At least since the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, environmentalists have worried about the consequences of meat eating. Raising livestock is resource-intensive, often polluting, and, as we are beginning to learn, a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also one of the ways we’ve fed ourselves for millennia. So can a meat-inclusive diet be reconciled with ecosystem protection? Rancher-attorney Nicolette Hahn Niman says yes. Lindsay Rajt, a campaigner for PETA, isn’t so sure.
Animals Are Essential to Sustainable Food
by Nicolette Hahn Niman
As senior attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, Nicolette Hahn Niman sought to improve conditions at livestock operations. Today she and her husband Bill, founder of Niman Ranch, raise grass-based cattle, heirloom turkeys, and goats. She is the author of the book Righteous Porkchop.
A chorus of impassioned criticism has been rising against meat and dairy consumption. Many of the critics identify themselves as environmentalists. Their vehemence has been stoked by several reports, most notably one from the United Nations, documenting that animal farming is contributing to climate change, depleting and polluting groundwater, and poisoning rivers and streams. These reports are timely and necessary. But they cannot rightly be used to bolster arguments that farm animals should be scrubbed from our landscapes. The data indict only inappropriate practices in raising animals, not animal farming per se. The prevailing industrial methods differ radically from traditional land stewardship and animal husbandry. The most environmentally sustainable food production mimics nature in all its complexity—and animals are an essential component.
Today’s debate over livestock is characterized by oversimplified rhetoric. In one corner, agribusiness implacably (and ineffectively) defends the status quo; in the other, vegan activists urge total abolition of animal farming. Their fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century, 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. The number of animals slaughtered in the United States has grown substantially over the past century: It’s doubled for cattle; increased seven-fold for swine; and skyrocketed fifty-fold for chickens.
From an environmental perspective, the concentration of animals is more problematic than the total number. America’s farm animals were once widely dispersed, living in moderate herds and flocks, their manure effectively recycling nutrients, an invaluable part of the farm’s economy and ecology. Today, they are densely concentrated in massive populations, often far from where their feed is grown. The average hog herd, for example, has gone from 15 in 1900 to 766 in 2002. Many modern chicken and hen flocks number over a million birds. In this setup animals are separated from the land and crops, creating soil infertility and erosion on the farm and air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system wildly out of balance.
This imbalance is what aggravates global warming. The U.N. report blames 18 percent of global warming on livestock. But very little of that has any connection to well-managed traditional, grass-based animal farming. For starters, 48 percent of it is from land-use changes, mostly clearing of forests (for grazing and growing feed crops) in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries. The United States, however, is not expanding croplands. In U.S. farming, most CO2 releases come from fuel burned for vehicles, equipment, and machinery. Smaller, traditional American farms have low CO2 emissions because they keep their animals outdoors on pasture and use little machinery.
Livestock farming also plays a role in nitrous oxide emissions – about five percent of US greenhouse gases. But more than three-quarters of agriculture’s NO2 emissions are from manmade fertilizers. Thus, animal farming that doesn’t need fertilized crops creates little NO2. Using animal manure mitigates the need for commercial fertilizers.
As for methane, there are two types. Much methane caused by animal farming comes from manure lagoons at industrial facilities. Other methane (“enteric emissions”) is generated from animal digestive tracts, particularly of ruminants like cattle, and can be reduced by dietary supplementation and rotating grazing pastures.
It’s important to note that there were plenty of animal enteric emissions in this country long before the arrival of cattle. Prior to European colonization, enormous herds of large ruminants covered the continent, including an estimated 10 million elk and as many as 75 million bison. “The moving multitude … darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.
And we shouldn’t forget that all food has global warming impacts. Wetland rice fields account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. Researchers in Sweden discovered that the carbon footprint of a carrot varied by a factor of 10, depending on how and where it was produced. Singling out meat’s climate impact makes no sense.
Traditional animal farming also has environmental benefits. Recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock actually lessen global warming because their vegetation and soils effectively act as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture sequesters significant amounts of carbon. Perennial pastures can decrease soil erosion by up to 80 percent and improve water quality, according to the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project. Even the U.N. report notes, “There is growing evidence that both cattle ranching and pastoralism can have positive impacts on biodiversity.”
The Kansas-based Land Institute agrees. The institute has presented the Obama administration with a 50-Year Farm Bill that proposes increases in perennial crops and permanent pasture. “We see future herbaceous perennial grain producing polycultures being managed through fire and grazing, just as the native prairie was ‘managed,’” Institute President Wes Jackson told me. “The large grazer on grassland has always been an integral part of the system here in North America.”
Solving what ails agriculture must entail reducing the total number of animals raised and returning animals to the land, where they belong. A study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded that with moderate reductions in Western meat eating, we could easily feed the world in 2050 using grass-based, humane farming methods.
Environmentalists are rightly angry about the industrialized livestock sector. But eliminating all animal husbandry is like taking axes to apple trees—it wouldn’t work. Worse still, it would make the most environmentally appropriate farming impossible.
There's No Reason to Eat Animals
by Lindsay Rajt
A vegetarian since her teenage years, Lindsay Rajt manages grassroots campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Rajt has coordinated campaigns targeting KFC’s “torture” of chickens as well as the treatment of horses at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
If we care about the environment and believe that kindness is a virtue—as we all say that we do—vegan diet is the only sensible option. The question becomes: Why eat animals at all?
Animals are made of flesh, bone, and blood, just as you and I are. They form friendships, feel pain and joy, grieve for lost loved ones, and are afraid to die. One cannot profess to care about animals while tearing them away from their friends and families and cutting their throats—or paying someone else to do it—simply to satisfy a fleeting taste for flesh.
What does it say about us that we’re willing to give animals a safe pasture and freedom from suffering only to betray them by killing and eating them in the end? Nicolette Hahn Niman argues in her recent book that it’s acceptable to raise animals for food as long as they are treated humanely and killed quickly. But we wouldn’t extend that philosophy to dogs, cats, or children. The inconsistency means that eating animals simply cannot be justified.
Niman assures consumers that the animals at the ranch that she manages with her husband, Bill Niman, have a “good life and an easy death.” This likely conjures up images of pigs frolicking together, getting belly rubs and playing in mud puddles while turkeys strut about, gobbling along to music and eating fresh corncobs, melons, and grapes until they’re peacefully euthanized at a ripe old age. Think again. While the animals at BN Ranch may have a better life and may face an easier death than the animals killed for Smithfield or Butterball, “good” is not an accurate description. What kind of good life ends at age 12, which is the human equivalent of the oldest non-breeding animals on farms such as hers? Niman’s arguments are similar to those of slaveholders who advocated treating slaves more kindly but did not actually want to abolish slavery.
Ultimately, it’s not our farming practices that need to change—it’s our diets. As Niman knows, we cannot use only pastureland to produce the amount of meat that is currently consumed in this country. Approximately 10 billion cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are killed for food each year in the United States alone. The sheer number of animals killed to satisfy people’s taste for flesh makes it impossible to raise and slaughter them all on small family farms.
Claiming that meat eating can be ethical or eco-friendly tends to pacify people who want to feel as if they are doing the right thing but don’t want to stop eating meat. Yet raising and killing animals is neither moral nor green. As Niman knows, meat production is resource-intensive and plays a role in nearly every major environmental problem, including climate change.
Animal agriculture is one of the world’s largest sources of CO2 and the largest source of methane, which is more than 23 times more powerful than CO2 when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Research by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, the authors of Livestock and Climate Change, indicates that raising animals for food produces 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. Of course, animals on feedlots produce more greenhouse gasses than pasture-raised animals, but all farmed animals produce methane while digesting food, and their feces also emit methane.
One of the world’s leading authorities on climate change—Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and himself a vegetarian—believes that everyone in the developed world should consume a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons. According to Pachauri, “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.” The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has reported that climate change mitigation costs could be reduced by 80 percent if everyone around the globe went vegan.
Meat consumption is also a major contributor to food shortages. There would be more food to go around if more people went vegan because many staple crops are fed to farmed animals instead of to hungry people. This is especially wasteful considering that animals can only turn a small fraction of that food into flesh. It takes about 700 calories worth of feed to produce just one piece of 100-calorie beef.
More food can be grown on a given parcel of land when we aren’t funneling crops through animals. Vegfam, which funds sustainable plant-food projects, estimates that a 10-acre farm can support 60 people by growing soy, 24 people by growing wheat, or 10 people by growing corn—but only two by raising cattle.
The United Nations’ special envoy on food says that it’s a “crime against humanity” to funnel 100 million tons of grain and corn into ethanol while nearly 1 billion people are starving. So how much more of a crime is it to divert 756 million tons of grain and corn per year—plus 98 percent of the 225-million-ton global soy crop—to farmed animals? With 1.4 billion people living in dire poverty, reserving these harvests for animal forage is tantamount to stealing food out of people’s mouths.
Meat production is inefficiency at its worst. When you factor in all the water squandered on animal agriculture and all the fossil fuels needed to operate slaughterhouses and processing plants and to transport meat from the plants to the stores—not to mention the air and water pollution that results from it all—you’ll understand why it just makes sense not to eat animals. As Niman—who herself has been a vegetarian for years—can tell you, one can live quite healthily and happily without eating animals.
This debate appears in the Spring 2010 print issue of the Earth Island Journal and on the Earth Island Institute website.