Reality checks: grass-fed beef

Reality checks: grass-fed beef. Lots of this is sprinkled throughout our blog, but here we’ve tried to consolidate it into one post.

1. There is no such thing as “humane” animal agriculture. The dichotomy between “humane” and “inhumane” animal farming is uncritical and false. There is terribly inhumane animal agriculture, as we all know, on factory farms. Then there is a range of less terribly inhumane, but still inhumane, animal agriculture taking place on organic, “free range”, “grass-fed”, local, and permaculture farms. “Free range” doesn’t mean anything; it is a marketing word that has no established standard, and no inspection agency monitors “free range” farms. “Free range” farms often connote farms on which thousands of animals are packed into factories or other structures, never allowed outside–it’s just that there are no cages or bars. Most free-range, organic, and local farms, even the least inhumane of them, send their animals to factory slaughterhouses for their death, as per animal slaughter legal regulations. Similarly, “grass-fed”, “organic”, “permaculture”, and “local” imply nothing about how an animal is treated and do not account for animal interests beyond what humans want. Even at their least inhumane, such as farms on which animals live much of their lives outside, some or all of the following are always taking place: animals are bred to be docile and held captive; they are impregnated against their will over and over for life so that they stay pregnant for milk and eggs; they are forced to give birth and have their bodily products and their babies taken from them; they are hooked up to machines and “rape racks”; they are violently slaughtered, often by humans who they came to trust and depend on; they are capitalist commodities; they are conceived of only in relation to their use for humans and reduced to the status of objects and instruments.

2. Animal agriculture does not magically stop being the major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined in its emission of greenhouse gasses, when done locally. Global warming is not simply a problem of factory farms. It is a problem of local and organic animal agriculture, animal permaculture, and all other animal farming. The number of animals needed to feed humans by any farming method is literally tens of billions per year. In fact, pasture-raised animals have a higher carbon footprint per pound than factory farmed ones. They emit two to four times as much methane, one of the deadliest of greenhouse gases, than feedlot animals. This fact severely complicates arguments about eating local animal food vs. non-local vegan food, yet is generally ignored by local-vores. 

3. Animal agriculture does not magically stop being a major cause of unnecessary water and resource use when done locally. Those billions of animals need to drink water, and, depending on the exact type of farming, use a range of fossil fuels and electricity to be merely kept alive. The average meat-based diet requires fifteen times more water than a plant-based diet. Again, there’s nothing about local, organic, and/or grazed animals that significantly changes this fact.  

4. There is no necessary connection between renewal of topsoil and animal grazing; there never has been. Non-animal methods of topsoil renewal include, and are far from limited to, composting, green manure, humanure, crop rotation, ley farming, organic plant material covers, cultivation of legumes, and on and on. Livestock are not necessary for sustainable farming. Veganic farming and permaculture is a widely established and thriving practice. 

5. “Sustainable” animal agriculture uses up to twice the amount of land than factory farming. “Sustainable” animal agriculture destroys land and ecosystems. Creation of the massive amounts of land for grazing animals requires mass deforestation and destruction of species, resulting in unspeakable damage to ecosystems. Grazing animals, especially cows, trample land and, contrary to the claims of many local-vores, are responsible for much destruction of topsoil. In some places in the American Midwest, for instance, land previously used for grazing has been rendered useless.

Animals Australia writes: “In Australia, 58% of the land is used for agriculture and principally for grazing animals and the production of crops used in animal feed. Worldwide, livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), ‘the number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice down to 1 and 2 people respectively for beef and lamb’. To create grazing land, trees and vegetation must be cleared, and habitats must be destroyed. Livestock trample or eat any remaining native vegetation. According to many experts on desertification, the Sahara Desert—a once lush and fertile region—was caused by slashing and burning, primarily for animal grazing—the same method used throughout the world today, and now being used in the Amazon.”

John Robbins writes: “Even with U.S. beef cattle today spending the last half of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. Just about the only land that isn’t grazed is in places that for one reason or another can’t be used by livestock—inaccessible areas, dense forests and brushlands, the driest deserts, sand dunes, extremely rocky areas, cliffs and mountaintops, cities and towns, roads and parking lots, airports, and golf courses. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, ‘Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.’ Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems. The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry.

7. No matter what kind of meat-eating it is, it destroys more animal and plants than veganism. The majority of corn, soy, and grainstuffs produced in the world go towards feeding animals for meat diets, not vegetarians and vegans. Even when corn, soy, and grain are taken out of the equation, pasture farming is responsible for a level of destruction of ecosystems that is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. All meat and dairy require mass amounts of land and plants in order to exist.

8. Even the most sustainable animal agriculture would literally require mass human die offs. There is simply not enough land to feed all people on this model of food production. “Sustainable” animal agriculture can accommodate only a privileged minority of humans. Lierre Keith’s analysis, and similar ones, do not account for dietary racism, classism, and sexism. They do not account for food access in urban areas. When we begin to calculate the numbers regarding how much land would be needed to feed cities on even the most sustainable animal diet, the numbers become completely absurd. A convenient Derrick Jensen-flavored paleofantasy about undoing cities and reversing civilization is interesting, but completely useless when trying to navigate, in the complicated real world, how exactly to solve problems of food production in light of capitalism, racism, imperialism, sexism, classism, and war. Our pretty fantasies of a keeping a “sustainable” animal farm in our yard, or supporting all of the local “humane” farmers, are impossible to bring to fruition once we start considering how many people live in the world, who does and doesn’t have access to resources, and why. Of course, sustainable vegan agriculture does not solve these problems of overpopulation and mass social disparities, and as long as food production and the economy are pervaded by capitalism, we are in serious trouble. But compared to animal agriculture, veganic agriculture massively reduces waste of resources and ecological destruction, and creates inherently less expensive foods (made falsely expensive by government subsidies of animal agriculture and big corporations).

9. Even where grass-fed beef has benefits over factory farming, they are hugely trumped by the benefits of reducing or eliminating animal foods from your diet.

Some resources:

Humane Myth: Encouraging Truth, Transparency, and Integrity in Animal Advocacy

Five Myths About Grass Fed Beef

Beware of the Myth of Grass-Fed Beef: Cows Raised At Pasture Are Not Immune to E. Coli bacteria

Animal Aid’s Slaughterhouse Investigation Debunks “Humane Meat” Myth

Discovery News: Grass-fed beef has bigger carbon footprint

9 Responses to Reality checks: grass-fed beef

  1. Kirsten says:

    I’m reading The Vegetarian Myth right now, and have been looking at all of the information about this book as is possible on the internet. Here I came across your blog. I am not on one side or the other. I’m just trying to get as much information as I can. So, I wanted to ask you about Point #8 because I just read on pg. 132 of the book Keith’s acknowledgment that not all sustainable animal agriculture or even non-agricultural cultures are egalitarian. Meaning she acknowledges the injustices in all civilizations. I just thought that this should be a relevant thing to mention as she is, in this section, acknowledging that even sustainable animal agriculture is unjust. How much of a solution she has to offer, I’m yet to find out, but your point that vegan agriculture (though vegan agriculture doesn’t really exist because in order to grow healthy vegetables, lots of living things in the soil wound up getting killed… :() “massively reduces waste of resources and ecological destruction, and creates inherently less expensive foods” definitely might be true. But when compared to small-scall animal agriculture is this true too? Lots of questions…too little time.

    • Lots of questions, indeed. Keith briefly acknowledges that she doesn’t have a perfect answer, but the rest of the points we’ve brought up here– which address issues that are inherent to all animal agriculture, it doesn’t matter the size– are basically avoided by Keith and her friends. My personal experience of reading the book is she is unwilling to truly grapple with the issues of animal agriculture, and that she is opting for a simplistic and utopian view of eating because she couldn’t figure out how to be a healthy vegan. Otherwise she would be taking an honest look at vegan permaculture (she states it doesn’t exist, which is a falsehood) and other thriving vegan practices.

      No agriculture is “sustainable” because living in a world with this many humans is not a sustainable situation. Additionallly, as you’ve mentioned, no agriculture, even the most sustainable plant agriculture, can’t escape hurting creatures. But the way to most minimize impact is local plant agriculture. Local animal agriculture is better, in some ways, than factory farming. But it’s still massively destructive in ways, on a level, that plant agriculture simply isn’t. I look at it in terms of it’s not what extreme you’re at, it’s what direction you’re going in. It’s about minimizing impact. Even the most sustainable meat diets don’t minimize impact in terms of global warming, land destruction, and waste of resources. Keith’s writing is not critical or scientific, it’s polemic and editorial. There is a really big difference between the former and the latter. If she were really concerned with an analysis of agriculture practices, she would devote whole chapters to veganic and plant agriculture, she would talk about global warming and methane, local/pasture raised animals and ecosystem destruction etc. Instead, she either glosses over those issues, gives them lip servies, or flat out denies/ignores them. You won’t get a real analysis from her book– you need to look elsewhere. I suppose that’s the main reason we write in this blog, to try and balance out what we consider her dangerously off-center arguments, to give the info she’s leaving out.

      Not enough time is right :)

  2. Kirsten says:

    Hi, Thank you for your super-quick and full response! I need to read it more carefully when I have a better moment.
    ~Kirsten

  3. [...] of veganism. Often these ideas leave out veganism’s critical and real connections to ecology, capitalism, gender, racism, and human rights in general. Lierre Keith represents just one of a [...]

  4. Ryan says:

    Rice production is currently the largest single agricultural producer of methane @ 20%.
    In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we should honestly look at the insane amount of carbon dioxide that deforestation and the tilled agriculture of soy and grain is creating, for both animal and human consumption.
    It is worth acknowledging for transparency and honesty that as Nicolette Hahn Niman points out in her NY Times article “It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.” Nothing so cut and dry huh?
    Check out her article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/opinion/31niman.html

  5. Ryan,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have a few responses. First off, after reading that article, it’s clear that most of her analysis regarding vegetarians limits itself to vegetarians who a) eat lots of soy and b) don’t eat any local or organic foods. This is one of the problems with analyses like hers and many others: the false dichotomy between “sustainable” meat -eating diets and “unsustainable” vegetarian diets. There are many vegetarians who eat little to no soy, and there are many vegetarians who are “locavores” or try to be extremely conscious of eating organic food. Not so cut and dry, huh. It’s entirely possible to engage in vegetarian and veganic agriculture in the sustainable ways she talks about– minus the animals. This dichotomy is repeated and repeated by so many people and it really needs to be challenged. So I remain unconvinced, in that regard, of the crux of her argument.

    Secondly, rice production as the largest emitter of methane: I would really like to see an original source on this statistic, and the details of how this number was arrived at. Are those rice producers using animal fertilizer from animal farms when they could be using any number of the non-animal fertilization/topsoil reproduction methods that exist? If so, what would the methane number look like if they were using plant-based methods? We need this kind of info to really get at that number. In any case, pasture-raised animals create 2 to 4 times as much methane as factory farmed animals. I hardly see how this is a “sustainable meat alternative” especially when one could be eating sustainable vegetarian alternatives.

    Thirdly, no matter which way you cut it, animal agriculture is responsible for wasting more land than plant agriculture. Grazing land (as opposed to factory farms) now takes up one-third of the land in the United States! In fact, grazing and “sustainable” animal farming methods are responsible for much more deforestation, habitat destruction, and trampling of healthy topsoil than factory farming. And these “sustainable” farms generally let mammals live longer to get to maximum killing weight, so these animals are actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emission (per animal) than those on than factory farms. It’s not just the machinery that creates greenhouse gas emissions.

    Fourthly, no matter how you cut it, farmed animals use up a whole one-half of the world’s water supply.

    Fifthly, planting plant proteins such as legumes puts nitrogen back into the soil. Farming animal protein emits nitrogen in mass amounts. Animal protein is a culprit of insane amounts of nitrogen emissions.

    I know that this is an extremely complicated issue, but in light of the fact that vegetarian and veganic farming is a thriving and workable practice all over the world, I remain entirely unconvinced of the need for most of the animal farming that takes place. There are almost seven billion people in the world, which is inherently unsustainable, and no diet can truly manage that… but feeding this many humans–or even a small fraction of them– on diet of pasture-raised, local animals would require exponentially more land than exists in the world. It is estimated that, when humans were living an ecologically sustainable existence as pastoralists, there were under 100,000 humans on the earth. It is estimated that a diet of pasture-raised animal foods can feed two people per ten acres. That means that there is almost no locality on earth who can feed all of its inhabitants on this diet! I put the exclamation point there not to be annoying, but because the absurdity of the most basic numbers of animal agriculture, and the extent to which they are ignored, baffles me. If everyone started eating local, pasture raised meat and dairy today, we would have a near instantaneous ecological crisis.

    We need a new system, and it’s true that that system’s going to have to be organic, and probably local where possible (it’s not possible to eat local in all locations no matter what your diet, especially if you live in a metropolis). But all reasonable evidence seems to point to the fact that that system’s also going to have to be largely, if not entirely vegetarian.

  6. mike arias says:

    I think Thomas Jefferson may have uttered sage words two centuries earlier when he said that meat was probably best instituted into the diet as a flavoring rather than a staple. Of course, he was most probably referring to the economy of the notion rather than the sustainability issue that would crop up decades later but then again…who knows? At any rate, as with many other contemporary issues, he was on point.

  7. Mari-O in Bangkok says:

    Thank you for your site. I’m afraid that any potential legitimacy of points 1-8 were thrown into doubt by point 9:

    Even where grass-fed beef has benefits over factory farming, they are hugely trumped by the benefits of reducing or eliminating animal foods from your diet.

    I understand the ethical position against consuming animal products. But this must be seen through the prism of self-sacrifice because it is a suboptimal practice. (I would commend “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf to your attention.) In fairness, if my life were guided by the principle of preventing the slaughter of (non-human) animals I would use all tools at my disposal to accomplish this aim — including trying to prevail upon people to believe that reducing or eliminating animal foods from their diets was a marvelous health approach, regardless of whether I knew better.

    • We have covered a lot of your concerns in many other places in this blog and I don’t have the energy, to be quite honest, to reiterate my replies. For instance, in many places we go into the psuedo/nonscience behind the literature that has been written about the paleo diet. I recommend you check out some of the work we’ve done in this section: http://vegetarianmythmyth.wordpress.com/category/chapter-4/ .

      Some major points, to sum up:

      -I think you’ve misunderstood, or we have not been clear: the benefits I speak of here are environmental ones, not health. We do not generally make health arguments in this blog because a) we are not nutrition experts and b) we are advocates of animal and earth liberation first. Though I believe there is abundant evidence that meat-heavy diets are unhealthy and plant-heavy diets are healthy– as proven, really, by the mere existence of those who’ve thrived on them– that’s not really the point of this blog. In truth, I do not believe that any diet is perfect. I do not believe in any “perfection” of the human body or condition. I believe in pragmatic approaches, grounded in present reality– not false past utopias– that give us the most useful answers available.

      -The idea that grain is a completely unhealthy food is a caricature of nutrition and biology propagated largely by folks like those at the Weston Price Foundation, proponents of paleo diets (most of whom are not experts in their fields, as you can see in the in-depth analyses I’ve cited above; almost every single one of those “experts” relies heavily on references from the shamelessly ideological, anti-vegan, psudeo-scientific WAP foundation including the book you’ve mentioned here), and others whose work has been debunked by a preponderance of science from widely varied sources. For instance, if you boil grain down to its component parts, you will find much more than carbohydrates (which, according to actual scientific consensus, happen to be the basis of all energy ala glucose. If you don’t have it, your body will eat its muscles and leech nutrients from its bones, etc. Nutritionally this moves toward anorexia, not health.) You will find amino acids, B vitamins, iron among other things. Quinoa is a complete protein. Oats are chock full of iron. Etc., etc. This is such basic biology that I do not feel justified in spending any more of my time explaining it. Proponents of paleodiets are largely intellectually dishonest on these points.

      -The idea that all humans hunted and ate almost all animal products is a caricature of evolution and paleontology. It is paleofantasy, a yearning for a perfect utopian time that never existed– it is not palentology. In reality, evolution is a messy and imperfect process full of suffering and adaptation and there is no one framework that can be pinned on all humans who have evolved across so many landscapes, climates, resources, and conditions. Paleofantasies are derivative of social darwinism which any radical thinker needs to be weary of. It is the stuff of racism, sexism, eugenics, and all other power-over ideologies. To argue that something is “natural”, “necessary”, or “normal” is a line of rationalization that literally every violent ideology has employed. Please refer to “The Three Ns” in our blog for more on this. Even if our ancestors ate mainly meat and fat, this says nothing ethically about what we should and shouldn’t eat today, in a post-industrial, global capitalist world with 7 billion humans in it. A paleodiet can feed about 90,000 humans, which translates into a fractional, privileged minority. In short, it’s not only a pragmatically irrelevant framework, but it is completely uncritical. It pretends we have no choices. It lets us off the hook by pretending to have a “natural” answer. Let me pre-empt any potential retorts that I feel veganism is somehow a utopian or natural state– I don’t. I believe humans have choices and that practically and ethically, veganism, even with its imperfections, is the diet that most minimizes destruction of the earth and individual bodies.

      To use your language: in fairness, if my life were guided by the principle of some unachievable utoptian norm– whether it be that of a perfect, reverted earth or that of (arguably orthorexic) “optimal”, perfectionistic psychology of health–an unnerving, to say the least, trend that seems central to the paleodiet movement– I would use all tools at my disposal to advocate paleodiets and convince myself that unncessary meat eating was the most ethical approach, regardless of whether I knew better. The paleodiet rests on a reactionary, ideological party line, regardless of how much it claims to be representing the natural state of things.

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