Politics & Current Events

The myth of sustainable meat.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?_r=1

 

THE industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.

There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animalsinstead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock. My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely. But most people upset by factory farming have turned instead to meat, dairy and eggs from nonindustrial sources. Indeed, the last decade has seen an exciting surge in grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options. These alternatives typically come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production. They appeal to consumers not only because they reject the industrial model, but because they appear to be more in tune with natural processes.

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they?re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country?s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a ?natural? life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn?t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals? perspectives.

The economics of alternative animal systems are similarly problematic. Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn?t last. These businesses ? no matter how virtuous in intention ? would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn?t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.

All this said, committed advocates of alternative systems make one undeniably important point about the practice called ?rotational grazing? or ?holistic farming?: the soil absorbs the nutrients from the animals? manure, allowing grass and other crops to grow without the addition of synthetic fertilizer. As Michael Pollan writes, ?It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.? In other words, raising animals is not only sustainable, but required.

But rotational grazing works better in theory than in practice. Consider Joel Salatin, the guru of nutrient cycling, who employs chickens to enrich his cows? grazing lands with nutrients. His plan appears to be impressively eco-correct, until we learn that he feeds his chickens with tens of thousands of pounds a year of imported corn and soy feed. This common practice is an economic necessity. Still, if a farmer isn?t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.

Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).

Farmers could avoid this waste by exploiting animals only for their manure, allowing them to live out the entirety of their lives on the farm, all the while doing their own breeding and growing of feed. But they?d better have a trust fund.

Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it?s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It?s whether we produce them at all.

James E. McWilliams is the author of ?Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.? 

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Re: The myth of sustainable meat.

  • So we either all become vegan or there really needs to be a plague to wipe out 3/4 of the world's population.

    I am hoping for a plague.

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  • It leans heavily vegetarian, and doesn't really provide any answers.  But I thought it was interesting.

    The kids and I are veggies but I struggle with where/from whom to purchase meat for DH.  He only eats chicken at home, but I can't/won't deal with whole birds.  So that limits my options somewhat.

     

  • image majorwife:

    So we either all become vegan or there really needs to be a plague to wipe out 3/4 of the world's population.

    I am hoping for a plague.

    Ditto.

  • DH would divorce me if I didnt cook the man meat. I don't know how much I can blame on typical midwest diet.
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  • This is a good read. I think one of the side benefits of "sustainable" meats is their expense. Most people can't afford to eat them in the same volume as factory farmed meat. Most of my friends only cook meat once a week at the most and maybe eat it out at a restaurant once or twice more. 
    "We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think,
  • DH has slowly eaten less meat in the 10 yrs we have been together, but he won't eat beans or tofu or eggs, so unless/until he becomes less picky about those, I do think he "needs" it for the protein.  

    We do chicken only at home mostly bc it is cheap and lean.  He will usually get a burger at a restaurant though.

  • I call bullsh!t on this article.

    Also, it did not discuss rabbits, which are a very eco-friendly, and delicious, food source.

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  • image mxolisi:
    This is a good read. I think one of the side benefits of "sustainable" meats is their expense. Most people can't afford to eat them in the same volume as factory farmed meat. Most of my friends only cook meat once a week at the most and maybe eat it out at a restaurant once or twice more. 

    Very good point!  I think one is also more likely to use every scrap- make soup stock from the bones, etc, when they are paying that much for it.

    We cook half to 1 chicken a week, typically.  And maybe eat out once a week.  That is for DH only though, which still seems like a lot.  Off to look up stats on average meat consumption. 

  • According to the google, USA was 89 kg per person in 1961, and 124 kg per person in 2002.

    Using the 2002 number, that is about 273 lbs of meat so 0.74 lbs a day.

     

    So for us, if an average chicken weighs 5 lbs, and half is meat (again according to google) then DH eats about 0.35 lbs of meat a day. 

  • image Alisha_A:

    I call bullsh!t on this article.

    Also, it did not discuss rabbits, which are a very eco-friendly, and delicious, food source.

    What do you disagree with?  I don't know much about meat production as a vegetarian (other than that I think the whole thing is yucky, lol) so I genuinely want to know. 

  • The bad breeding is a stupid argument. There are less than a handful of "industrial" breeds and plenty more un-industrial breeds that don't suffer from shitty genes that give them things like leg pains when they actual walk.

    The methane thing is also a silly argument, imo. The dang globe isn't going to be ruined by COWS. Hi?!

    The issue the author is confronting is about providing enough meat for our shitty American diets. What about a diet where people actually did only eat red meat 2-3 times a week? What about looking into animals that are simply better suited to sustainable farming - like cat fish. There is a huge difference between providing the level and type of meat people have/want now and just giving it all up to go vegan.
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  • image suzymarie:
    image Alisha_A:

    I call bullsh!t on this article.

    Also, it did not discuss rabbits, which are a very eco-friendly, and delicious, food source.

    What do you disagree with?  I don't know much about meat production as a vegetarian (other than that I think the whole thing is yucky, lol) so I genuinely want to know. 

    Specifically, the allegations that pastured cattle emit more methane, and that pastured chickens have a higher effect on global warming by 20%. I see no sources or facts to back this up, its illogical, and the chicken allegation seems rather ridiculous. Global warming is a very big, complicated topic. How did anyone come up with this 20% number?

    In general, I think its an article that takes a very limited view and is geared towards a specific conclusion.

    One of the biggest problems with our current system is the mindset of the American consumer: wanting copious amounts of animal products in their diet, and expecting it to be 'cheap'. Without changing this, we can't achieve a sustainable animal product system.

    I haven't been around much but many know I'm very passionate about sustainable and better foods.

    This article would have been a great opportunity to address the cheap food myth. Sure, you may get .50 a carton eggs on sale, but you're paying for that with expensive fish as we decimate local waters with the run off from factory farms, you're paying for it in tax dollars that subsidize mass agriculture and that pay for environmental cleanup of sites (some of which are 'dirty' due to agriculture, like the Potomac), we pay for it in our health and health care, and so on. Cheap food, isn't cheap.

    It would've been great to see 'alternative' meats like goat and rabbit addressed. For some reason Americans are squeamish about eating goat, but its a very sustainable meat and has been a staple of several cultures, including Greek and Jamaican diets. Rabbit is effing delicious, and very easy to raise, very easy on the environment, take up less room than chicken, healthy lean meat, etc.

    I just think the article, beyond not backing up its claims, just took a 'here's why it can't work, we shouldn't do anything' stance, and that's lame, and pointless.

     

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  • Now this post has potential!!

     I think the biggest problem, aside from wether sustainable vs. industrial is 'better' for the environment, is simply that North Americans consume FAR to much meat in general. It is NOT healthy for the environment (or our diets) to consume meat the way we do. I grew up in a house that ate meat at almost every meal - thats totally overboard. Now, we actually did it because as farmers (dairy) it was the cheapest option for us to just slaughter a cow from time to time.

    I always try to eat less meat at home and for whatever reason, it never happens. 

     

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  • image ringstrue:
    The bad breeding is a stupid argument. There are less than a handful of "industrial" breeds and plenty more un-industrial breeds that don't suffer from shitty genes that give them things like leg pains when they actual walk.

    The methane thing is also a silly argument, imo. The dang globe isn't going to be ruined by COWS. Hi?!

    The issue the author is confronting is about providing enough meat for our shitty American diets. What about a diet where people actually did only eat red meat 2-3 times a week? What about looking into animals that are simply better suited to sustainable farming - like cat fish. There is a huge difference between providing the level and type of meat people have/want now and just giving it all up to go vegan.

    Do you know anything at all about the methane cycle enough to support this "opinion" or are you just dismissing it because it sounds silly to you?

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  • image ChiChimi:

    image ringstrue:
    The bad breeding is a stupid argument. There are less than a handful of "industrial" breeds and plenty more un-industrial breeds that don't suffer from shitty genes that give them things like leg pains when they actual walk.

    The methane thing is also a silly argument, imo. The dang globe isn't going to be ruined by COWS. Hi?!

    The issue the author is confronting is about providing enough meat for our shitty American diets. What about a diet where people actually did only eat red meat 2-3 times a week? What about looking into animals that are simply better suited to sustainable farming - like cat fish. There is a huge difference between providing the level and type of meat people have/want now and just giving it all up to go vegan.

    Do you know anything at all about the methane cycle enough to support this "opinion" or are you just dismissing it because it sounds silly to you?

    Do you really think our climate problems are due mostly to cows?

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  • image ringstrue:
    Do you really think our climate problems are due mostly to cows?

    Er, yes.

    I think you're thinking:

     When reality is more:

     

    "Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. An adult cow may be a very small source by itself, emitting only 80-110 kgs of methane, but with about 100 million cattle in the U.S. and 1.2 billion large ruminants in the world, ruminants are one of the largest methane sources. In the U.S., cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20% of U.S. methane emissions." http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html

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  • image ringstrue:
    image ChiChimi:

    image ringstrue:
    The bad breeding is a stupid argument. There are less than a handful of "industrial" breeds and plenty more un-industrial breeds that don't suffer from shitty genes that give them things like leg pains when they actual walk.

    The methane thing is also a silly argument, imo. The dang globe isn't going to be ruined by COWS. Hi?!

    The issue the author is confronting is about providing enough meat for our shitty American diets. What about a diet where people actually did only eat red meat 2-3 times a week? What about looking into animals that are simply better suited to sustainable farming - like cat fish. There is a huge difference between providing the level and type of meat people have/want now and just giving it all up to go vegan.

    Do you know anything at all about the methane cycle enough to support this "opinion" or are you just dismissing it because it sounds silly to you?

    Do you really think our climate problems are due mostly to cows?

    Oh, its because it sounds silly to you. That's what I thought.

    Livestock Enteric Fermentation can be attributed as the largest human related source of methane.

    http://www.epa.gov/methane/sources.html

    I suggest you read up on methane as it relates to global warming.

    http://www.epa.gov/methane/

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  • Dup post?!

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    Are you united with the CCOKCs?

  • Dup post again?!

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  • image ChiChimi:
    image ringstrue:
    image ChiChimi:

    image ringstrue:
    The bad breeding is a stupid argument. There are less than a handful of "industrial" breeds and plenty more un-industrial breeds that don't suffer from shitty genes that give them things like leg pains when they actual walk.

    The methane thing is also a silly argument, imo. The dang globe isn't going to be ruined by COWS. Hi?!

    The issue the author is confronting is about providing enough meat for our shitty American diets. What about a diet where people actually did only eat red meat 2-3 times a week? What about looking into animals that are simply better suited to sustainable farming - like cat fish. There is a huge difference between providing the level and type of meat people have/want now and just giving it all up to go vegan.

    Do you know anything at all about the methane cycle enough to support this "opinion" or are you just dismissing it because it sounds silly to you?

    Do you really think our climate problems are due mostly to cows?

    Oh, its because it sounds silly to you. That's what I thought.

    Livestock Enteric Fermentation can be attributed as the largest human related source of methane.

    http://www.epa.gov/methane/sources.html

    I suggest you read up on methane as it relates to global warming.

    http://www.epa.gov/methane/

    Wow this chart is pretty interesting...cows are just after natural gas:

    Table 1 U.S. Methane Emissions by Source (TgCO2 Equivalents)

    Source Category 1990 2000 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
    Natural Gas Systems 189.8 209.3 190.4 217.7 205.2 211.8 221.2
    Enteric Fermentation 132.1 136.5 136.5 138.8 141 140.6 139.8
    Landfills 147.4 111.7 112.5 111.7 111.3 115.9 117.5
    Coal Mining 84.1 60.4 56.9 58.2 57.9 67.1 71
    Manure Management 31.7 42.4 46.6 46.7 50.7 49.4 49.5
    Petroleum Systems 35.4 31.5 29.4 29.4 30 30.2 30.9
    Wastewater Treatment 23.5 25.2 24.3 24.5 24.4 24.5 24.5
    Forest Land Remaining Forest Land 3.2 14.3 9.8 21.6 20 11.9 7.8
    Rice Cultivation 7.1 7.5 6.8 5.9 6.2 7.2 7.3
    Stationary Combustion 7.4 6.6 6.6 6.2 6.5 6.5 6.2
    Abandoned Underground Coal Mines 6 7.4 5.5 5.5 5.6 5.9 5.5
    Mobile Combustion 4.7 3.4 2.5 2.3 2.2 2 2
    Composting 0.3 1.3 1.6 1.6 1.7 1.7 1.7
    Petrochemical Production 0.9 1.2 1.1 1 1 0.9 0.8
    Iron and Steel Production &
    Metallurgical Coke Production
    1 0.9 0.7 0.7 0.7 0.6 0.4
    Field Burning of Agricultural Residue 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.3 0.2
    Ferroalloy Production + + + + + + +
    Silicon Carbide Production and
    Consumption
    + + + + + + +
    Incineration of Waste + + + + + + +
    International Bunker Fuels 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.1
    Total for U.S. 674.9 659.9 631.4 672.1 664.6 676.7 686.

     

    However, does that methane production for cows also include transport to market and then transport to your table?  Is it all from the animals themselves or the process from breeding to feeding to our tables?

    ETA - Nevermind...I looked at some of the EPA links and I think it's just cows, not the transport or anything else. 

     

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  • The article has some valid arguments, but as mentioned, it is saying sustainable isn't really sustainable based on what typical Americans eat. Those us who avoid factory produced meat are willing to pay more (in some cases a lot more) for our meat and as a result, we buy much less.

    Last night DH and I had a small $25 chicken from a local farm for dinner. It's the first time I've had chicken since the fall. It was awesome. But we won't likely eat another for months. We could afford it more often (though not as often as grocery store meat), we have just learned to live without out and partake as a treat. The higher price--aka "true" price--will generally keep people from eating as much.

  • image DownToEarthGirl:
    ETA - Nevermind...I looked at some of the EPA links and I think it's just cows, not the transport or anything else. 

     

    Read the table: Enteric Fermentation

    That's not fancy lingo for cows. Its the digestive process. Basically, this stat is for cow farts.

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  • image Alisha_A:

    Specifically, the allegations that pastured cattle emit more methane.... I see no sources or facts to back this up....

    Grass-fed beef have higher carbon footprint than corn fed

    It's not a new nor novel idea. I can dig up other sources than this simplified one.

  • ugh. My point is that animal methane production, while significant, especially when these animals are not part of a habitat that can absorb it, but in farms, is still natural. Sustainable farming practices can reduce these emissions a lot. I don't think its practical to just have cows or all methane producing life forms be removed from the planet, while we could much more easily stop our unnatural pollution-causing ways and fix/help the problem that way. 

    The planet really is made to be able to handle and process a certain level of methane. The issue is do we need to produce methane in soooo many different areas in our life.

    So that's why I think throwing in that argument (espeically about food) is stupid. It's sorta like saying it's ok to have gasoline-run cars to smog up the atmosphere since volcanoes can pollute your atmosphere when they go off too. A natural thing having a con doesn't mean it needs to go just as much if not more than that unnatural thing.

    ETA: Do I really think we need THAT many cows in the US? No, I think the beef industry should be a lot smaller than it is today. But I'm not going to be naive enough to say that if we remove the cows that some other animal or farmable life form wont take its place that will have it's own emissions/elimination issues.

     

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  • Yep, my ETA was that I got that it was the animal's digestion and not their market transportation or anything.  I just simplified my words to "cows" instead.

     

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  • Here is the main problem with talking about sustainable meat - at a certain point you have to talk about cow farts. That shits is funny and you end up being for or against cow farts.

    Talk all we want about diet and changes but one mention of cow farts ruins the whole thing.

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  • image majorwife:

    Here is the main problem with talking about sustainable meat - at a certain point you have to talk about cow farts. That shits is funny and you end up being for or against cow farts.

    Talk all we want about diet and changes but one mention of cow farts ruins the whole thing.

    I knew a horse that farted ALL the time - loudly and while you were riding. He farted while jogging a lot. I don't understand how horses aren't embarrassed by loud farting like that. 

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  • image pixy_stix:
    image Alisha_A:

    Specifically, the allegations that pastured cattle emit more methane.... I see no sources or facts to back this up....

    Grass-fed beef have higher carbon footprint than corn fed

    It's not a new nor novel idea. I can dig up other sources than this simplified one.

    "Emissions from grass-fed cows were about 20 percent higher than grain fed, according to the study, which was published in Environmental Science and Technology, and funded by Meat and Livestock Australia. "

    "But some people claim that the math comes out the opposite way if carbon stored in the soil by grazing animals is incorporated: Grass-fed beef mow the pastures, fertilize the ground with their manure, and tramp around, creating healthy soil that acts as a carbon sink. "

    "

    "There's a lot of range of what the emissions are from beef, and that is real variability," agreed Rita Schenck, Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Research & Education in Vashon, Wash., who has also studied this question.

    "It is different in different places. It is different in different growing regimes. It's just different. I think the numbers are really close," she said, so the scales can tip one way or another depending on the specific circumstances.

    "To some extent, all of this bickering about carbon footprint is missing the forest for the trees," Weber said. ""In terms of air pollution, water pollution and odor, concentrated feedlots are a disaster. In terms of other environmental impact, there is no question that grass fed is better. My problem is that people really play on the carbon footprint angle, when it's really not clear. " "

    Did you read this article before using it as your 'proof', or did I just miss that you agree with me?

     

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