Why ranches, cattle, and meat-eating may play a role in fighting climate change.
The following article by Lynne Curry originally appeared in The New Food Economy and is republished here with permission.
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.”