Another Take on the Grass-fed Controversy

This piece caused a flap on Civil Eats a couple weeks back and it got people talking, which is what is supposed to happen here. Responsible and passionate meat wholesalers and processors like Marissa Guggiana, who believe animals should be raised humanely in ways that are healthy for eaters, the soil, the water, and ecosystems weighed in, as did many readers.

As many commenters pointed out, the study I cited didn’t compare grass-finished animals raised the way Dave Evans at Marin Sun Farms or Joel Salatin raise theirs. It’s true that beef raised on pasture and fertilized by the animals can sequester carbon, but the problem is with the animals themselves. Ruminant animals emit methane gas, no matter what you feed them or how they are raised and the producers who use integrated pasture management techniques instead of chemicals are a minority. Methane gas is said to be 21-23 times more effective at warming the planet than CO2. For a long time I thought grass-finished beef was much better for the environment because of how it’s raised.

But strictly from a global warming perspective, I no longer believe that is true. The piece I wrote was about my own struggle with the ethics of eating meat (as it relates to the animals themselves and the environment—especially global warming) and the progression of ideas from the people who have influenced me and many others. Coming to terms with ruminant animal’s contribution to climate change is the next phase in the progression of my personal meat-eating ethics.

There are several producers local to my area who do it right. I will gladly eat the meat they provide (once in awhile). I am not now and have never been a vegetarian. I know that many Civil Eats readers feel the same and are members of meat CSAs and farmers’ market shoppers, friends of ranchers, or ranchers themselves. And I commend them.

It’s the other people I worry about.

In the face of a very real globalized, industrial food system, what choices will they make at the meat counter? Case in point: my local grocery store in Berkeley carries 3 different brands of grass-finished beef. One is from Uruguay, and the other two from the US, at least one is from California. Consumers who have a vague knowledge that grass-finished beef is more sustainable and healthier for them, will likely choose based on cost or where the beef is from. Not only will they not know how this beef was raised, but it won’t really matter from a methane emissions standpoint. We don’t even have to get into the environmental issues around buying beef from Uruguay. It’s a complex issue promising to get even more muddled as demand for sustainably raised meat grows and grocery and super stores get into the game. There will be a race to produce grass-fed beef as cheaply as possible through the same market forces that make organic milk at Wal-Mart affordable and organic only to the letter of the law. The latest news on global warming has me convinced that we cannot afford to simply replace grain fed animals with grass-fed ones. We need to eat a lot less meat. Or figure out how to deal with the methane.

Not everyone who wants to join a meat CSA can, due to supply constraints, and then there are plenty of people who wouldn’t care to. It’s about the methane as well as the transportation issues and the inefficiency inherent in eating animals instead of plants. I don’t advocate slaughtering all farm animals and requiring that everyone live on plants, but I think that we need to talk about this, and bring it out in the open so we can step up our already considerable efforts to develop a food system that is more sustainable and does not contribute more than its fair share (whatever that means) to global warming. Since livestock activities are said to be responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, cows seem like a good place to start.

Photo: Skinnyde

7 thoughts on “Another Take on the Grass-fed Controversy

  1. Vanessa, nice post. Clearly it requires some courage to take on this subject, vegetarian or not. If global warming can be tied to human suffering in any form and the food system can be objectively tied to global warming, knowing what we’re eating becomes more important than ever.

    A few weeks ago when Joel Salatin spoke at Stanford, I heard him make the sensationalistic statement that if all beef and dairy cows in the world were raised his way, all of the carbon released in the atmosphere since before the dawn of the industrial revolution would be sequestered into the soil. Absurd in many ways and very reckless, Salatin also ridiculed vegetarians and described how he loves to feed their children sausages when they visit the farm.

    I think I’ve also seen in these pages that shipping meat is less environmentally costly than shipping grain, a claim I’d like to see more treatment on in Civil Eats.

    In any case, thanks again for the post and keep it up.

  2. a few deep breaths, everybody. the cow/carbon issue has become increasingly polarized, with each side making wild proclamations. this seems like a good place to lay out a few facts.

    fact: cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas.

    fact: properly grazed pasture sequesters a lot of carbon dioxide.

    fact: no one knows for sure how this balances out. in order to determine whether cattle – in a specific system – aggravate or alleviate global warming, one would have to measure exactly how much methane they – and i mean those particular cows – emit and how much carbon they sequester. i welcome any ideas on how to take these measurements.

  3. Andrew-
    There is no way to take those measurements that won’t be constroversial. And you are so right, we all need to take a deep breath. I mean, if ruminants are bad for the environment, what should we do about American bison, African water buffalo, elk, moose, deer, and caribou? Put in that perspective, I think cattle must have a place in the grand scheme of things.

  4. good observation, amerigo. my unstated point was that there really is no way to take those measurements accurately. “we don’t know!” isn’t a very sexy rallying cry, but it’s the truth, and i hope that you all respect that.

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  6. You act like global warming is a bad thing. I’m still not convinced. Our planet has been hotter before. Our planet has been cooler before. We’re simply used to the part of the cycle that we’re in right now. I’m far, far more concerned about global cooling than global warming. An ice age, even a small drop in temperature, is far, far worse than the maximum global warming that the most pessimistic scientists have proposed.

    I do agree that people need to:

    1) pollute less; (personally I would like a lot less acid rain from the mid-west, thank you very much!)

    2) use less resources; (How about starting with smaller homes, fewer cars, etc)

    3) eat less meat; (smaller portions less frequently in dishes)

    4) spread out and not concentrate in the cities; (Cities are like CAFOs – put people out to pasture and they will not impact the land as badly).

    5) do things in a sustainable manner. (all sorts of options there)

    If we got rid of all the subsidies (farm, oil, auto, steel, housing, etc) then the true costs of things would be better reflected in the market. Simple example: If gasoline cost $10/gallon people would use less. The recent uptick and subsequent drop in use of gas neatly demonstrated that. Same for other things in a free market economy. Price points work.

    I do not want to see the government controlling prices or deciding what we should eat or buy. That just creates too much opportunity for corruption, graft and bad bureaucratic responses.

    Raising livestock on pasture on small farms is a sustainable use of the land and yes, the meat should cost more. It’s a delicacy, a part of the meal, not a huge hunkin’ haunch to be chowed down.

    I am concerned about the evangelizing of veganism and vegetarianism. It is not a diet that works for everyone everywhere and meat is not bad for everyone. We have different evolutionary adaptations. Veganism is not sustainable in most climates including the northern climate for most of the year (we often have six months, or more, of snow). The vegan diet is not a locally sustainable diet. It requires pill popping and long distance transport of veggies for much of the year. Meat, locally, properly and sustainably raised, in moderation is an important part of our diet.

    Now on to some numbers: We raise pastured pork. We don’t feed grain. Our pigs thrive on pasture/hay and whey year round. I’ve been calculating the carbon foot-print for our farm. It comes out to negative 46 lbs of carbon per pound of pork. Yes, negative. Our farm is a massive carbon sink. Traditional farms are that way – the extreme opposite of factory farms / CAFOs. So, even if our pigs were farting out methane as generously as cows, which they don’t, our pork would still be -46 / 23 = -2 lbs of carbon per lb of pork. So eating our pork helps your carbon foot-print. In other words, we’re producing green ham! We also produce eggs. How Seussian…

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://HollyGraphicArt.com/
    http://NoNAIS.org