A December 23 editorial at The LA Times reports that worldwide, the agricultural sector is the biggest contributor of methane production. The editorial goes on the criticize the recently passed$1.1-trillion omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama and claims that “the digestive systems of cattle represents the most severe damage.” My letter to the editor didn’t make it into print, so I’m sharing an expanded version of my thoughts here:
To the Editors:
Please stop repeating tired and questionable sound bites regarding cows and eating meat on the environment. I invite anyone truly curious about the impact of herbivores in our world to read Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and practicing vegetarian who just happens to married to a cattle rancher.
THE IMPACT OF GRAZING ANIMALS
It seems the problem is not the cows, but what and how we feed them. Grazing animals actually contribute to environmental health, while most everything connected to feeding herbivores grain and confining them in feedlots does not. There are too many opportunities to mistreat the animals and harm our natural resources when centralized agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs) prioritize profits over everything else.
Missing in most diatribes condemning the environmental impact of raising cattle for food is any serious address of the impact of raising crops for food. As Ms. Niman eloquently points out, even the most conscientious agriculture is a major disturbance to the ecosystem, with crop farming the most disruptive of all agricultural acts. She quotes from David Montgomery’s book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, citing the impact of poorly management crop cultivations leading to soil exhaustion and erosion, followed by grazing animals put on the land. And poorly managed grazing is damaging.
THE BEEF INDUSTRY NEEDS TO STEP UP
Allen Savory’s excellent TED talk speaks to the power of grazing animals in reversing desertification. But to be effective, grazing needs to executed with good planning and oversight.
In Defending Beef Nicolette recognizes eight ways the beef industry needs to step up and address legitimate concerns regarding raising cattle for food, including better grazing management. When done well, grazing animals allows for enhanced microbial diversity and health of soil which leads to more robust grasses, better water retention and many other benefits. These benefits directly impact the health of our plant with includes human health, even before we start talking about nutrition.
TALKING ABOUT NUTRITION
Cattle and other ruminant animals complete the transformation of sunlight into grass into human food on land that is otherwise very difficult to raise crops. Grass fed animals produce excellent bio-available protein, a strong source of B vitamins, and well absorbed major and trace minerals. Grazing animals produce meat and dairy products that yield a healthy ratio of omega three to omega six fatty acids. Beef, lamb and other “red meat” is good food.
In contrast, the health benefits commonly attributed to eating a vegan or vegetarian diet are not as convincing as many assume. Discerning scientists recognize that other healthful activities commonly practiced by vegetarians (ie: regular exercise and not smoking) muddy the data when scientists try to determine what accounts for their lower risk of disease.
HUMANS BELONG TO A FOOD WEB
Ultimately as we grapple with the impact of human life on the health of the planet I appreciate Nicolette’s simple truth: Humans are animals belonging to a food web that includes animals eating animals, animals eating plants and even plants eating animals. We need to live up to our responsibilities to be good stewards of our precious resources.
In essence, grazing animals effectively address soil erosion, the environment, climate change and the future of our planet. Ironically, careful examination of the role of cattle and the challenges of climate change leads to a counter-intuitive conclusion. We need grazing animals, whether we eat them or not.