Eating Meat for the Environment

On many sustainable farms, animals are an essential part of the equation

| November-December 2009

  • Eating Environmental Meat

    image by Malcolm Lawson

  • Eating Environmental Meat

In fall 2008 Rajendra Pachauri, head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, offered a simple directive for combating global warming: Eat less meat.

Critics pointed out that the economist and environmental scientist is a vegetarian, but the numbers back up his idea. A 2006 U.N. report found that 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from raising livestock for food. While Pachauri’s advice is good overall, I would propose a corollary: At the same time that we begin eating less meat, we should be eating more of it.

More of a different kind, that is. Animals reared on organic pasture have a different climate equation from those raised in confinement on imported feed. Much of the emissions associated with livestock production come as the result of dismantling the natural farm system and replacing it with an artificial environment. For instance, in large-scale confinement systems, or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), manure has nowhere to go. Managed in human-made lagoons, it produces millions of tons of methane and nitrous oxide every year through anaerobic decomposition. On pasture, that same manure is simply assimilated back into the soil with a carbon cost close to zero.

Some would argue that pasture-raised animals are just the lesser of two evils. Given that livestock make for some emissions no matter where they’re raised—cows, for instance, like any other ruminant, produce methane as a by-product of their digestion—wouldn’t it be better to have no livestock at all? Not according to farmer Jason Mann, who grows produce and raises chickens, hogs, and cattle on pasture outside Athens, Georgia. In the age of CAFOs, many people have come to regard livestock as a problem to be solved. But on a sustainable farm system like his, animals are an essential part of the equation. [It’s also worth noting that having no livestock on land wouldn’t eliminate the methane produced when plants are digested by deer, termites, etc. —ED.]

Mann likens his farm to a bank account: Every time he harvests an ear of corn or a head of lettuce, he withdraws from the soil’s fertility. If he doesn’t re­deposit that fertility, his account will hit zero. He could certainly truck in compost from 250 miles away or apply chemical fertilizers to make his vegetables grow. But by his own carbon calculation the best option is to return that fertility to the soil by using livestock, particularly cows. They do more than keep his soil rich. When cattle are managed properly, they can boost soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Their manure adds organic matter to the soil, their grazing symbiotically encourages plant growth, and their heavy hooves help break down dead plant residue. Some proponents argue that highly managed, intensive grazing can shift cattle’s carbon count so dramatically that the animals actually help reduce greenhouse gases (See “One Sweet-Tasting Steak,” below).

In addition to completing the farm’s ecology, Mann’s livestock also complement the farm’s economy with critical revenue for the real bank account—which keeps the operation afloat in a way that lettuce alone cannot. But that happens only when animals become meat. With the exception of laying hens, if animals stand around eating all day but never produce more than manure, they are a net loss. In order for livestock to be worthwhile in a whole farm system, they must be eaten. For Mann’s farm to be sustainable, his neighbors must buy and eat his meat.

Will Cooper
3/14/2012 12:01:04 AM

Manure from grass-fed cows may mostly dissolve into soil, but what about the fact that there should be trees and natural habitat where that grass is? How much additional CO2 would be sequestered by all those trees and other plants? Did you know that it takes 6 to 17 times more land to feed a meat-eater than it does to feed a vegetarian (Source: Grass-fed cows require more land than factory-farmed cows and they produce a lot more methane because their ruminant stomachs have to process more food - i.e. grass. The Amazon rain forest is currently being deforested at an alarming rate to create pasture for free-range grass-fed beef. How are we supposed to "feel good" about that?

Robert Jewett_2
12/2/2009 9:09:06 AM

Well said, Jeffery. You've made the argument that strikes at the heart of this intentionally provocative article.

Jeffery Biss
11/23/2009 4:00:52 PM

"Critics pointed out that the economist and environmental scientist is a vegetarian, but the numbers back up his idea. " Heaven forbid that a person considers the well being of those people don't care about, right? Eating meat is wrong because it harms those we don't value merely to satisfy our desire to taste their flesh, it has nothing to do with environmental effects. Meat is in no way necessary to sustain human life or health and as moral beings, it is our obligation to consider the well being of those we don't value as a consequence of our actions and to minimize the harm we cause. To do otherwise is the definition of evil. It's sad that people elevate themselves above accountability for the harm they cause those they don't care about, so that they can enjoy life at their victims expense. But then isn't that what being human is all about? Not having to care?

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