Ask a vegetarian why he or she doesn't eat meat and you'll get a variety of answers: Beef is bad for your health. Cattle are a major contributor to global warming. It's wrong to kill animals. Beef production contributes to world hunger. Cattle ranching leads to a loss of biodiversity.
Even those who eat beef sometimes do so with a heavy conscience. For many educated urban dwellers, eating beef is a guilty indulgence at best and a health and environmental scourge at worst.
But in Bolinas resident Nicolette Hahn Niman's new book, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, she systematically dismantles many of the "myths" about beef. Not only is there is nothing inherently wrong with beef, she argues, but it's good for you and just might save the planet.
Defending Beef is a lively, scrupulously researched book, and Hahn Niman knows her stuff. She was an environmental lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation and later worked for Robert F. Kennedy's Waterkeeper Alliance in New York. After meeting (and later marrying) Bolinas' Bill Niman, she quit her job with Waterkeeper and moved west. Bill Niman was founder and former CEO of Niman Ranch. He is no longer affiliated with the company that bears his name, and now raises and markets grass-fed beef under his BN Ranch brand.
While Hahn Niman is a good food advocate (she published Righteous Porkchop in 2010, an indictment of the industrial meat system), she also helps her husband run their 800-acre ranch. When she first moved to Bolinas, she took a liking to a sweet, white-and-black-faced cow her husband nicknamed "Girlfriend" because, he joked, the animal was her only friend. She convinced Niman to spare the animal from slaughter.
"She's the grandmother in the herd now," Hahn Niman says.
In spite of Hahn Niman's soft spot for animals, Defending Beef is likely to land her in hot water with many who would consider her an ally: environmentalists and vegetarians. Hahn Niman is both. Vegetarians and vegans will wonder how someone can both eschew beef and sing its praises. Many environmentalists are likely to recoil from her blasphemy: beef is good for you and the planet. Others may call it self-serving, given her husband's line of work. (If she was in this for the money, she argues, she would have stuck with her well-paying job as an attorney.)
"This book is going to anger a lot of people I consider friends," she predicts. "But there was this widening chasm about what I was seeing to be true and what I was seeing presented in the public discourse. I was really motivated by a desire to set the record straight."
Whether you're a vegetarian or steak-loving carnivore, the book is an eye-opener. Hahn Niman exposes what she calls misinformation and half-truths about the cattle industry held as gospel by many well-intentioned environmentalists. As Abbie Hoffman once wrote, sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers, and Defending Beef is a delicious dose of reality. On the subject of the urgent issues of climate change, soil health and biodiversity, the book presents beef production done right as part of the solution, not the problem.
"It's true that the industrialized beef industry, with its densely packed feedlots, dependence on antibiotics and fertilizer-intensive corn and soy bean, and often inhumane conditions, is indefensible," she says. "But from an environmental and health standpoint, there is nothing inherently wrong with raising cattle. On the contrary, done in a humane and ecologically sound manner, raising and eating cattle benefits the environment and is beneficial to human health."
One of the first myths she tackles is that the earth is overrun with cattle and growing hordes of beef eaters, and if we just got rid of the vast herds and ate less meat, we'd be better off. Readers might be surprised to learn that, in fact, there are fewer cattle today than a hundred years ago and that we now eat less beef than ever before. From 1970 to 2005, beef consumption decreased by 22 percent in the United States. So if there are fewer cattle and we eat less meat, why are we plagued with a "beef problem"?
Hahn Niman also explodes the widely held notion that eating beef is linked to heart disease and cancer. Not true, a wide body of research says. Of course, there are always any number of new reports upending those that came before, but Hahn Niman is not cherry-picking fringe science like a climate-change denier. Her book is based on mainstream research. For example, she cites a major study by the Harvard School of Public Health which in 2010 found that although eating processed meat such as bacon and baloney was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, "there was no increased risk at all from eating unprocessed red meats, including beef, pork, and lamb."
Like the lawyer she is, Hahn Niman builds a particularly strong case against the popularly held belief that cattle production is a major contributor to climate change. She traces this notion to one particularly well disseminated report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called "Livestock's Long Shadow" published in 2006. The report stated that meat—mainly beef—was responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. That figure and the assertion that beef is an environmental threat has become ingrained in public consciousness, says Hahn Niman.
"But it's totally untrue," she says in her rapid-fire delivery. "It's become this powerful urban vegan myth."
The problem with the FAO report, she says, is that it was based on flimsy science and sought to support a policy statement, namely, that confined pork and chicken operations were more environmentally benign than beef. That 18 percent figure has since been widely discredited. The Union of Concerned Scientists, no lightweights when it comes to accessing the threat of global warming, puts cattle's greenhouse gas contribution in the United States at 2 percent. The EPA has calculated that U.S. agriculture causes a total of 8 percent of America's global warming emissions. This figure is for all U.S. agriculture, not just beef production.
"Clearly," Hahn Niman writes, "the FAO figure never reflected a scientific consensus, and it had limited application to animal farming here in the United States."
'Livestock's Long Shadow" also failed to mention one of the most beneficial aspects of cattle production: carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the natural process of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and embedding it in the soil where it cannot harm the climate. The naturally occurring process not only helps ameliorate climate change, but it helps build and retain all-important topsoil and prevents desertification. And as it turns out, raising cattle on grass is a prime way of achieving carbon sequestration, a radical concept which, according to Hahn Niman, not only means that cattle are not part of the problem, but managed properly, they can be part of the solution.
"The greatest opportunities for carbon sequestration lie in grazing areas (rangelands and pasturelands), especially those with native grasses, as well as in diversified operations where grass is part of a multicrop rotation," she writes.
It's worth noting that Hahn Niman makes no mention of the closure and beef recall at Petaluma's Rancho Feeding Corp. earlier this year. Because of allegations of diseased animals slipping past meat inspectors, the USDA shut the slaughterhouse down and ordered a recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef, including 100,000 pounds of BN Ranch beef. Even though the Niman's beef exceeded health and welfare standards and was not implicated in the crimes alleged at the facility, the USDA's sledgehammer approach meant BN Ranch got caught up in the devastating recall.
Hahn Niman chose not to write about the incident because it came just as she was finishing her book and there wasn't a natural place to include the episode. But the Nimans continue to fight the recall and are hoping the criminal indictments of the former owners and employees might yield some restitution.
While Hahn Niman makes a strong case that cattle are best raised on grass alone—no corn or soy to fatten them up—she doesn't condemn grain-fed beef. Because grain-fed cattle, the status quo of American beef production, spend a majority of their life on grass before heading to the feedlot, there are still benefits. And if cattle are fed grain at the right age after their digestive systems have matured, it's far less injurious to the animals, she says.
This concept of cattle as agents of environmental remediation, and much of the intellectual underpinnings of Hahn Niman's analysis, is based on the work of Allan Savory. The Zimbabwean-born wildlife ecologist argues that when cattle are integrated into a grassland agriculture, they mimic the way undulates grazed the earth for millennia, performing an invaluable biological function that he believes is the world's single best hope for reversing climate change. He has become the guru for grass-fed cattle ranchers around the world, including the Nimans.
In a nutshell, Savory advocates keeping animals in dense herds and moving them often, just as vast herds of buffalo used to do in the wild. As the animals poop and stomp the ground, they stimulate biological activity and fertility in the soil by pressing down seeds and dead plants. All this creates soil carbon and water retention, helping to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, encourage plant growth and biodiversity, and reversing desertification. It's an elegant system that can be recreated with cattle and proper grassland management.
"Cattle can substitute for wild herds to revitalize ecosystems," says Hahn Niman. "That whole idea is incredibly revolutionary."
The book makes a compelling case for beef. So why doesn't Hahn Niman eat it herself? If there's one element of the book that's less than persuasive, it's her position on vegetarianism. (She does eat eggs and dairy). Like many environmentalists, she used to believe it was her duty to forego meat. When she became a vegetarian as a freshman in college, beef was the first to go, she says.
"I now view animals as an essential part of an environmentally optimal food system," she writes. "And I consider the ideal diet to include meat, and definitely beef. But as is the case for everyone, multiple considerations enter into my daily choices about what to eat. And though I recognize that my diet is less than optimal because it does not include meat, to date I simply have not had the urge to eat it. If I ever regain the desire to eat meat, I will."
I have trouble with that one. Hahn Niman lives on a cattle ranch and is married to a rancher and argues that beef is not inherently problematic but is a source of environmental repair. So why not put her money where her mouth is and eat a burger already?
"I realize it will be hard for some people to understand," she says.
When pressed, she says, though she doesn't think killing animals is wrong, she feels too strongly about animals to eat them. As a child, she says, she cried uncontrollably for one hour after reading the end of Old Yeller.
"For me, [becoming a vegetarian] was a really natural step, because I have this really strong affinity for animals. I think it's a sensitivity I have." But she adds, "If I ever desire to eat meat, I will do so because there is no reason not to do so."
To read an excerpt from 'Defending Beef,' please click 'Next Page' below.
FINAL ANALYSIS: WHY EAT ANIMALS?
The following text was excerpted from Defending Beef (Chelsea Green Publishing) and is reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit www.chelseagreen.com.
In addition to what's already been explored in this book, two major ethical questions surrounding beef consumption remain. One is whether it's morally acceptable to eat meat at all. The other is whether eating meat aggravates world hunger. I will address the first momentarily, and start with the latter. The idea undergirded the hugely popular and influential book Diet for a Small Planet, which argued, essentially, that the world's finite resources are stretched thin and would quickly be expended if a growing population of humans continues eating meat. The raising of livestock, especially cattle, the argument goes, is uniquely resource-intensive and cannot be morally justified in a world where (now) some 900 million people don't have enough to eat. In various forms, we continue to see this line of reasoning everywhere today in the materials of vegan and environmental groups.
I agree that meat and dairy consumption is out of balance: There's more than necessary in industrialized countries and not enough in developing countries, where malnutrition generally, and deficiencies of protein, iron, and vitamin B12 specifically, are rampant. But there are so many things wrong with the assertion that eating meat adds to global malnutrition and starvation that it's hard to know where to begin.
Perhaps first I will point out that it can only be sensible to quit eating meat for this reason if doing so actually aids in relieving global hunger. For me, as a lawyer, this is so self-evident it should hardly need to be stated. And yet, in over 20 years of reading various forms of the "livestock aggravates world hunger" argument, I have never seen anyone effectively demonstrate that if you stop eating meat you will help world hunger. Rarely is such proof even attempted.
When distilled down to its essence, this is not really an argument that by refraining from eating meat you will help feed others. Instead it's more an endorsement of a principle of food equity: that it's unfair to eat resource-intensive foods while others have insufficient food. But we could just as easily argue that we should refuse to drive because billions of people in the world cannot afford cars; we should refuse to use air-conditioning; we should refuse to take airplanes. I don't see how doing any of those things helps a single person in need, therefore I find none of those arguments compelling.
Global hunger is not actually, and has not at any time in recent decades, been a product of an inadequate world food supply. Food and nutrition expert Dr. Marion Nestle points out that the global food system produces some 3,800 calories per day for every man, woman, and child on earth, which, she points out, is almost double what's necessary for adequate nourishment. For the last four decades, per capita food production has actually grown at a pace 16 percent faster than the world's population. In his book World Food Security, Dr. Martin M. McLaughlin, who has worked on food security issues and taught university courses on the subject for decades, makes plain that world hunger has very little connection with the quantity of food the globe produces. Poverty, not food shortage, is the key, says McLaughlin. "Hunger . . . is a political and social problem," he writes. "It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and of entitlement."
Moreover, livestock farming is not the province of the rich—in fact, very far from it. It actually helps more poor people than it hurts. A recent article in the journal Nature points out that one billion of the world's poorest people depend on livestock for their survival. Likewise, a 2013 FAO report states: "Hundreds of millions of pastoralists and smallholders depend on livestock for their daily survival and extra income and food." In many developing countries, many poor families, including those who own no land, have a cow or goat or some chickens, and the eggs, milk, and meat make up an irreplaceable component of their income and food. "Almost every smallholder farming family in a developing country owns livestock, whether chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, buffaloes, donkeys, horses, yaks, llamas, or camels," states a 2014 article by an Indian agriculture official. "Livestock development benefits poor rural families, many of them engaged in farming but not owning land."
Livestock keeping offers numerous salient advantages in gaining food and financial security not afforded by plant crops. In contrast with crop farming, which produces sporadic, seasonal, perishable products, livestock is an asset that can be maintained for short or long periods of time then quickly converted to food or cash when needed. This has been the case since people began keeping farm animals, Simon Fairlie points out. "[A] main role of animal husbandry has been to provide food security: 'The purpose of domestication was to secure animal protein reserves and to have animals serve as living food conserves.'" This is why livestock are sometimes referred to as "an ATM for poor farmers." The world over, the flexible nature of animal keeping has always been among its primary benefits, Harold McGee points out: "Livestock not only transformed inedible grass and scraps into nutritious meat, but constituted a walking larder, a store of concentrated nourishment that could be harvested whenever it was needed." Additionally, in many parts of the world farm animals raised for meat and milk also provide invaluable labor and transportation services. Oxen still pull plows and carts on a large portion of the globe. These are all attributes utterly unique to animal keeping.
Women, who make up the majority of animal tenders in the developing world, are often livestock's greatest beneficiaries. Animals provide women reliable income and protein-rich foods for their own families, both available on an as-needed basis.
An article in the science journal Nature points out, as well, that crop and livestock farming are highly complementary. "Half the world's food comes from farms that raise both. Animals pull ploughs and carts, and their manure fertilizes crops, which supply post-harvest residues to livestock." In his book Feeding People Is Easy, veteran British science reporter Colin Tudge, who has traveled the world extensively and reported for decades on food and agriculture, states that "pastoral farming is very important indeed," declaring: "The oft-bruited generalization—that we could most easily feed the world if everyone was vegetarian—is simply not true." Among the reasons he points to are that "there is no system of all-plant agriculture that could not be made more efficient, in biological terms, by adding in a few livestock, provided they are the right kind, and are kept in the right numbers, in the right ways."
That farm animals are the lifeblood for hundreds of millions of the world's poor became much clearer to me after I attended an international convening of smaller-scale livestock keepers. The Livestock Futures Conference in Bonn, Germany, hosted by the nonprofit League for Pastoral Peoples, gathered 70 livestock keepers and researchers from 16 different countries and several continents. Among those in attendance were people involved in camel herding from Pakistan, cattle herding from Uganda, sheep herding from Germany, and goat herding from Argentina. (Henning Steinfeld, lead author of the FAO's "Livestock's Long Shadow" report, was there, too.) I was honored to have been invited to speak about issues facing livestock farmers and ranchers in the United States. The organization's founder, a remarkable German woman named Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a doctor of anthropology and veterinary medicine who has lived for extended periods among camel-herding people in India, has labored for years to raise the profile of smaller-scale livestock keepers before the world's policy organizations. On the global level, just as on a national one, the biggest players tend to be given greatest consideration.
The Livestock Futures Conference highlighted the environmental and societal damage caused by industrialized livestock production, contrasting it with the social and ecological contributions of smaller-scale farmers and herders. Research and testimony described wide-ranging benefits to smaller keepers, including environmental and climate protection, cultural preservation, tourism, and support of local labor markets. Presenters showed that in many of the globe's arid regions, in places where land cannot be put to other uses, the small-scale livestock sector is responsible for the largest share of animal production, all told making up 30 percent of world production of animal-based foods. Despite the wealth of measurable contributions of small-scale keepers to food security, they are still being ignored in national and international policy. The conference was part of a multiyear strategy by the league and its allies to change that.
Even if we accept without proof that eliminating livestock would lead to a greater supply of food for the poor (which I definitely do not), the notion relies on exceedingly fuzzy math. Let's look at some of the problems. First off, it assumes that grain currently grown and fed to livestock would still be grown and would somehow end up being made available to the world's poor. This completely ignores the realities on the ground. If livestock were no longer generating a demand for grain, why would farmers and agribusiness companies continue growing it? They would not. Like anyone engaged in the production of any commodity, they would adjust, and farmers would shift to growing crops for which there was the most demand. More sugar beets, perhaps? In the alternative, they might convert the land to other, non-agricultural uses. Under either scenario, global hunger is in no way reduced.
For another thing, the nutritional value of the world's supply of meat and milk would be difficult to replace with foods from plants, especially for people in the developing world and children. To substitute for all animal-based foods would take far more than a one-to-one pound-for-pound or calorie-for-calorie replacement by grains and soy. The Pimentels point out: "Animal proteins contain the eight essential amino acids in optimal amounts and in forms utilizable by humans for protein synthesis. For this reason, animal proteins are considered high quality proteins. By comparison, plant proteins contain lesser amounts of some of the essential amino acids and are judged to be lower in nutritional quality than animal sources." This is especially important for children, they note, whose rapidly developing bodies particularly benefit from nutrient-dense foods. "Another advantage of animal products over plant products as food for humans, especially children, is the greater concentration of food energy per unit of weight compared with plant material. For example, . . . beef has three times as much food energy per unit of weight as sweet corn." Nutritionally, animal-based foods are more important to the world's poor than other foods, and for the one billion of them who raise livestock, it helps them feed themselves. Eliminating animals from the food system would likely make the world's hungry more food-insecure, not less, and more dependent on government assistance.
Moreover, while world grain use for livestock is significant (and I believe it's too high), it's far less than what people generally assume. Cattle in the developing world are usually fed little or no grain. In the United States, the breeding herds of beef cattle (about 30 million animals) are generally also maintained without grain. Nearly all steers and heifers raised for beef in the United States are raised on mother's milk and pasture, then fed grains only in the latter portion of their lives. And overall, even for cattle fed grain in industrialized countries (both beef and dairy types), a large portion of their diet still comes from forage or farm by-products (like straw or rice bran). An article in Nature noted that around 70 percent of grains used by developed countries are fed to animals, with 40 percent of such feed going to ruminants, mainly cattle. As I have argued several times in this book, this amount can and should be pushed down significantly. Even so, the same article points out, much livestock feed in developed countries comprises plant matter inedible to humans. "Even where large quantities of cereals are consumed by ruminants, up to 60% of their diet comes from high-fibre feed that humans cannot digest . . . In the European Union, more than 95% of milk comes from animals fed on grass, hay and silage, supplemented with cereals."
Moreover, even in the developed world, some cattle milk and beef comes from animals raised entirely with very minimal or no grains. Some American beef cattle, our own among them, are raised from birth to slaughter with no grain. "Cattle in New Zealand's exemplary dairy industry obtain 90% of their overall nutrition by grazing pasture." New Zealand's dairy industry and grass-fed cattle ranchers in many parts of the world, including the United States, demonstrate the feasibility of a worldwide transition back toward forage-based diets for ruminants, including cattle. Some production would be lost, but that would be more than offset by the overall benefits to the environment, animal health and welfare, and human health.
Energy use for cattle fed from their own foraging is so negligible that beef produced in this way is actually less energy-intensive than grain production. The Pimentels point out in Food, Energy, and Society that whereas crop cultivation adds significantly to the energy use of grain-fed livestock systems, raising cattle on grass takes little energy. "[I]n contrast [with grain-fed], cattle grazed on pastures use considerably less energy than grain-fed cattle." The textbook quantifies energy inputs for grass-fed beef compared with grain-fed as follows: "Current yield of beef protein from productive pastures is about 66 kilograms per hectare, while the energy input per kilogram of animal protein produced is 3,500 kilocalories. Therefore, animal protein production on good pastures is less expensive in terms of fossil energy inputs than grain protein production."
The other part of the fuzzy math problem is about land where cattle and other livestock are currently grazing. The "stop eating meat to reduce world hunger" notion assumes that if livestock disappeared, a significant portion of the land where they graze could (and would) be used to raise food for humans instead. This is wrong on several levels. First, just as there's no reason to believe grain production would continue without livestock generating a demand for it, there's no reason to believe land currently used for grazing would be used to grow food for the world's poor. Whoever owns or controls the land would find other, more profitable uses. In the alternative (such as federal lands grazed by U.S. cattle), the land would simply cease to be used for any food production. Thus, removing livestock would not free up land for plant-based food production, as people making this argument often assume.
Second, and this point is critical, the vast majority of the world's grazing takes place on land that cannot be used to grow crops. As David Montgomery succinctly states: "Sheep and cattle turn parts of plants we can't eat into milk and meat." Food, Energy, and Society notes the prevalence around the world of livestock raised on "free energy sources." These include forage growing along paths and other "interstitial spaces" that would not be used for crops or other purposes, and straw left after harvest of rice or similar grain crops, which can be fed to animals.
The textbook Soil and Water Conservation defines rangelands as "soil on which the native vegetation is predominantly grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs suitable for grazing or browsing." It notes that "[n]early half of the land on Earth can be classed as rangeland," and says, "Most of it is either unsuitable or of low quality for use as tilled cropland because it includes steep areas, shallow and/or stony soils, or dry and/or cold climates."
Likewise, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service provides the following explanation of the unique role of grasslands and ruminants like cattle in the global food system:
[Grassland] ecosystems are naturally able to capture sunlight and convert it into food energy for plants. . . . [M]ost of the land in the U.S., and indeed in most countries of the world, is not tillable and is considered rangeland, forest, or desert. These ecosystems can be very productive from a plant biomass perspective, but since they are generally non-farmable, the plants they produce (grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees) are not readily usable (from a digestive standpoint) by humans.
However, grassland ecosystems (both rangeland and temperate grasslands) produce plant materials that are highly digestible to ruminant animals. . . . Grazing of native and introduced forages on grasslands and rangeland thus is a very efficient way of converting otherwise non-digestible energy into forms available for human use: milk, meat, wool and other fibers, and hide.
This point is so important it's worth stressing again: This miraculous transformation of sunlight into human food via grazing animals is mostly occurring in areas that cannot be used to grow crops. This crucial fact is nearly always ignored by (or perhaps unknown to) beef's critics. Colin Tudge uses his book Feeding People Is Easy to raise awareness:
In many parts of the world, at least in some seasons, it is very difficult to raise crops at all. Arable is all but impossible when the land is too high, steep, cold, or wet or if it rains too much in the season when the grain should be ripening . . . [A]nimals of one kind or another muddle through anywhere—living as camels and goats may do on the most meager of leaves that poke through between the thorns of desert trees, or as reindeer do on lichen, or as long-wooled sheep and shaggy cattle do in British hills on the coarse grasses that grow between the heather; and in times of drought or the depths of winter there may be nothing to eat at all except for beasts that fattened in better times.
A recent grasslands university textbook reinforces Tudge's observations with respect to rangelands, stating that "[b]ecause they typically experience low and unpredictable rainfall and often have associated low soil fertility, rangelands generally cannot sustain crop agriculture without irrigation." Making use of these lands is and has always been the very special place for the world's herbivores, the text then notes. They convert "low quality fibrous plants into products such as meat, milk, and blood that humans can readily digest." For this very reason, it continues, "harvesting products from herbivores has been a defining element in the relationship between humans and rangelands worldwide for millennia."
One of many world examples of people using livestock as rangeland converters are the Dodos of northeast Uganda. They feed their cattle no grain, only pasture forage unsuitable for human consumption, and raise them without fossil fuels. The Dodo tribe illustrates the crucial and versatile role livestock can play for humans. Food, Energy, and Society summarizes the benefits: "First, the livestock effectively convert forage growing in the marginal habitat into food suitable for humans. Second, herds serve as stored food resources. Third, the cattle can be traded for sorghum grain [for human consumption] during years of inadequate rainfall and poor crop yields." These are precisely the properties that make livestock irreplaceable to people throughout the world.
In the United States, since long before the arrival of humans, a large portion of ground, especially in the West, has been unsuitable for crop cultivation. Some of this land is arid or semi-arid; rains may be insufficient or fall only at the wrong time of year for crop cultivation, or its topography is too hilly, or too rocky. Having resided for the past 12 years in Northern Coastal California on land where crops cannot be grown, I grasp such limitations much better than I once did. I understand implicitly how windiness, dry, cool summers, and steep, rough terrain are all conditions that are fine, even ideal, for grass and livestock, but render crop growing impossible.
"The [U.S.] pastureland and rangeland are marginal in terms of productivity because there is too little rainfall for crop production," note the Pimentels. These areas are where the vast majority of America's cattle are located. According to the U.S. Beef Board, 85 percent of the land grazed by cattle in the United States is land that cannot be farmed. This precise number, since it comes from the beef industry itself, obviously should be taken with a grain of salt. But it suggests that cattle grazing in the United States is largely occurring on non-farmable rangelands. According to a highly credible and impartial source, a recent university textbook, in California, 57 million acres, almost 60 percent of the land, is characterized as rangeland, about 34 million acres of which is actually grazed.
Yet in California, as elsewhere in the United States, rangelands continue to be chipped away by more intensive land uses. Foothill rangelands, especially, are being converted to wine-grape growing, housing, and urban developments. The grasslands textbook states: "[T]hroughout most of California, range has given way to other, generally higher value but also more intensive, land uses."
However, the same textbook holds out hope for a growing recognition of rangelands' societal and ecological value:
As range ecosystem services other than livestock production become increasingly valued by society, the additional benefits that we derive directly from primary production and the soil system have gained greater recognition: provision of irrigation and drinking water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, open space/viewshed, rural lifestyle, biodiversity, and carbon storage. It might even be argued that the most important role that primary consumers play in 21st century California is not providing the traditional livestock products of meat, milk, and fiber, but rather acting as a bulwark against the conversion of range into housing developments, vineyards, and other more intensive land-uses that do not provide the multiple ecosystem services bestowed by range ecosystems.
The presence of grazing animals on such non-farmable lands enriches the world's food supply regardless of the efficiency with which the animal converts the feed to flesh and milk. The oft-quoted statistics about the "inefficiency" of cattle converting feed to flesh are irrelevant. "However efficient the conversion ratio of any given animal may be," Simon Fairlie points out, "if it is grazing entirely on land which could not otherwise be used for arable production or some other highly productive activity, then it cannot be said to be detracting from the sum quantity of nutrients available to the people of the world, but adding to them." Moreover, he points out, where animals graze on land unsuitable for crop cultivation, they are "relieving pressure on arable land, and helping to retrieve otherwise inaccessible nutrients and bring them within the food chain." To this I would add livestock grazed on cover crops or fed farm by-products, as is the case for a large number of the world's farm animals. These methods, too, create food for humans using only feed sources that are not directly usable as human nourishment.
I hope this discussion puts at ease the mind of any reader who has hesitated to eat beef based on concerns about world hunger. In the majority of the world, cattle are fed little or no grain and are raised mostly on non-farmable lands. For Americans and other people in the developed world, where grain is used as part of cattle feed, we have the choice to seek out and buy beef and dairy products from animals raised on forages rather than grains and soy. As described in earlier parts of this book, there are human health and animal health and welfare reasons to do so, and by choosing grass-based foods we help maintain our nation's grasslands, which are the most environmentally beneficial of all lands used for agriculture.
The other aspect of the moral question about eating beef is whether it's acceptable for humans to eat meat at all. In answering this, I'd like to rely less on data and statistics and bring some of my own personal experiences to bear. It's been 14 years since I began working on farm-related issues for Waterkeeper. Although the job was focused on addressing pollution, to me the animals were equally important. While other environmental groups were publicly advocating addressing problems from industrialization with more effective waste containment or treatment, I found those approaches far too narrow. They ignored factory farming's greatest evil: animal cruelty. Even worse, by endorsing steps geared toward pollution reduction that failed to improve farm animals' lives, they were further entrenching the current system.
Fortunately, my boss felt the same way. Bobby Kennedy Jr. has cared passionately since childhood about every creature from sow bugs to blue whales. He heartily endorsed my advocating for farming that was ecologically sound and provided animals good lives. Having closely viewed the brutality of industrial production, we felt morally obligated to seek improvements in farm animal welfare.
Over the years, my writings and speeches often addressed the ethics of how meat was produced, but until a few years ago they never spoke to whether or not it is ethical to eat meat at all. Then I was invited by an ecological journal to write an essay arguing that an environmentalist need not refrain from meat eating. Following publication of the essay, I was extended invitations to participate in several live debates about the ethics of meat eating, two of which I accepted. Both times (somewhat ironically, since I am still a vegetarian) I represented the "pro meat" position. I later wrote a piece for TheAtlantic.com titled, "Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?" Even though I never sought to focus my energies on the question of whether people should eat meat, it seemed important to refute the increasingly prevalent notion that people who cared about the environment should avoid it. I was becoming a de facto vegetarian meat advocate.
My first piece, titled "Animals Are Essential to Sustainable Food," proposed that today's debate over meat is characterized by polarizing, oversimplified rhetoric, pitting an implacable, defensive agribusiness in one corner against equally intractable vegan activists for abolition of all animal farming on the other. "[The abolitionist vegans'] fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century," I wrote, "some of whom attacked apple trees with axes because they were the source of hard cider. Like the prohibitionists, activists against meat are fueled by the excesses of the day." Factory farms, not animal farming, are the real problem, I urged. And industrial methods have fostered a growing disillusionment with the meat industry among broad swaths of the American public, well beyond vegan and vegetarian circles.
I will be the first to agree that industrial methods for raising farm animals are indefensible, and I believe all people should join in rejecting them. Having seen it in all its gory details, I have no qualms about calling industrialized animal production a routinized form of animal torture. While Prohibitionists attacking innocent apple trees with axes seem absurd to us today, a lot of discussion over the ethics of meat eating likewise focuses on the wrong villain. Industrial animal production is rightly vilified; animal farming, on the other hand, is not.
What has really fostered my interest in the debate over meat eating is not a desire to encourage meat consumption but a longing for some nuance in the discussion. The issue is far from black-and-white, and polarized camps lobbing accusations at each other only hinder movement toward a better system. Building a food system that is more ecological and more humane is far more important to me than whether or not so-and-so is eating meat.
I believe the real issue is whether we humans are living up to our responsibilities of good stewardship of animals and the earth. Michael Pollan and others have proposed the idea that animals "chose" domestication based on a sort of "bargain" with humanity. I put the words chose and bargain in quotes because, quite clearly, no individual wild animal made a conscious decision that its species should become domesticated. Instead, domestication likely happened gradually over many generations as some animals found advantages to having a certain amount of human contact. Humans "agreed" (again, in quotes, because the bargain was entirely implicit) to provide essentials to animals—food, shelter, and protection from predators being foremost among them—in exchange for the animals providing humans food in the form of eggs, milk, and meat. (With dogs the terms of the bargain were different: For being provided protection and nourishment, dogs exchanged assistance in hunting, early warning, and self-defense).37 However, it's reasonable to assume, as well, that animals would never have opted for such an arrangement if torture had been part of the deal. Stated simply: By raising animals in factory farms, humans are violating their age-old contract with domesticated animals.
With those raised for food, the very idea that the individual animal's dignity matters seems to have been abandoned in the United States sometime around the mid-20th century. Just as confinement animal operations were becoming the norm, every agricultural college in America changed the appellation of its "animal husbandry department" to "animal science department," which is emblematic of the shift in mind-set.
Agribusiness has long defended its methods by pointing to their prevalence. But we all know that just because something is widespread doesn't mean it's acceptable, let alone right. Factory farms are undeniably inhumane. The worst practices are narrow metal cages for pregnant sows, wooden crates for veal calves, and wire cages for egg-laying hens. But beyond that, the everyday workings of industrial facilities utterly fail to provide animals decent lives. Continually keeping animals in foul-smelling cramped conditions, depriving them of all pleasures and basic necessities like exercise, fresh air, sunshine, and a soft place to lie down, cannot be called humane. Whatever rationale is offered for these practices—"efficiency," "cost of production," "affordable food," "feeding the world"—these systems remain morally indefensible.
Grazing animals, especially those raised for meat (rather than milk), have fared better than others. Their unique capacity to sustain themselves on grass has been their saving grace—keeping them outdoors on growing vegetation is often the most economical way to raise them. Nearly all cattle, including dairy heifers, spend their early life on grass. Once mature, most (although not all) dairy cows with modern genetics, bred for high-volume milk production, are confined and fed concentrates, which is the only way to achieve their genetic potential for milk production. Their time on grass is then over.
Beef cattle have it better. Those raised for meat (not kept for breeding) typically go to a feedlot sometime before one year of age. Even there, they are out in the open air and have the benefit of soft ground for lying and standing. The breeding beef animals (mother cow herds and bulls) are the most fortunate. Generally, they spend their entire lives on pastures or rangeland, having a daily existence not unlike that of their wild ancestors. Because a cattle ranch's success depends on mother cows being able to survive and give birth without human assistance, beef cattle have long been selected for heartiness and good calving ability. In this, the interests of the animal and those of the rancher perfectly coincide. These traits help rather than hamper the quality of life experienced by the individual animal.
In fact, beef cattle are so much better off than other animals raised for food that, as I mentioned earlier, my Humane Society friend says he considers it better to eat beef than eggs. Soon after my work became focused on agriculture I, too, became persuaded that cattle raised for beef are the luckiest of all farm animals. And from an eater's perspective, I'd much rather my food source had spent its life exercising, breathing fresh air, and grazing meadows than cooped up in a crowded, stinking metal warehouse. Why would I want to eat food that originated from a place I would never want to visit?
On top of those issues, there is the amount of meat per animal to be considered. Previously I noted that taking the life of a single steer provides more than ample meat for two families for an entire year, an industry average of 475 pounds of beef per carcass. In stark contrast, the industry average weight for a whole chicken carcass is 4 pounds, with about 70 percent of that being meat; a chicken will thus yield less than 3 pounds of meat. You have to kill more than 150 chickens to get as much meat as you receive from one steer. It's hard to know how to compare the morality of killing 150 chickens versus killing one steer. But for me, it was among the reasons I began favoring beef over other animal-based foods even before first stepping foot on my husband's ranch.
I've never adopted the view that eating meat is inherently wrong. We can debate until the cows come home about evolution of teeth, digestive tracts, and other aspects of human physiology to make a case either that humans are "intended" to eat meat or not. But to my biology-trained brain, those points were never very persuasive. Humans may have evolved from herbivores if you go back to a certain moment in time. But the ancestors of those animals were omnivores and carnivores. And it's now believed human ancestors began eating meat at least 2.6 million years ago, with a major uptick in meat consumption occurring around 1.5 million years ago. Clearly, a great deal of evolving has taken place in those millions of years. Any way you slice it, modern humans come from a very long line of meat eaters.
My view boils down to this: Humans are animals belonging to a food web. That web includes animals eating plants, animals eating other animals, and even plants eating animals. As this book has been at pains to portray, all life starts from the earth and returns to the earth, the bodies of all plants and animals nourishing future generations of plants and animals in an endless cycle of regeneration. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. To me, something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.
As I grew more aware of how animals in the food system live, it also brought me to the realization that, morally speaking, there is little difference between eating meat and refraining from meat if you are still eating dairy and eggs—in other words, practicing classic vegetarianism. Dairy cows all become beef eventually and, in many ways, their lives are not nearly as good as cattle raised for beef. Most laying hens spend their lives crammed into wire cages (so-called battery cages), then are usually unceremoniously vacuumed up for use in things like canned chicken soup and pet food. To feel any sort of moral superiority for not eating beef while eating dairy products and eggs seems absurd. Once that became clear to me, it bridged any ethical distance I might have once felt between myself and my husband's vocation.
Still, I initially had some uneasiness about moving to a cattle ranch. Although I supported it in principle, I wasn't sure I'd be comfortable living day after day in the midst of an active operation. Would I find it upsetting to be surrounded by animals I knew would one day be sent to slaughter? And even more to the point, would it make me feel guilty to know that our living came from their deaths? I figured I'd keep myself at arm's length to avoid any potential discomfort.
What happened instead was just the opposite. For exercise and to take in the area's natural beauty, I took long walks nearly every day through our land. Almost by accident, I began regularly spending time in the company of our cattle. I saw our mother cows ambling as they ate, socializing with their sister herd members, congregating around the water trough, calling their babies, licking one another's necks. I watched calves frolicking in the grass, racing around after one another at twilight, running to their mothers for a long, warm drink of milk. I saw the bulls and cows nuzzling each other in courtship before and after mating. It was easy to see that the lives of these animals were well worth living. The more I meandered our meadows, the more I sat on our fences observing, the more I valued and appreciated what was happening in my midst. Everywhere I looked I saw animals living well and well-cared-for land.
After a few months, I told Bill I wanted to learn to do everything on the ranch. This surprised him a bit (he, too, had expected his vegetarian wife to want to keep some distance from ranching operations), but he readily agreed. Soon I became the wide-eyed, unskilled, displaced city-dweller ranch hand, helping him and our ranch manager with whatever needed to be done each day. Occasionally, this involved fixing a fence or a water trough (although my role was usually tantamount to holding the tools). In the dry season, it meant bringing our cattle some hay. Daily, it meant taking my pocket-sized notebook and walking or riding on horseback through the herd, making sure each animal was healthy and accounted for. Over time, I came to know each herd member individually, learned some things, and was given more responsibility.
Eventually, and for several years following, I became the primary labor on our ranch. I loved doing physical work, outside, being among the animals, and the challenge of problem solving, the constant companion of every practicing farmer and rancher. I especially enjoyed being useful to the animals, like when I'd reunite a mother with her new calf who'd slid beneath a fence, or when we'd successfully graft a spare twin calf onto a mother whose calf was stillborn.
A lot of my time was spent watching and interacting with wildlife, as well. I became daily witness to nature's beauty, its force, and its cycles. A mother bobcat stealthily stalking her prey; an osprey cruising silently overhead with a fish clasped in its talons; a wake of vultures feasting hungrily on a deer carcass. Grasses and wildflowers sprouting, blooming, drying, dropping their seeds, dying back. Life-giving rains coming and the cycle beginning anew.
For me, these experiences reinforced that all life is connected. Living in Manhattan, as I had for nearly five years just before moving to the ranch, it had been easy to see myself individually, and humanity collectively, as isolated from the rest of the natural world. Working every day out on the ranch, maintaining such a view was impossible.
It became increasingly plain to me, as well, that even the most conscientious agriculture is a major disturbance. No matter how well done, it will invariably have profound impacts on wild creatures and plants, soils, and water. Our expectations of farmers and ranchers should not be zero environmental impact, which is unattainable. The goal, instead, should be food production done as harmoniously as possible with natural elements existing in the wild.
Now consider crop cultivation. Especially if done using typical farm machinery, but even with non-motorized plows, it represents an enormous interruption to naturally occurring vegetation and animals. Plows scrape, cut, and chop up the earth's surface and whatever is growing there, tearing up complex communities of everything from symbiotic microorganisms to rabbits and snakes. In the developed world most plows are dragged behind enormous, heavy tractors, which is followed later in the season by huge harvesters that crush and shred every plant and animal in their path. These machines are Armageddon for billions of soil-dwelling creatures along with every form of wildlife that resides in or on the ground. There's no avoiding the reality that crop farming is the most disruptive of all agricultural acts.
At the start of his beautifully photographed and eloquently written The River Cottage Meat Book, British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall poses the questions: "Why do we eat meat? And is it right, morally, that we do?" In answering, he starts by noting that no matter what we do, it's a fallacy "to maintain that we can live in complete harmony with the rest of animal kind." The actions of all animals, he points out, whether intentionally or not, will affect others: "The undeniable fact is that any species' pursuit of its interests will always have an impact on the rest of the planet's life—the fox impacting on the chicken population, the flea on the cat, the beaver on the forest, and the sheep on the grass."
I agree with Fearnley-Whittingstall's implicit suggestion that no human endeavors, and certainly not farming, can be done without enormous impacts on other life-forms. The notion that we can "eat cruelty-free" by avoiding foods derived from animals is nonsensical if we really look at agriculture, especially crop farming used to produce plant-based foods. Cultivations of soy, grains, fruits, and vegetables are all highly altering of habitat and have immediate and ripple effects on literally billions and billions of creatures of all types.
What I'm looking for is agriculture that respects all life and follows nature's model. Answering the question: Am I eating food derived from an animal? tells you very little about the impact production of that food has had on nearby animals and plants. All farming, and especially crop farming, necessarily kills a lot of animals of all shapes and sizes. The more meaningful question is: Has this food been produced as nature functions? And for me, it is clear such farming embraces animals.
The great Sir Albert Howard, a godfather of modern organic farming, viewed animals as inextricably linked to ecologically sound food production, calling them "our farming partner." Howard said: "In Nature animals and plants lead an interlocked existence. The connection could not be closer, more permanent, or more crucial. We can observe this partnership in operation in the forest, in the prairie, in marshes, streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean." Howard's point, I believe, is that nature's way of converting water and sunlight to energy, in the form of food, is a complex, multi-stage process in which no part exists in isolation. Each component—every ray of sunshine, every drop of water, every clump of soil, every plant, every insect, every grazing animal—has many and varied roles and effects. The more farming systems reflect such complexity, the more they are ecological.
One of the most thorough and thoughtful explorations I've seen of why we should farm with animals is in Simon Fairlie's book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Fairlie's perspective is informed by his diverse experiences, which include environmental writer, farmer, and former vegetarian. He believes farming ecologically involves animals. His book describes an optimal food system where cattle and other grazing animals convert non-tillable lands into contributors to the food system and omnivorous animals like pigs and chickens make good use of farm by-products and food scraps. He also discusses at length the value of manure for post-fossil-fuel fertility.
Additionally, Fairlie points out that "wherever there is livestock there is the opportunity to garner and concentrate fertility from the wilder environment . . ." This is especially the case for grazing animals. More efficiently than machines, Fairlie notes, grazing animals "move nutrients from where they are not needed to where they are required." This is particularly true for phosphorus, which, unlike nitrogen, cannot be obtained from the air. "[P]lants cannot extract phosphorus from the atmosphere, so the role of animals in importing surplus phosphorus from outlying areas could be crucial," he argues.
Fairlie also points out that domesticated grazing animals have taken the place of wild herbivores in keeping a balance of open spaces with wooded areas or, as he puts it, light with shade. The balance, he argues, would massively shift without the presence of grazing animals:
Only livestock can engineer the balance that any society seeks between the realm of light and the realm of shade on any scale beyond the arable. Even in a full-blooded fossil fuel economy, JCBs, timber harvesters and other wheeled monsters are fighting a losing battle with nature unless they enlist the help of quadrupeds. Where livestock are allowed to roam they bring grass, and where they are excluded trees grow, and it is a relatively effortless matter for humans to calibrate their performance to our will or whim.
In a related vein, the university textbook Soil and Water Conservation describes the value of livestock for managing fire risks on a broad, landscape scale. "When livestock graze these fire lanes, forest roads, and forestlands in general, they reduce the fire hazard by removing vegetation that is flammable when dry." The way that cattle manage vegetation, holding back the spread of woody plants and keeping open spaces open, is something few of us pause to consider or appreciate. The look and functionality of our landscapes would be radically different without them, and in many ways for the worse. In short, humanity needs grazing animals.
We hear a great deal about the planet becoming crowded and harder to feed. All too often we hear that livestock are part of the problem. Because it doesn't fit neatly into the advocacy narrative for vegans and environmentalists, though, we rarely hear about crop cultivation destroying agricultural land, which is actually the greatest threat to humans' ability to feed themselves in the future. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery tells the history of societies failing to properly steward their soils, to the point where their lands are no longer usable for crop cultivation; and this continues at an alarming pace today. Food, Energy, and Society notes that, worldwide, more than 50 million acres of agricultural land is abandoned annually because of soil erosion and salinization from irrigating crops. "During the past 40 years, about 30% of total world arable land has been abandoned because it is no longer productive," the book notes. It is estimated that about half of the land currently under cultivation will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the 21st century.
Individuals and groups are rightly concerned about adequate food supplies for the future. But they would do well to focus their attention on this imminent crisis, and on the way livestock are managed on the land, rather than on the absolute number of livestock, which has little significance. Properly managed grazing animals are an important part of the solution to feeding the world in the future.