The clamor is getting louder: Cows are bad news for the environment. It’s astounding how far we’ve come in a few short years.
It all started in spring 2006 with Michael Pollan telling us in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
to think about how the animals we eat are raised. Because of the inherent cruelty, and human and environmental health problems associated with factory farming and CAFOs, thoughtful eaters like me, and many of the omnivorous people reading this, started eating pasture raised chickens and eggs, and grass-finished beef. It was more expensive, but I told myself I was facing up to the moral complexities of meat eating and it felt good knowing that the animals and the land were treated better in the production of my food. I embraced this more mindful way of eating and enjoyed treating meat as a special occasion food to be given my utmost respect and attention.
Later that same year, we learned that the food system is responsible for more greenhouse gasses (about one-third) than any other sector, including transportation, and that livestock is responsible for 18% of that. Michael Pollan published another book telling us to eat real food, not too much at that, and mostly plants. More recently Mark Bittman published Food Matters, which is essentially an environmental guide to eating, adopting some of the same principals we learned from Pollan (with recipes). Along the way, Bittman found that eating lower on the food chain more often and cutting out processed food, helped him lose 35 pounds, lower his cholesterol and blood sugar, and vastly improve his health. Then, back in December, here on Civil Eats, Paula Crossfield talked about eating less meat to lower our carbon emissions.
Now I’m going to reveal something that will make conscious, occasional, and passionate meat eaters very sad. While we’ve been enjoying our once or twice a month allotment of grass-finished beef in the form of a small burger, or modest portions of savory stew, or spicy chili, the climate scientists have been doing their work. They’ve recently discovered that, from a global warming perspective, so called sustainable and humanely raised pasture reared beef is no better. In fact, it’s worse.
This story in Science News details the findings revealed during a recent panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia said that greenhouse gas emissions for grass-finished livestock are roughly 50% higher than for grain-finished livestock. Wait, really?
Apparently cows that are fed grass throughout their lives simply eat more. So when you raise cows on pasture, you’re adding more inputs into an already inefficient production system. Pelletier’s research also shows that intensive pasture management, fertilization and renovation cause emissions of their own. And of course, pasture requires more land area (and sometimes deforestation) than CAFOs. I think what we are seeing here is that grass-finished beef is now big business. Due, no doubt, to the demand caused by books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re seeing grass-finished beef that more closely resembles factory farming than either Pollan or the grass farming hero of his book, Joel Salatin, ever intended. Turns out the Sierra Club, in a prescient piece from 2004, asked if grass-fed beef was merely a diversion from the reality that beef production, no matter much we might want it to be different, is the most inefficient way to raise food.
So what’s a conscious eater to do? With this new information chipping away at my meat-eating philosophy, I think I’ll have to take these new thoughts and ponder them carefully over a lunch of lentils and rice (with lots of caramelized onions). For further reading on the subject check out this piece in Living Green Magazine.