Eating grass-fed beef for environmentalism’s sake is like driving a hybrid hummer.
This study is a must-read for anyone concerned with food politics. It’s one of the only studies done on the issue. Abstract and full text are available here: Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States
For those not into the technical language of scientific articles, here are the basic findings:
1) Food miles are not an accurate way to measure a food’s ecological footprint. Transportation of food accounts for only about 15 percent of its ecological footprint.
2)Production, storage, whether a food is animal or plant, non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions, scale, and other factors account for about 83 percent.
3) An accurate picture of a food’s environmental impact needs to include all those aspects and that can be done much more throroughly with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Movements for ecological sustainability would fare much better if they used the LCA instead of the food miles model.
4) It is impossible to do an all-encompassing study on the climate impact of food. This study is based on the “average” US household. Unmeasurable factors might play a role in many situations. Despite, these findings point to critical issues regarding diet and ecology.
5.) For the average household, eating vegan food one day a week achieves more of a reduction in environmental degredation than eating local animal products every day. Or, more precisely: “The results of this analysis show that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”
I look forward to more work being done on this, and more conversation being had.
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.
Buy local, shrink the distance food travels, save the planet. The locavore movement has captured a lot of fans. To their credit, they are highlighting the problems with industrialized food. But a lot of them are making a big mistake. By focusing on transportation, they overlook other energy-hogging factors in food production. Take lamb. A 2006 academic study (funded by the New Zealand government) discovered that it made more environmental sense for a Londoner to buy lamb shipped from New Zealand than to buy lamb raised in the U.K. This finding is counterintuitive–if you’re only counting food miles. But New Zealand lamb is raised on pastures with a small carbon footprint, whereas most English lamb is produced under intensive factory-like conditions with a big carbon footprint. This disparity overwhelms domestic lamb’s advantage in transportation energy. New Zealand lamb is not exceptional. Take a close look at water usage, fertilizer types, processing methods and packaging techniques and you discover that factors other than shipping far outweigh the energy it takes to transport food. One analysis, by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed that transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s carbon footprint. A fourth of the energy required to produce food is expended in the consumer’s kitchen. Still more energy is consumed per meal in a restaurant, since restaurants throw away most of their leftovers. Locavores argue that buying local food supports an area’s farmers and, in turn, strengthens the community. Fair enough. Left unacknowledged, however, is the fact that it also hurts farmers in other parts of the world. The U.K. buys most of its green beans from Kenya. While it’s true that the beans almost always arrive in airplanes–the form of transportation that consumes the most energy–it’s also true that a campaign to shame English consumers with small airplane stickers affixed to flown-in produce threatens the livelihood of 1.5 million sub-Saharan farmers.
Another chink in the locavores’ armor involves the way food miles are calculated. To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon. The one big problem with thinking beyond food miles is that it’s hard to get the information you need. Ethically concerned consumers know very little about processing practices, water availability, packaging waste and fertilizer application. This is an opportunity for watchdog groups. They should make life-cycle carbon counts available to shoppers. Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef. That difference translates into big differences in inputs. It requires 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow a tomato. A majority of the water in the American West goes toward the production of pigs, chickens and cattle. The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you’ll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer.
If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.
*Has anyone read his book, Just Food? Thoughts? I’m going to look into it. -cz