The “eat less meat” movement is growing. Does it distort science?

01 Jan 1970

Why ranches, cattle, and meat-eating may play a role in fighting climate change.

As if the beef industry didn’t already have a bad rap, Brazil’s farmers have reportedly set the Amazon on fire to create more grazing land for the country’s booming beef industry. They are part of a global stampede to meet demand in developing markets—even as ruminant livestock, with cattle at the top of the list, take the heat for agriculture’s nearly 25 percent share of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide.

Emissions related to agriculture are a primary cause of the current climate crisis—and, as major consumers of beef, Americans carry a large share of the blame. Although the American diet has shifted away from beef toward chicken, we still eat four times as much beef per capita, on average, as the rest of the world.

The solution seems apparent: We should eat less meat. Order the beefless burger and you can save the planet, eliminate cruelty to animals and improve your health.

But a rising chorus of farming advocates says that notion gets it wrong, or at best only partly right.

“The simplified public health message is dangerous,” says Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, a sustainable livestock farming organization. “If we thought the soil, air and water could be fixed by a single solution, we’d advocate for that.”

Ariel Greenwood, who ranches in Montana and New Mexico, rejects the eat-less-meat message as short-sighted and misleading. “There are many, many ways to raise meat, and dismissing all meat as being destructive is asinine because it ignores the significant variation in production methods and ecosystems in which meat can be produced,” says Greenwood, who is also co-owner of Grass Nomads LLC, a company that helps clients sustainably manage their grasslands.

“My strongest objection to environmental and public health advocates using the slogan ‘eat less meat’ is that it is extremely alienating to farmers and ranchers,” wrote Nicolette Hahn Niman, the well-known vegetarian rancher from BN Ranch, in response to my inquiry. “We need far more intelligent conversations about climate change’s connection to food, agriculture and health.”

The Sustainable Diet Debate

When New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio announced last spring that all public schools would adopt Meatless Monday, licensed dietician and nutritionist Diana Rodgers vented on her blog. “As a dietitian, mother and someone who lives on a farm that raises organic vegetables and pasture-raised meats, I couldn’t be more frustrated.”

Anti-meat messaging is coming from “all angles,” noted Rodgers, who runs a private nutrition counseling practice in Massachusetts: the media, medical experts, international organizations and now a city government. “But the reality is, eating meat is really not the problem and giving it up could cause more harm than good.”

Rodgers, who is working on a documentary and book project called Sacred Cow: The Case for Better Meat, is one of the most outspoken opponents of meat reduction campaigns. In January, she railed against the Eat Lancet’s Commission’s “diet for planetary health,” which suggested a dramatic reduction to about 1.5 ounces of animal protein per day.  She agrees with many nutritionists who assert that meat is an irreplaceable, nutrient-dense food group, especially for children, women and at-risk populations.

“Ten percent of NYC public school students are homeless, and 75 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch,” she tells me. She sees no benefit to eliminating meat from what can otherwise be nutrient-poor, soda-rich diets. “We really need to be looking at this from an ethics, a social justice, an environmental and human nutrition perspective.”

Rodgers believes that public authorities are missing the real villain. “Red meat is now under the spotlight as the worst thing we could possibly eat for our health and for the climate,” she says. “It’s completely being scapegoated for what processed food has done to our health and what monoculture, big food ag, chemical ag have done to our environment.”

Celebrity-endorsed meat-free diets—from the kind practiced by tennis’ Williams sisters to Beyoncé’s 22-day vegan cleanse—have evolved into a global, corporate-sponsored movement to transform food. The plant-based eating guide created by the research organization World Resources Institute (WRI), Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future, for example, proposes to reduce an individual’s carbon emissions by 50 percent by limiting meat and dairy intake.

Meatlessness has never been more socially acceptable and accessible in the U.S. About 22 percent of Americans surveyed by Datassentials in 2018 considered themselves flexitarians, while seven percent reported avoiding animal products altogether.

Plant-based fast food offerings, now on the menu at restaurants like Carl’s Junior, White Castle, and, more recently, KFC, are luring meat eaters and venture capitalists alike. In the grocery store, Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms, the oldest and largest U.S. plant-based brand, which sells 90 million pounds annually of fake chicken nuggets and breakfast sausages, is going vegan. Overall, the plant-based market is projected to reach $9.2 billion by 2023.

In June, six months after his company launched a reformulated version of its non-meat Impossible Burger, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown declared his mission to end animal agriculture by 2035. “The use of animals to produce food for human consumption has long been taken for granted as an indispensable part of the global food system,” Brown wrote. “Now, finally, this disastrously resource-intensive and inefficient system is being recognized by environmentalists and, increasingly, by the public for what it is: a destructive and unnecessary technology.”

Predictably, his call to action ignited a backlash.

Frederic LeRoy, a Belgian professor of food science and biotechnology, believes that these new products mask “an extreme agenda” to make meat—already rife with cultural meaning and conflict—taboo. LeRoy, an influential critic of the anti-meat movement gathering force in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, considers meat taxes and meat bans part of a powerful, corporate-backed global food strategy. He points to WRI’s Shift Wheel as an example of the marketing efforts to influence consumer behaviors.

The great food transformation of 2019 has already invoked forecasts of the end of the beef industry, to LeRoy’s dismay. “The danger here is that the political arguments being advanced right now—meat and dairy bad, new scientific foods good—are dangerously simplistic and could have catastrophic consequences for human health and the environment,” LeRoy wrote in Sustainable Farming, a quarterly publication from A Greener World.

Writing in The Ecologist, the environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva charged Impossible Foods with launching a “desperate attempt” to lead the world toward further industrialization and commoditization of this “fake food,” which provoked the company’s communications director to fire back that animal agriculture is “the most destructive technology on Earth today.”

Georgia rancher Will Harris responded to Brown’s statement with evidence from a recent lifecycle analysis of grass-fed beef raised at his White Oak Pastures, a celebrated model of sustainable agriculture. The carbon footprint of his pasture-raised beef measured significantly less than conventional beef, chicken and even the Beyond Burger, a plant-based burger from Beyond Meat. The study, which indicated that Harris’ farm offset more carbon emissions than it produced, has inspired a new conversation about what it refers to as the “full carbon story for regenerative agriculture systems.”

Memes appeared on Twitter lambasting the labels of the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger as highly processed junk food. “Beyond Burger and all the meat analogs are just another version of highly processed foods from cheap raw ingredients that are marketed as cleaner, more virtuous, healthier,” Rodgers says. “It’s the biggest form of greenwashing there is today.”

And since analog burgers cost twice as much as an organic grass-fed burger—about $12 per pound for Beyond Burger, versus under $6 a pound for organic grass-fed ground beef at Walmart—Rodgers says, “I don’t see how that is changing anything for the better.”

The Future of Protein

Ryan Katz-Rosense and Sarah J. Martin, co-authors of the forthcoming book Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and the Planet, have identified three pathways for the future of protein—“re-modernization” “replacement” and “restoration.”

“The evidence suggests our planet is traveling in all three directions at once,” the authors write.

The meat industry, controlled by four transnational corporations—Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods—leads the “re-modernization” camp though increased efficiencies in factory farming to produce cheap and abundant protein. “Replacement” innovators are disrupting the meat industry with protein substitutes, from plant-based proteins to lab-grown meats. Both of these dominant pathways, proposing industrialization, commodity crops and concentration as the way forward, have attracted billions of dollars in investments.

The “restoration” pathway is a radical departure from modern food production. It promotes ecological and social health through a focus on soil health, a farming system called regenerative agriculture.

It has received the least media attention of the three, still slow to catch on 13 years after Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma introduced mainstream Americans to the concept. One-third of Americans may know about Meatless Monday, but less than a quarter of the population has heard of regenerative agriculture, according to the 2019 Food and Health Report.

That is beginning to change.

The “eat less meat” effort focuses on decreasing the demand for animal protein, based on the assumption that all meat is the same. “When it comes to resource use and environmental impacts,” WRI’s website states, “the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more than how that food is produced.”

But the organic community, which has insisted for years that production practices matter, is finding its voice. That chorus is chanting: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Livestock’s Carbon Footprint

In her work for Grass Nomads, Greenwood grazes animals using methods that stimulate plant growth, increase biodiversity, improve the water cycle, restore the soil, and store carbon, all while producing food on marginal lands that can’t be used for growing other food crops. It’s a system broadly known as holistic management.

“I’m part of a growing group of people who have committed our lives to restoring the health of environments directly, through exquisitely precise grazing on sensitive land, and who depend on the support of our communities to do this work,” she wrote, in a 2018 article for Civil Eats.

One obstacle to wider acceptance of restoration is the persistent belief that cows are bigger climate culprits than cars.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality scientist from the University of California Davis, combats this myth on the lecture circuit and on Twitter from the handle @GHGguru. In a recent article titled “Yes, eating meat affects the environment, but cows are not killing the climate,” Mitloehner identified the source of the misunderstanding—a 2006 United Nations (UN) report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which found that global animal agriculture, mostly cattle, contributes more GHG emissions than all the automobiles, trucks and planes in the world. Although the authors later retracted the comparison, it has stuck.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that agriculture contributes 9 percent total U.S. GHG emissions, with a significant share from emitted by cattle, who belch up methane as part of their digestive process. Transportation in the U.S., by comparison, contributes 29 percent. Mitloehner testified to Congress in May that the direct contribution from livestock is even lower, at 3.9 percent. But neither figure supports the 14.5 percent figure from the U.N. report.

“That is dangerous, in my opinion, because it is clearly fossil fuel use in the U.S. and globally that is the number one cause of greenhouse gases,” Mitloehner says. Methane from ruminant livestock, a greenhouse gas profoundly misunderstood by the public, is not the major driver of global warming—yet the current obsession over meat lulls people into thinking that if they just give up red meat, they can drive and fly with a clear conscience.


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