My name is Wendell and I am a carnivore. If, like me, you have ever been reproached by a well-meaning vegetarian as you are cutting into a juicy steak about the nasty carbon footprint you’re creating by choosing to eat beef, I feel your pain. Cattle, we are told, have an outsized ecological footprint: They guzzle water, trample plants and soils, and consume precious grains that should be nourishing hungry humans. Lately, critics have blamed bovine burps, flatulence and even breathing for climate change. Boo beef…..
It turns out, however, that the facts on this issue aren’t nearly that clear cut. The true beauty of our bovine buddies is that they have the unique ability to take fibrous grasses and plants (inedible by humans) and convert them into delicious, healthy beef. Like Magic! So, fellow carnivores, I’ve got some good news – It’s starting to appear that, not only has the negative environmental effects of beef been overstated, but beef farming and ranching is actually GOOD for the planet!
Let’s start with climate change. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounts for about 8% of greenhouse emissions, and most of that is from crop farming. A recent report showed that about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gases can be linked to cattle with the primary concern being methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The good news is that methane emissions from cattle, now a focus of vigorous studies by agricultural colleges around the world, can be mitigated in several ways. Australian research shows that certain nutritional supplements can cut methane from cattle by half. Things as simple as good pasture management and as obscure as managing a healthy population of dung beetles have all been shown to reduce methane.
But, even if we reduce the amount of methane our cud chewing cattle emit, isn’t it still bad, but just less bad? It appears not…. Cattle, it seems, may be a key part of countering global warming: restoring carbon to the soil. Most of the world’s beef cattle are raised entirely or partially on grass and grazing acts as natural pruning, which stimulates new, vegetative growth which, in turn utilizes CO2. Also, cattle’s trampling hoofs and digestive tracts foster seed germination and nutrient recycling. Scientists call these beneficial disturbances, and are like those once caused by wild grazing herds. This goes a long way to prevent the overgrowth of woody shrubs, which can lead to increased risk of wildfires. We have only recently begun to understand that grazing cattle on range land greatly reduces the risk of wildfire and the resulting carbon emissions these large scale natural disasters produce.
Grasslands are also one of the best ways to safeguard soil and to protect water. Grasses shield soil from erosive wind and water, while roots form a mat that holds soil and water in place. Nor are cattle the voracious guzzlers of water opponents would like us to think they are – some cattle critics have thrown out figures as high as 2,500 gallons of water required to produce a pound of beef, but, more recent, unbiased research suggests that producing a typical pound of beef takes about 440 gallons of water per pound, which – wait for it – is only slightly more water than for a pound of rice—and beef is far more nutritious.
Beef production is sometimes villainized for aggravating world hunger, which is ironic since a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their survival. The reality is that, particularly in developing countries, cattle are raised on land that cannot be used for crop cultivation, and grazing livestock are an essential part of feeding a rapidly growing population.
So what about corn fed beef? While we may be able to sell the public the story that grass fed beef is good for the environment, surely the grain that we feed to livestock would be better used to directly feed people? Not so fast – Modern livestock production in North America is the first and best example of how recycling can benefit the environment. Beef, in particular utilizes many ethanol and food industry byproducts that would otherwise be wasted and are, instead, utilized as a valuable feed source. What about corn? We do feed corn to cattle – we even promote it. Corn Fed Beef is recognized as a premium, consistent product. Some of the best beef in the world are from cattle finished on a high corn ration and that’s ok too. Look at some stats from a study comparing US beef production in 1977 to 2007 – To produce the same lb of beef in today vs 30 years ago it takes 30% fewer animals, 20% less feed, 12% less water, and a whopping 33% less land! Waste output has been similarly reduced, with 18% less manure and methane produced. The bottom line is that the carbon footprint and resources required to produce an equivalent amount of beef has improved by 16% thanks to technology and advancements in farming practices.
We now have a real chance to feed a global population estimated to be 9.6 billion people by 2050 and beef will be an important part of that. So, whether you are a beef farmer or one of the millions of people who enjoys a good steak, stand up and say with pride – I am a carnivore AND an environmentalist.