at a price however — The value of “farmland” has skyrocketed not for its utility as a resource that could feed us for aeons, but as a place for our wine refrigerators and solace from 80 hour work weeks: new housing.
McMansion expansion occupies land once worked by small to medium sized farmers, leaving either no farming or a consolidation towards huge players that can only be described as monopolies. Whether we are talking about a real estate boom fueled by dodgy government backed lending policies (as was the case to the 2008 housing collapse) or the urban flight occurring from states such as California, New York and New Jersey, the net effect is a loss of some of the best, most accessible farmland in the world. Cabbage and broccoli are great, but compared to selling land to developers, they don’t really pay the bills.
So the idea that we can simply eliminate livestock and somehow replace grazing animals with more crops is a fantasy. If we are to feed a growing population, we absolutely need both the nutrients from meat AND the ability to raise food on land that we can’t crop. With good management techniques like intensive grazing, the “carrying capacity” of the land is increased, meaning MORE cattle can be placed on the same amount of land.
If we are to feed a growing population, we absolutely need both the nutrients from meat and the ability to raise food on land that we can’t crop.
Part 4: Don’t Cattle Drink Too Much Water?
Does it really “waste” 10 bathtubs full of water to produce one 1/4-lb burger? That’s what the Meatless Mondays campaign says. But the problem is that HOW the water is measured makes a huge difference. Are we talking about rainwater that would have fallen anyway, or irrigation water from depleted reservoirs? That makes a huge difference.
Below are definitions from Waterfootprint.org’s glossary:
“The precipitation on land that does not run off or recharge the groundwater but is stored in the soil or temporarily stays on top of the soil or vegetation. Eventually, this part of precipitation evaporates or transpires through plants. Green water can be made productive for crop growth (although not all green water can be taken up by crops, because there will always be evaporation from the soil and because not all periods of the year or areas are suitable for crop growth).”
“Fresh surface and groundwater, in other words, the water in freshwater lakes, rivers and aquifers.”
Grey Water Footprint
“The grey water footprint of a product is an indicator of freshwater pollution that can be associated with the production of a product over its full supply chain. It is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on natural background concentrations and existing ambient water quality standards. It is calculated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to such an extent that the quality of the water remains above agreed water quality standards.”
Image source: Research Gate
Depending on the type of water measured, grass-fed beef can either look fantastic, or like a water hog. In “typical” cattle production, the green water number is about 92% of the total water calculation. (14) This means 92% of the water attributed to beef production is rain that would have fallen even if the cattle weren’t alive. In grass-finished beef, the green water number is closer to 97-98%. There are some studies that actually show “typical beef” as using less water than grazing cattle, because when you use the green water methodology, feedlot finished animals have higher hanging weights and a shorter lifespan than grass finished animals and therefore needs less feed over their lifetimes to produce more beef. The problem though is that this feed for feedlots often requires irrigation (blue water,) and blue water is what’s critical, not green water. Citation
We Need More Water to Produce a Pound of Rice Than To Produce a Pound of Beef
According to a 1996 study from UC Davis, that looked at only blue water use, “typical” beef requires approximately 410 gallons of water per pound to produce. One recent study showed it only takes 280 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. ( 15)
By contrast, a pound of rice requires about 410 gallons to produce. Avocados, walnuts and sugar boast similar water requirements. Some experts put water usage for grass fed beef closer to 50 to 100 gallons per pound to produce. The discrepancies in estimates are attributable to the very landscapes in which they are calculated. Factors such as humidity, temperature, how long the animal lived, etc. all dramatically affects the real story on water usage. Amidst these calculations it should be noted that the nutrition in grass-finished beef is far superior to rice, avocados, walnuts and sugar.
A pound of rice requires about 410 gallons of water to produce. It only takes 280 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, a far superior food source to rice and other crops.
Resources to produce grass-finished beef can artificially look higher than feed-lot finished beef, but this has to do with the fact that feed-lot beef live a shorter life. The water for a grass-finished animal is nearly all “green” (rain that would have fallen anyway), whether or not there were cattle on that field, and whether or not they ate the grass. As you can now see, it’s critical to understand how the researchers derive their numbers! Additionally, properly managed cattle (and well managed grazing animals) enhance the ability of the soil to retain more water, making it more of it available longer, thus facilitating more grass growth.
A water footprint doesn’t tell us anything about whether the water source is in critical danger or not. Is the feed grown in a region of the Ogallala where the water level is dropping, or where it’s being sustainably recharged? We don’t know that info from a water footprint. (16)
Whether a meat eater or vegan, more people than ever are concerned about the impact their food choices make on the environment. These are important issues, but it’s worth asking a few key questions about the relative merits of one’s dietary choices: How much water did it take to produce your almond flour muffin, your tofurky sandwich, and your “clean” lab meat made from GMO corn and soy?
Part 5: Doesn’t it Take Tons of Feed to Produce a Pound of Beef?
Contrary to what many people imagine, cattle do not spend their entire lives on a feedlot eating grain. “Typical” cattle live the first half to two thirds of their lives on pasture, eating grass and other forage, not grain. Unless they are “grass-finished”, beef cattle will spend the last four to six months at a feedlot where they’re harvested at around 18 months of age. It’s critical to realize that they already weight about 600-900lbs when they arrive at the facility, so to calculate the entire weight of the animal in a feed conversion ratio would be unfair.
Over their lifespan, typical (not grass-fed) cattle only get 10% of their diet from grain. (17) This means 90% of the feed for beef is non-edible by humans. Again, by contrast, industrially produced pork and chicken rely almost exclusively on grain inputs, provided by what would appear to be an unsustainable system. So while I live on a farm that finishes animals on pasture, and feel there are significant benefits of these methods, when compared to many other industrially produced meats and processed proteins, beef finished in a feedlot is a much better choice.
Typical (not grass-fed) cattle only get 10% of their diet from grain and it takes just 2.6 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef.
The amount of feed needed for an animal is called the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR). While many concerned about the viability of beef will say it takes 12 or even 20lbs of feed to produce one pound of beef. Those numbers are… wrong. A recent LCA calculated that the amount of grain required to produce one pound of boneless beef is 2.6lbs. ( 18) That means a ratio of 2.6:1. Pork is about 3.5:1, Chicken is 2:1 and many farmed fish like salmon are 1.3:1. So does this mean that chicken and farmed fish are better than beef? When you consider the overall better nutrient density of beef over chicken and pork, and the benefits cattle have on the land, beef begins to look like a much better choice.
Because cattle are ruminants, they can convert “crop residue” like corn stalks, into beef. Chicken and pigs can’t do this. When not on grass, much of their diet comes from byproducts of the food industry like grain leftovers from distilleries and other field residue (cornstalks, corn gluten, soybean hulls, cottonseed meal, almond husks, beet pulp etc). These non-edible by-products provide nourishment for the cattle from food that would otherwise be wasted. Let’s “ruminate” on that for a moment: Cattle convert grass and other nutrient poor food into nutrient dense food for humans. This is something ruminants are really good at doing. They’re “up-cycling” nutrients!
In the United States, about 85% of the land beef cattle are grazing isn’t suitable for cropping. If we weren’t grazing cattle on this land, we humans would have very little other use for it. Not only that, but the impact of well-managed ruminants on pasture and rangeland is actually beneficial. In a purely plant-based food system, this land would simply not be used, and would eventually deteriorate.
Cattle convert grass and other nutrient poor food into nutrient dense food for humans. They are “up-cycling” nutrients!
Part 6: Aren’t Farting Cattle Causing Global Warming?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard that it’s incredibly irresponsible of you to eat a burger because “cow farts”. In fact, Meatless Mondays wants us to think that livestock are responsible for more emissions than the entire transportation sector (this is completely false).
The hottest topic right now in the case against cattle is certainly the methane argument. Methane is much stronger than CO2, and cattle do produce methane, so clearly the best solution for the planet is to eliminate your steak dinners, right?
The Main Green House Gases (GHG)
First, let’s cover the basics. The three main greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with agriculture are Carbon dioxide (C02) primarily released in plowing, cutting trees and when burning fossil fuels, Methane (Ch4) which comes mostly from belching cattle and rice, and Nitrous Oxide (N2O), largely coming from the application of fertilizers. Each of these can be calculated in greenhouse warming potential (GWP) with carbon dioxide equaling 1, methane equaling 28 – 36, and nitrous oxide has a GWP of 265 – 298. However, according to the EPA, each of these gasses remains in the atmosphere for a different amount of time. Carbon remains active for thousands of years, methane only lasts about ten, and nitrous oxide is about 100 years or more.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Healthy soils store carbon. When the land is exposed from tilling, a lot of CO2 is released. In agriculture, CO2 emissions from plowing fields are the primary contributor to GHG emissions, not “farting cows”. One paper that looked at the impacts agriculture has had on the Great Plains illustrates that the plowing of native grasslands peaking in the 1930 was the most devastating when it comes to carbon emissions. The researchers estimate that if only 25% of producers switch to no-till practices, there would be a 25% improvement in GHG emissions. If 100% switched, the improvement increased to a whopping 80% improvement. ( cite PNAS) And what if they also incorporated grazing animals into the mix? Now we’re getting somewhere!
In agriculture, CO2 emissions from plowing fields are the primary contributor to GHG emissions, not “farting cows”.
Methane emissions come from anaerobic breakdown of organic materials (like your composting kitchen scraps), and in the case of food production, some from ruminant digestion, but a shockingly high amount from wetland rice production, causing nearly 30 percent of human-generated methane emissions. (source) Rice actually produces half of all emissions from crop production, at 2.5% of global anthropogenic emissions. Instead of meatless Mondays, should we call for “Rice-Free Fridays?” I’m sort-of not kidding… Although a staple in about 1/2 of the world’s population, rice is a pretty nutrient-poor food and certainly pales in comparison to animal-based protein as a human food source.
And although cattle do burp methane, this is simply a natural byproduct of their digestive process. Some of this breakdown and methane production would happen even if it weren’t inside a bovine digestive tract, and as I mentioned earlier, cattle are actually up-cycling nutrients. They’re converting grass and other plants that are of little nutrient value to humans into high quality protein while improving the quality of our soil. If we didn’t “up-cycle” these foods by running them through a ruminant, they would simply decompose and release GHG anyway. Why not make protein out of them?
In agriculture, rice produces half of all methane emissions from crop production, causing nearly 30% of human-generated methane emissions.
Let’s not forget that prior to the mid-1800’s, there were an estimated 30-60 million bison, over 10 million elk, 30 - 40 million Whitetail deer, 10 - 13 million Mule deer, 35 - 100 million pronghorn and caribou roaming North America, (all references here) yet nobody seems to acknowledge this when citing current “devastating” herbivore numbers. According to a paper published in the Journal of Animal Science, assuming the wild bison population was approximately 50 million, that also calculated the amount of elk and deer in pre-settlement America, methane emissions were about 84% of current emissions. ( 19)
According to a recent NASA study, the largest contributors to methane are the fossil fuels, fires and wetlands or rice farming. (20) One teragram of methane weighs about the same as 200,000 elephants (about 1.1 million tons), and are rising at a rate of approximately 25 teragrams per year. The researchers were able to find the exact cause of the recent increases in methane, “the team showed that about 17 teragrams per year of the increase is due to fossil fuels, another 12 is from wetlands or rice farming, while fires are decreasing by about 4 teragrams per year. The three numbers combine to 25 teragrams a year — the same as the observed increase.”
The largest contributors to methane are the fossil fuels, fires and wetlands or rice farming. It is not burping cows.
So Where Do All of These Exaggerated Methane Claims Against Cattle Come From?
It all comes from a terribly flawed analysis from 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) called Livestock’s Long Shadow.The report stated that livestock produce 18% of all GHG emissions, which was more than the transportation sector.
This number is circulated by the media constantly, even though the researchers have conceded it was an unfair assessment, and have since reduced that figure. Frank Mitloehner, a professor at UC Davis, analyzed how the data was gathered, and he found a big methodological error. In the case of cattle, a full Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) was done on the industry. This means they looked at the feed production, transport of the feed, processing, transport to stores, etc. All the way from what the cow ate to how it ends up in a consumer's meal.
However, the same cradle-to-grave assessment was not conducted on the transportation sector. Only direct emissions of the burning of gasoline was calculated. Many other factors in the transportation industry contribute to GHG production like how the cars or planes were made, how the metal was extracted, the energy required to run the factories, to transport and refine the oil, etc. So while they did a full LCA on livestock, they did not do the same for transportation, unfairly leading the public to think that animal agriculture is worse than the transportation industry. Instead, when we compare direct emissions of livestock to transportation, transportation is a much higher emitter of GHG than livestock.
Image source: News Trust
In the United States, according to the EPA, all livestock only represents 3.9% of the GHG emissions, which again is far lower than the 18% — 51% that many plant-based advocates report. The largest source of GHG emissions in the US comes from energy and transportation. Within the livestock category, beef cattle only represent 2% of total GHG emissions. These numbers are looking at emissions only for all industries and do not take into account any of the potential sequestration or net ecological benefit cattle have to the land.
In the United States, according to the EPA, all livestock only represents 3.9% of the GHG emissions. The largest source of GHG emissions in the US comes from energy and transportation.
A new study just completed showing the entire lifecycle of 100% grass-fed beef at a White Oak Pastures, a farm practicing “holistic management” in Georgia, showing that the net total emissions were -3.5 Kg Co2-eq per Kg of fresh meat. This is significant because not only is it better than conventional beef, pork and chicken, but it’s better than the claims of Beyond Burgers and soybean production.
Well-Managed Ruminant Animals Are the Key to our Future
Without ruminants chomping, grass just grows, oxidizes and eventually dies. When ruminants have to move (due to predators or electric fencing), it prevents overgrazing. This is where, “It’s not the COW, it’s the HOW” slogan comes from.
The breadbasket of America didn’t become our most fertile land because farmers were growing soy for thousands of years, it’s because of the impact of the bison. Their chomping, movement, and manure all co-evolved with grasslands in order to create an ideal ecosystem. With electric fencing and smart management of their time spent grazing, farmers and ranchers can make sure the animals are at the right stock density (number of cattle per acre) and moved at the right time to allow the land plenty of time to rest. This is the basic idea behind Holistic Planned Grazing, as the Savory Institute teaches. Other farmers have called similar practices “mob grazing” or “intensive management”. Even though it may sound to you like more animals on a smaller chunk of land would be harmful, this short-term, intense impact followed by a long recover period is exactly how healthy grasslands work all over the world.
Cattle chomping on grass stimulate regrowth; their manure inoculates the soil with beneficial nutrients and microbes, increasing the biodiversity underground leading to a much more resilient soil profile. These increase the microbial diversity of the bacteria and fungi that form “the gut” for plants in a symbiotic system. Loose dirt becomes soil, held together by the aggregates that are destroyed when we till. Healthier soil holds more water, preventing topsoil runoff. Soil wants to be covered as much as possible. We need to look at regenerative grazing in order to build better soil, and also produce more nutrient-dense food than what we can get from the industrial row-crop system.
I know what you might be thinking, this all sounds great but do we have the land to produce all of our beef cattle this way? I’ve spoken with several experts on this topic who all feel that we do. When we manage the cattle better, increasing their stocking density and moving them more frequently, we actually are able to produce more meat. We also have a lot of underutilized land and acres in corn production for cattle feed and ethanol that could be converted to grazing land.
We can and we must convert to regenerative grazing practices in order to build better soil and in order to produce better protein for our growing population.
In the Sacred Cow book, I go through the numbers to show that we can and must convert to regenerative practices in order to produce better protein for our growing (and sick) population. So even though grass-finished beef is a very small percentage of the market today, I believe it will continue to grow. Thirty years ago, organic produce was a fringe, hippie movement that most experts felt would never catch on. As of 2017, it’s a $45 billion dollar market growing at 6.4%.
For more articles, podcasts, and more information on the nutritional, environmental and ethical case for better meat, head over to sacredcow.info where you can find resources, sign up for the newsletter, and learn more about the upcoming book and film that will show viewers why well-raised cattle are critical to the future of our food system.
A Few Last Words ...
I hope you can see from this brief summary that defending beef is a bit of a “Wack-a-mole” game.
Each time you explain why one case against meat is misguided, another false claim emerges. Hopefully by now though, you have a better sense about how the environmental arguments against meat are based on simplistic, reductionist, thinking at best, and at worst, intentionally skewed data in order to vilify meat sponsored by the very companies who stand to profit most: fossil fuels and ultra-processed food.
That’s right, there’s big money to be made in fake meat substitutes and as long as folks are focused on meat as the culprit for global warming, the fossil fuel industry gets a free pass.
In my upcoming book (out July 2020), I’ll dive deeper into the nutritional case against meat, the ethical case against meat, how we can “feed the world”, and what an optimal diet for humans and the planet looks like. Sign up for my newsletter and follow me on instagram for more on the war against meat!
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