Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eating Grass-Fed Animals Will Not Save Us, Part 1 of 3

I wrote this a while back, but I never got around to posting them (there are, shall we say, several posts like this). I wanted to write about this post in something I was working on, and realized I never had posted these, so, all three parts today. Enjoy. Part 2 here, part 3 here.

This is in response to this article. Here is part one of my response, focusing on the environmental impacts of eating grass-fed cattle. The ethical issues will be addressed next. [This article was brought to my attention from one of my colleagues, and he was told to bring it to my attention from Cameron. This part, and the next part, are developed from emails I sent in response].

I am going to address the concerns of the article in two sections. The first is going to be the environmental reasons that grazing land-based mammals is worse, and the second one will respond to the ethical questions about grazing land-based mammals [There will be a surprise third part!]. I will be cribbing pretty hard from James McWilliams’ Just Food, Erik Marcus’ Meat Market, Howard Lyman’s Mad Cowboy, Lori Gruen’s Ethics and Animals, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Whenever I quote directly from a source, I will cite it, but otherwise I will not be giving proper credit in terms of “I was first alerted to this in so-and-so’s brilliant etc etc”. But all of those are books worth reading.

Also, the author I am responding to is specifically talking about Australia, which I know very little about in specifics. So, I will just have to talk about what I know, and assume it applies to Australia.

One other general remark: The idea that eating animals that have been raised in a grazing situation, and from a “beyond organic” situation (no hormones, no antibiotics, no gmo stuff) is clearly better, both environmentally and ethically, than eating all your meat from CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)/Factory Farms. But this author is disingenuous in the extreme for not pointing out that in order to do so, and to do so consistently, will require an extreme decrease in animal flesh consumption. And just because it is better than factory farms, doesn't even make it closely comparable to vegetarianism and especially veganism on both the environmental and ethical fronts.

The Environmental Issue

Let’s put the conclusion ahead of the rest of the argument. From McWilliams:
The specialized approach might be environmentally sound, and even profitable, for a few small-scale ranchers making grass-fed beef for privileged eaters worried about their omega-3s. However, this approach cannot […] produce enough grass fed beef to replace the conventional beef consumed in dangerous quantities[.] (p. 147)
In other words, as McWilliams further argues, “the major problem is that the sustainable scenario works well only as a boutique endeavor. Scale is everything when it comes to raising animals to feed billions of people" (p. 147).

If the whole world was to eat land-based mammals (what I will occasionally refer to as meat, despite its inaccuracy) at the same rate as we do in America, Canada, and Europe we would create, with no exaggeration, an apocalyptic hellscape. To the numbers!
“Between 1961 and 2002 the worldwide consumption of meat rose from 71 million metric tons a year to 247 metric tons a year—almost a fourfold leap” (McWilliams p. 124). This assumes, even with feedlots and CAFOs and other horrible but land-saving strategies, that “if the world’s growing population decided to eat the same amount of meat as the world’s affluent now consume, we would need 67 percent more land than the earth has” (McWilliams p. 126). Of course, the land itself is not well-treated by keeping lots of cattle on it.
“In Uganda, as a result of overgrazing in its drylands known as the “cattle corridor,” soil compaction, erosion and the emergence of low-value grass species and vegetation have subdued the land’s productive capacity, leading to desertification.3 In the Gambia, it is reported that fallow periods have been reduced to zero on most arable lands.4 Between 1950 and 2006, the Nigerian livestock population grew from 6 million to 66 million, a 11-fold increase. The forage needs of livestock exceed the carrying capacity of its grasslands.5 It is reported that overgrazing and over-cultivating are converting 351,000 hectares of land into desert each year.6” (from the UN’s Economic Commission on Africa, Africa Report on Draught and Desertification 2008, ch. 2).
Because livestock have degraded rangelands worldwide, water has been unable to replenish itself as it woul in ecosystems left ungrazed. Because cows, sheep, and goats press on the land with the same weight as a tractor, watersheds have altered to the extent that precipitation cannot do what it would normally do in a properly functioning hydrological cycle.
Under ungrazed conditions, rainfall is held by soil vegetation and gradually spread across a watershed, infiltrating and replenishing groundwater at a relatively slow pace. When this happens, erosion is kept to a minimum and the soil’s fertility is continually enhanced. With intensive livestock grazing, however, the infiltration process is drastically undermined. Surface flows increase, run-off leaches minerals from the soil and deposits them in oceans, and, most critically, the physical health of the soil is degraded.
With the basic physical alteration of the soil, the preconditions for persistent animal manure contamination of downstream freshwater sources are well established. What we’re left to endure is therefore a kind of double whammy: more manure than the soil can accommodate hitting soil so damaged that precipitation carries that manure, as well as the microbes and chemicals in it, into the water supply we drink (McWilliams, pp. 143-144).
This is what reveals the fundamental misconceit of the original article. There is land that is so destroyed and degraded that we cannot grow crops on it because of the over-grazing by animals! “Many grazing areas are so desolate that, at first glance, it seems they might as well be stocked with cattle, since it appears that few other animals could survive in these areas. But the truth is that America’s rangelands have become inhospitable precisely because they are grazed by cattle. Take away the cattle, and in a surprisingly short amount of time, most ranching areas become revitalized. Within just a few years, plant life makes a strong recovery, and this regeneration attracts wildlife to return” (Marcus, p. 197).
This brings us to global warming, and another long quotation from James McWilliams:
With some estimations attributing about 20 percent of all global warming gases to ‘land use change’, of which desertification is a major component (deforestation being another). […]Making matters worse, the inability of destroyed vegetation to capture carbon dioxide ultimately leads to what scientists call a ‘desertification-global warming feedback loop.’ In this scenario, carbon that’s released from desertification causes global warming, and then in turn global warming exacerbates desertification. […].(McWilliams p. 129)
According to the The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock is the single largest contributor to global warming gases. Now, while some of that will be answered with grazing issues, there are still problems. “Even if cattle and vegetation coexisted in harmonious ecological balance, though, the respiratory impact of livestock would continue to be an issue. Livestock give off 86 million metric tons of methane a year. Methane is twenty-one to twenty-four times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Moreover, it can linger in the atmosphere for as long as fifteen years. […] When it comes to methane emissions from cows, buying grass-fed hardly lets the consumer off the hook: grass-fed cattle actually produce four times more methane than feedlot cattle, when measured on a per-cow basis. (McWilliams, p. 130).
This is why I talk about increased global meat eating as producing an apocalyptic hellscape. If the world were to eat the amount of meat that people in the US do, even if we were to shift to an entire grass-fed—and no hormone and antibiotic—livestock diet, we would still be eating a diet incompatible with future human life. It would be a world of deserts. It would be a world of manure flowing streams, water basins, and oceans. It would be a world of a rapidly heated globe, with all the environmental and weather related awfulness that occurs. The consumption of other animals is a direct move to poisoning our water, destroying our soil, and wreaking the climate of the globe.

Next Up, the Ethics! here.