Eating Meat for the Environment

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image by Malcolm Lawson

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.

The same applies on a larger scale: In order for pasture-based livestock to become a significant part of the meat industry, we need to eat more of its meat, not less. As it is, grass-fed beef accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. beef consumption, and the numbers for chicken and pork hardly register. Even where the industry is growing, it is stunted by inadequate infrastructure. The greatest challenge is a lack of small-scale slaughter­houses, but it also suffers from a dearth of research, outreach for new producers, and investment in breeding for pasture-based systems. And those things will change only as the market grows.

So by all means follow Rajendra Pachauri’s suggestion and enjoy a meatless Monday. But on Tuesday, have a grass-fed burger–and feel good about it.

Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. Reprinted from the Perch (June 25, 2009), the blog of Audubon, a magazine that connects its readers with the natural world.

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