The Real Environmental Impact of Red Meat: Part 2

104632697This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

In my previous article on the environmental impact of red meat, I explained how grazing livestock can be an environmentally friendly farming technique, helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere and consume less water resources than has been estimated.

While all large-scale food production, even organic food, has some level of impact on the environment, it’s clear that red meat has borne the brunt of most claims of negative environmental impact. The major claim I want to address today is the claim that grazing livestock leads to soil erosion and desertification, which is far from the truth. In fact, grazing cattle could even be a factor that restores the environment if used intelligently and responsibly.

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Desertification

I’m sure many of you have already heard Allan Savory’s TED talk on the subject, but if you haven’t, it’s worth a listen. He argues that despite the popular assertion that livestock cause desertification, cattle and other livestock can actually reverse desertification when their grazing patterns are managed closely. He goes so far as to say that livestock may actually be our best hope for restoring land that is currently unusable. He has spent quite a few years in Africa testing different grazing methods, and has achieved some impressive results. In his talk, he shows pictures of land that used to be barren and infertile, but has been completely restored using intensive grazing methods.

As you can imagine, his claims are highly controversial, and there’s no clear consensus in the literature about whether livestock are detrimental or helpful to the land. Some studies seem to corroborate Savory’s claims; for example, this study found that a specific grazing pattern increased the water content of the soil. However, there are other studies that show no benefits whatsoever from intensive grazing, and some even show harm. But this really shouldn’t surprise us; it’s illogical to assume that the methods used to restore land in Africa will also work in every other part of the world. Climates are different, soil is different, plants are different, and the type of livestock is different, so what works well in one area might not work in another area. The good news is that, as Savory’s talk shows us, livestock aren’t always harmful to the land, and can even be highly beneficial when managed responsibly. But we can’t say that livestock is always helpful, either. This highlights yet again the importance of finding a farmer you trust, because a responsible farmer will know how to manage their livestock in a way that preserves the land.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain Fed

I’ve hinted at this throughout the post, but I want to directly address the difference in environmental impact between grass-fed and grain-fed red meat. Believe it or not, it’s controversial as to whether or not pasture-raised animals are better for the environment. In fact, many researchers have argued that grass-fed livestock is far worse for the environment! They claim that because it takes longer for animals to mature on pasture than in a feedlot, they consume more resources over their lifespan, making them a bigger burden on the environment. Ruminants on pasture also produce more methane than ruminants on concentrate because of the higher fiber content of their food. (9)

However, most of these researchers haven’t considered the big picture. As I mentioned earlier, cattle on pasture can be carbon negative by enhancing carbon sequestration, while cows cooped up in a building are completely detached from the natural carbon cycle. Pastured cattle are also friendlier to water resources, as we saw by the comparison in water use between mostly pastured cattle in Australia and mostly grain-fed cattle in the US. Further, it’s important to consider the other environmental hazards of feedlots, including pollution from manure, antibiotics, and pesticides. Researchers that look at the big picture find that when all factors accounted for, pastured cattle are much more environmentally friendly than their feedlot counterparts. (10) (11) (12) So, if you weren’t already convinced, this is another great reason to choose grass-fed beef when possible!

Conclusion

It’s safe to say that ruminants, especially when raised on natural pasture, are not nearly as harmful to the environment as they’re made out to be by the media and conventional wisdom. They don’t use inordinate amounts of water, and although they do produce methane, they also remove carbon from the environment through grazing and can be carbon negative under the right circumstances. And although irresponsible grazing can lead to desertification in some circumstances, the proper management of livestock can actually enhance the health of the land.

As I’ve said many times before, it’s important to purchase red meat from a farmer you trust when at all possible. It’s evident that responsibly raised, grass-fed animals are kinder to the environment than those raised in a feedlot, not to mention that the animal itself has a better life. But I’d also encourage you to keep things in perspective. Red meat might not be the most ‘environmentally friendly’ food out there, but I highly doubt it’s the worst. But even if red meat were as terrible for the environment as conventional wisdom claims it is, please remember that eating isn’t the only activity you do that impacts the environment. Yes, livestock produces a lot of methane. You know what else produces a lot of methane? Landfills. (And wetlands and rice paddies, interestingly enough.) Food waste is also a pretty big problem. Some researchers attribute 25% of total freshwater use and about 300 million barrels of oil per year to food waste. (13) Now, I’m not telling you this so you can try to calculate how many cans you’d need to recycle to ‘make up for’ the environmental impact of your 6oz grass-fed steak. I just think it’s important that we don’t forget all the other things we can do to help the environment that don’t require eliminating an excellent source of nutrition from our diet.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Did any of this surprise you? Have you ever changed your eating habits to be more environmentally friendly? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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  1. Stefan Eberspaecher says

    I like Chris Kresser’s balanced review of the subject as well as his soft conclusion.

    Despite Allan Savory’s passion, there are big questions about the validity of his strong conclusions about his grazing methods. James McWilliam’s at Slate does a good job at drawing some attention to criticisms of Savory’s work:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html

    There are at least two published peer reviews showing that this Savory’s methods are anything but conclusive:

    https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/rangelands/article/view/11560/10833
    https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/rangelands/article/view/11450/10723

  2. says

    Hi Chris – Interesting ideas – I’m engaging in a debate about some of these issues with my son, who is a vegan largely because of concern for environmental issues.

    What I don’t see in your article is anything about the effect of clearing tropical rain forest in order to convert it into pasture land for cattle versus grazing cattle on already existing grassland.

    Also, my son Adam makes a valid point I think in wondering how much meat could actually be sustainably and cost-effectively raised? If we are to come to live in a future, sustainable world, will each inhabitant be entitled to a 4 oz portion of meat per week? Or more or less?

    Ron

    • says

      Hi Ronald, if we just looked at food and energy, there have been a massive change in the use of energy and food calories produced. Around 1900 we produced 6 calories of food from 1 calorie of energy expended, it now takes 12 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Quite obviously the way and type of food we produce now is not sustainable and therefore getting the bulk of our calories from cereals and grains is not sustainable.

      If most of the land that was once grazing land,which then became cropping land, was reverted back to grazing land again, we would have a far more sustainable system. May be your son is assuming that animal numbers stayed the same and grain was taken out of the equation. With proper grazing management (holistic management), we could run animal numbers way higher than where possible 100 years ago.There were more ruminants running in the US before white man appeared on the scene in North America. Estimations of numbers of just bison at the time were something like 60 million head, roaming North America. And that not counting all the other ruminates, elk pronghorn etc.
      It may mean, we all, where possible go back to growing veggies in our backyard. Farms to go back to Joel Salatin style food production systems, where a large diversity of food types are produced. It would mean many people could move back onto land to produce food again. If you study how much food Joel farm produces and how many families it sustains, it is truly amazing.

    • Angelyne says

      Has your son considered the impact of his chosen diet on the environment? It seems a little disingenuous to worry about the clearing of tropical forest when there are similar or worse depredation occurring closer to home. Mono-cropping is slowly destroying the earth. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a vegan without resorting to some eating some type of industrial type of agricultural product. It’s a very artificial type of lifestyle. I’m not sure that you can survive thrive as a vegan, if you limit yourself to locally grown, sustainable crops. Correct me if I’m wrong.

      Some are vegans due to health concerns, environmental concern or ethics. Every single argument that I ever heard to justify the two first concerns are based on misinformation and outright lies. As for ethics, I think that Lierre Keith makes excellent arguments regarding the ethics of meat eating. We are part of life. Something must die in order for us to live. It’s sheer hubris to believe that we can stand outside of that cycle. I

    • James Kling says

      Ron, your concern over clearing tropical rainforest for raising cattle seems a bit off. Big Ag has been pushing out the small family farms for decades, and what this comes down to is big corporate conglomerates, who raise tens of thousands of cattle in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) versus small family farms that utilize sustainable methods and care about what animals (and humans) eat, and thus raise their animals on pasture.

      The rainforest isn’t being cleared by some family in Vermont trying to raise healthful meat on grass. It’s being done by Big Ag. You see the common theme here? Big Ag is enemy to both rainforest and small family farmer (e.g., Salatin’s Polyface Farm) alike.

      By supporting local economies – buying grass-fed beef and pastured meats from farmers in your area, “off the grid” as it were – you undercut the industry that ravages the earth, mistreats animals, and provides sub-par nutrition via its product. You reduce the footprint not only in the rainforest, but as others have mentioned, the monoculture cropping that is peeling away fertile topsoil in the US and is reliant on GMO seeds and pesticides and N/P/K fertilizer that runs off into estuaries and creates dead zones.

      There is quite a bit that can be accomplished by going grass-fed, in fact. Being vegan is no guarantee that you’re not likewise contributing to the problems that monoculture agriculture is foisting upon us (i.e., soyburgers in place of grass-fed beef is actually a bad proposition). Converting monoculture land back to managed grazing is a much better gambit all around. There is a lot of poorly managed land out there – abandoned strip malls and warehouses and condos – and much of that came from small farms that were pushed out in this whole movement of “bigger is better.” We could reclaim thousands of acres of land that could support not only grass-fed beef and other pastured meats, but also organic vegetables and fruits like broccoli, salad greens, berries, et al., rather than the monocrops of soy, wheat, and corn.

  3. says

    I started out in life in a homesteading type environment, went out into the world of store purchased food stuff, and now back to locally grown and field raised local beef. This article really was helpful to me in seeing how the choice to eat local, field raised beef has not only helped my family physically, but also can have a positive impact on the environment in ways other than lessening the chemical burden on the soil.

    Thank you for a great piece, now am off to read a few of your links..

  4. Elizabeth Jena says

    There is a limit on the amount of even pasture red meat that is good for both the environment and the individual. That is not stressed by you or Gary Taubes. Neither do you talk about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest or other really important land that has been lost to raise cattle.

    The point is that we are not in the paleolietic era- Sustainable farming methods are known. We are an overpopulated planet and have not used our resources well. We are running out of time. We all need to cooperate to change our eating culture. Vegans and paleos both know the worse things we can eat – sugar, refined grains, corn fed animals, vegetable and seed oils and too much sodium. We need to treat these substances as we did tobacco. Why not work together to seriously reduce them instead of fighting over this nut or whole grain vs in lieu of pasture fed red meat. We have an obsolute farm bill and it subsidies malnourishment (whether obese or not) instead of nutrient dense vegetables and low glycemic fruit. .

    Many vegetables will ultimately be grown vertically inside so arable land can be put to the best use. So many compounds in vegetables are being found to be anti-inflammatiory and anti-carcinogenic as well as anti-oxidant. We must focus on these as a Nation. Corn fed cow meat must cost more than pasture Eatable bugs should become common and be very inexpensive along with high nutrient vegetables. The (excise) RISK tax on sugar and refined grains would be .03 – .05 cents/gram. It is silly to use oz as this is inconsistent with what is in on the nutrition facts or worldwide and can only be easily applied to beverages. We need to subside wild salmon hatheries.

    Please work with the vegans for a RISK tax on sugar and the other unhealthy stuff. Our health care costs are unsustainable and the Standard American Diet is our leading RISK factor for chronic preventable diseases. Thank you.

    • says

      Elizabeth, I agree with most of your comments. Humans have got to stop blaming animals and nature for environmental destruction and admit, that our decisions making is the problem. There is a large amount of evidence that when humans took on agriculture and stopped hunting and gathering there was a marked decrease in health, as well as the start of land degradation, the fertile crescent which was in the Middle East is now mostly desert.
      Broad acre crop production (wheat, corn and soybean) where we have large areas of monocultures, this is bringing about the destruction of ecosystems and the major cause of land degradation. Whether it is eating a grain based diet or eating grain fed animals, it doesn’t matter the outcome is the same.

    • says

      See Ann’s reference to Joel Salatin’s rebuttal of McMichael’s silly editorial. You’re still hanging on to the wrong presuppositions. And if you’re still not convinced check with one of the experts in the field of grass land management professor Dr Peter Ballerstedt. The issue of sustainability may not be able to be solved because we have progressed too far down the road of agricultural self destruction, but at least don’t blame the cows. Also the issue of meat is only correct in so far as you mean grainfed and raised. Even on pasture with the ‘Neandertaler management practices you’re missing the point. Mob stock grazing means high energy grass not high protein grass. Which means more fat with your steak. We need the fat more than the protein.

  5. Kate Kruesi says

    I’m in total accord with your arguments and appreciate your viewing the “big picture” in your varied posts. So much of our research (needed testing to clarify understandings) is viewed through narrow prisms rendering the conclusions verging on useless.

    Re: the political correctness of “red meat”, having grown up raising our own grass fed meat (am almost 60), I’ve always wondered what the big picture statistics of methane generation from ruminants would have been back in the day of multiple vast herds of ruminants roaming our continents (pick your continent: e.g. bison and elk for North America), compared to our contemporary herds of “red meat ruminants”. Total wild guess, but I bet there is less ruminant generated methane now?

    Similar inquiry: having smelled whale breath expired right next to a whale watch tour boat, and knowing there were MANY more larger pods of whales in all the ocean habitat around the world (far exceeding our land mass), is there complete misdirection in blaming “red meat” animals as contributing to global warming??

    Just wondering.

  6. says

    None of this surprises me. I appreciate your willingness to acquiesce to the fact that research doesn’t necessarily say much emphatically about either position, but honestly, does any thinking person really believe that cows are bad for the environment? Did any of our ancestors have major issues with cows? Are we really so hypocritical in our thinking that we say cows are an environmental negative while we read this sitting on an airplane (as I am) or riding in our car in a sea of other cars? Mankind has truly gone nuckin’ futs, and it’s all Mother Nature’s fault.

  7. says

    Although I agree with what you say and reference Chris, I would like to add, there is a science to this all. Google Dr Peter Ballerstedt and you will get an idea what I mean. What Pete doesn’t mention though is how it came about that we ‘lost’ the knowledge. When the sat fat craze hit, farmers were no longer paid by the fat content of the milk but by the protein content. In order to get higher protein in the milk you feed the cows young grass which is high in protein but fairly low in energy. The plant has the highest energy content just when it begins to bloom. After pollination that energy is turned into seed, and most plants go dormant. You want your ruminants to hit the pasture at that high energy fiber stage. Ruminants turn -through an interesting set of stomachs- this high energy fiber into fat, because, believe it or not but cows live on fat.
    However this is not the end of the story, and only the beginning of why ruminants are so important for our survival . As you undoubtedly know : As above so below. All plants, trees etc. have a balance between what is above and what is below the ground. When some of the top growth is removed, the plant of necessity sheds some of its root system. Earthworms live on this and turn it into fertile soil. This is how the buffalo built the several feet of top soil over the centuries, which we have sent down the river and into thin air with our agricultural practices. Mismanagement.
    Pete will also tell you that cows are carbon negative.
    So mob stocking is not something that might not work in some places. If it does not somebody is not doing it properly. This is not your regular rotational grazing. And neither is it ranching which is a completely irresponsible use of grass lands.
    Don’t blame a good system when you don’t know what you are doing.

  8. Ann says

    It’s not just the careful management of animals on pasture, it is also about building up the fertility of the land and promoting the right mix of grasses. See Rebecca Hoskin’s hauntingly beautiful film A Farm for the Future. I put this in the category: “We could be doing things so differently!”

    • angelyne says

      I really enjoyed that video. At first it started out with a lot of the usual hand-ringing about the end of dependable, cheap oil and I was getting a bit impatient. But the latter half of the video is where things get interesting. I love how she discovers that tilling the soil is one of the more destructive innovation of agriculture. As for so many other things, we got away with it for a long time. It kills the soil. We are getting away with it because we are using fossil fuel to compensate for killing the soil. The concept of a garden forest blew my blind, as I had never heard of it before. And I love how she says that we will need to overcome our addiction to wheat, for you can’t grow wheat in a garden forest. Interesting how so many people are brainwashed into thinking meat is bad for you and raising beef is unsustainable, when wheat is one of the worse culprit (along with corn and soy).

  9. says

    Thanks Chris you made some good points. I managed livestock just as Allan Savory talked about, and yes I had all the positive outcomes he talked about and have visit farms in many parts of the world practicing holistic management.
    I would like to add a few points if I could. 70% of the agricultural land of the world is unfit to grow crops and or vegetables etc. 60% of a cows dung and urine is basically fertiliser, urine has plant growth stimulants in it. The reason why, is that grazing animals evolved or millions of years with grass plants. You take grass away from animals and they will die of starvation and if you take animals away (lock up areas) form grass it will too die over time because it is not being stimulated by grazing and fertilised etc. Overgrazing of landscapes is not due to too many grazing animals, it is due to plants being exposed too long to grazing animals, as plants aren’t given the chance to recover after being grazed. Allan’s holistic grazing methods mimic just what has been going on for thousands and even possibly millions of years. On the point of methane research is Australia in recent years show there may not be a net increase in methane in a healthy well managed pasture situation. This would make sense nature cycling nutrients.
    And health wise there is a massive difference in nutrients between grain fed and grass fed meat.

  10. Tyler Wood says

    As was mentioned, Joel Salatin is a living example of doing this correctly in the U.S., adding nearly a foot of soil to his landscape over the past 40 years, using cattle as the driving factor. He’s got a lot of great points in his book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” – from chickens attached to every kitchen in American, compost piles, grey water re-use, & solariums attached to every house, he is all about being sustainable and nurturing the land.

  11. Maggie says

    I bought 40 acres of land in 2004 in Northern California where cattle had been grazing since the sixties. In 2004 it was a large green field leading up to a ridge. Now, with no cattle grazing since 2004, about a quarter of the area is now marshland and still rapidly expanding.

  12. Beth says

    For about the last six or seven years I’ve been purchasing delicious, nutritious 100% grass fed/ grass finished beef from trusted local farms that practice rotational grazing to restore and rejuvenate the land and grasses. I will never go back since this is better for the farms, better for us, and better for the environment.

    I recently sent a friend the link to your Red Meat Special Report collection of articles and it inspired her to go out and buy a couple of steaks! Will you be adding these environmental impact articles to that list?

  13. Cecil Graber says

    Tim makes a good point. Fifteen percent of the land area in the United States is suitable for crop production while 30 percent is suitable for grazing. These percentages have become somewhat distorted because high grain prices have caused some marginal land to be converted to crop production. This practice will be detrimental to the land in the long run.

  14. Paul says

    First, great article. I am a sustainability major at Arizona State University so I have done a bit of reading on these topics. However, I will add the disclaimer that I am very very far from an expert on them. Some other things to consider when speaking about the environmental damage caused by feedlots is what damage their diet does to the environment.

    Feedlot beef is fed on a diet of mostly #2 commodity corn (which they are not able to digest as they are ruminants) the same as we find in our Hot Pockets, McDonalds, and corn syrups. The growing of this #2 corn is massively harmful to the environment as they are covered in fertilizers mostly ammonium nitrates (Yes, the same used to make explosives) and pesticides. These convert to nitrites that seep in ground water and run off pollutes steams and oceans.

    In addition, it takes somewhere around 50 gallons of fossil fuel to grow one acre of this corn that is then fed to cattle. When we could easily use the sun as our source of fuel for food not only is it more environmentally healthy it produces calories at around a 2 to 1 ratio compared to fossil fuels. This is also leaving out how much pollution the feedlots produce. The million gallon sewage lagoons, piles of deceased cattle, and deadly pathogens created from living in horrible conditions. Its not great for the environment when a river floods near a feedlot and takes everything in that sewage lagoon with it.
    The solution is (MIG) management intensive grazing. Short page on MIG here from the University of Georgia. They can explain it much better than I.
    http://www.caes.uga.edu/topics/sustainag/grazing/

    Things to check out are Joel Salatin owner of Polyface Farms, he is a gentleman that raises grass-fed beef, chickens, eggs, turkeys, pigs, etc. with basically no environmental damage what so ever. Short video of him not only is he an intelligent man but quite interesting as well. He is probably the most outspoken person on the benefits of MIG.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nIcfh2UqV8

    Also, check out Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivores Dilemma. Also, movies like King Corn, Fresh, and Food inc. are a good place to start if you want to learn more.
    I could go on forever but I will leave it at that and will apologize as this is poorly written but as a sustainability major I thought it was kind of my duty to stay something about this.

    • Angelyne says

      I’d like to correct your point on Joel Salatin of Polyface farm. It’s not enough to say that he is not causing any environmental damage. I think it’s important to point out that he has RESTORED the land. When his father brought the farm, many years ago, it was used up, depleted. Almost nothing grew there.Now it’s lush and verdant.

  15. says

    Leaving aside the fact that grass fed beef just plain tastes better.
    .A lot of cattle grazing takes place on land that due to it’s rough or rocky geography would never be suitable for agriculture.

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