As we become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of our food choices, we find ourselves looking for ways to minimize this impact. This can be a daunting task when we consider the prevalence of terms like “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “sustainable.” It can be difficult to distinguish between a marketing ploy and a legitimate ecological analysis.
A common characteristic of products that are called “eco-friendly,” “green” and “sustainable” is that they are typically less environmentally devastating in one or more ways than their conventional counterparts (at least, that’s the hope). For example, a hybrid-electric car is slightly more environmentally friendly than its entirely fossil-fueled counterpart, but the production, use and disposal of a new car is always extremely impactful on the environment. Compare any car to a bicycle and now we’re talking. On a finite planet with finite resources, and several ecosystems on the brink of collapse, embracing only pseudo-sustainability is disconcerting.
So let’s take a moment to examine one of the food choices people often make in the hopes of being more “sustainable”: grass-fed beef.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Sustainable?
One such practice that is touted for its sustainability is grass-fed beef. Supporters of grass-fed beef see it as a more environmentally friendly and humane alternative to factory farming. They point to the resources saved by not producing and transporting grain as feed, lower fossil fuel use, lower pesticide and antibiotic use, less pollution, and less suffering for animals (while they are being raised).
While there are some ways in which pasture-raising animals is preferable to factory farming, the following considerations call into question whether it’s a direction we should support in our attempt to create a truly sustainable present and future.
Climate scientists are continually demonstrating the connections between raising livestock and global warming. A report published by the World Watch Institute in 2009 revealed that greenhouse gases produced by livestock comprise 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the well-known UN report from 2006, puts the entire transportation sector at 13 percent.
Methane gas, the gas produced most intensely by livestock, traps 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a five year period. Here’s the kicker: grass-fed cows produce 40 to 60 percent more methane gas than grain-fed ones and use more water and land. This means that the shift to this kind of feeding actually results in more greenhouse gases that cause global warming. This is due in part to the fact that grass is harder to digest than grain and in part because grass-fed cattle are kept around for a longer period of time, resulting in more methane and respiratory emissions.
The good news is that methane also leaves the atmosphere within a decade, whereas carbon dioxide takes several decades or even centuries. This means that a drastic shift away from raising livestock offers a very real hope that we can curb global warming.
To some, grass-fed has become synonymous with humane, but in reality, the grass-fed label itself offers no guarantee of humane treatment. While open-grazing animals will avoid some of the horrors of factory farming, particularly those associated with confinement, they are still subject to some degree of inhumane treatment. This can include castration and branding without anesthesia, artificial insemination, electric prodding in and out of transport trucks on the trip to the slaughterhouse, the fear and anxiety of transport, and ultimately unnecessary slaughter. As compassionate people, it is worth investigating what various animal product labels actually mean for the animals. It is also worth questioning if even the highest level of humane certification can justify the breeding and killing of animals for our own purposes when it is not necessary to do so.
An additional consequence of raising free-range, open grazing animals that is often overlooked is the significant loss of wildlife and native species in order to protect livestock from predators. Designating particular areas as grazing grounds for particular animals requires that we impose a particular kind of growth on a naturally diverse region. Wolves and wild horses are common targets for those seeking to protect their trade.
Animals vs. Plants
As Dr. Richard Oppenlander has stated, the sustainability issues we face in relation to animal agriculture are not a modern-factory-farming-issue but a raising-animals-to-eat issue. Regardless of how they are raised, the emissions, and the water, land, and crop needs of animals are always far greater than those of plants. An acre filled with kale and quinoa can yield 15,000 pounds of food and an acre of potatoes can yield 40,000 pounds. Compare this with a maximum of 400 pounds for cows, and food choice in terms of relative sustainability becomes quite clear.
Unlike grass-fed cattle that eat plants and produce carbon dioxide throughout their lifecycle, plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and add oxygen during theirs. The most environmentally sound way to eat is as low on the food chain as possible.
A 2013 study published in Climatic Change found that the total dietary emissions for vegans in the U.K. are, at most, half of the dietary emissions for those who eat animal products. This means that if the human population of seven billion ate a plant-based diet, emissions would be the equivalent of 3.5 billion people – the population of the world in 1968 – eating a diet that includes animal products.
Relative Sustainability: Finite Planet, Finite Resources
Livestock currently use over 45 percent of the entire landmass of earth, and only 9 percent of these animals are pasture-raised. It takes anywhere from 1 to 25 acres to raise one cow and the fact that 1 to 12 acres of rainforest are clear-cut every second to make room for more animal agriculture means that we do not have the land to support this kind of food system. A global vision of sustainability will take into account arable land availability, water availability, and greenhouse gas emissions in relation to human population and its projected growth.
A very small percentage of people can be sustained on grass-fed animal products, and this neither means that they are sustainable nor environmentally friendly. A finite planet with finite resources, a growing population, and the interconnected nature of life on earth require that we choose the most minimally impactful foods and carefully defend a true notion of sustainability.
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