Grass-Fed Gas

» June 21st, 2013


Here’s a copy of my New York Times article on grass-fed beef, which ran in April 2012. It’s a distillation from research I’m doing for my book Modern Savage. In a chapter that I recently finished, I demonstrate how the logistics of grass-fed farming won’t even work to ensure this method’s status as niche approach, much less a standard alternative, to raising cattle for food. In this sense, it’s much more detailed than what you’ll find below and what was in my more recent Slate article on Allan Savory. In any case, I had a piece on fish that I was planning to run today (and will likely run tomorrow), but a reader’s comment suggested that I post this piece instead and, as Mountain observed in a recent comment, it’s my blog. Sorry if this post is tedious. If you’re bored, you can always skip back to the “sexism and PETA” discussion, which is still smoldering, from two days ago. 

April 12, 2012

The industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.

There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animalsinstead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock. My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely. But most people upset by factory farming have turned instead to meat, dairy and eggs from nonindustrial sources. Indeed, the last decade has seen an exciting surge in grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options. These alternatives typically come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production. They appeal to consumers not only because they reject the industrial model, but because they appear to be more in tune with natural processes.

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.

The economics of alternative animal systems are similarly problematic. Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn’t last. These businesses — no matter how virtuous in intention — would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.

All this said, committed advocates of alternative systems make one undeniably important point about the practice called “rotational grazing” or “holistic farming”: the soil absorbs the nutrients from the animals’ manure, allowing grass and other crops to grow without the addition of synthetic fertilizer. As Michael Pollan writes, “It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.” In other words, raising animals is not only sustainable, but required.

But rotational grazing works better in theory than in practice. Consider Joel Salatin, the guru of nutrient cycling, who employs chickens to enrich his cows’ grazing lands with nutrients. His plan appears to be impressively eco-correct, until we learn that he feeds his chickens with tens of thousands of pounds a year of imported corn and soy feed. This common practice is an economic necessity. Still, if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.

Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).

Farmers could avoid this waste by exploiting animals only for their manure, allowing them to live out the entirety of their lives on the farm, all the while doing their own breeding and growing of feed. But they’d better have a trust fund.

Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.

10 Responses to Grass-Fed Gas

  1. Fireweed says:

    James, I do hope you are quite familiar now with the work of VON in the UK (Graham Cole and Ian Tolhurst in particular), and VAN here in NA! I have links to these and other sites on veganic growing on my blog here:

    On a related note…members of my facebook group (below), help collect news articles and research floating around ‘out there’ about the impact of big ag (namely cows) on global warming, etc. Added to the mix are articles critiquing the grass-fed frenzy. I’m guessing you’ve seen all that already! Anyway, it’s there as an archive of sorts for activists to share. Perhaps a reader or two here may find it useful…


    • James says:

      Excellent! THank you for the references.

    • Ellen K says:

      I would love an archive of sorts along these lines, but when I click on the link, it requires FB membership to log in (which I don’t have).
      Is there a public page, or some other way to see the collection?

      • Fireweed says:

        Not at this time, sorry Ellen! I need to pull another blog together for that purpose…just haven’t gotten around to it yet, I’m afraid…

        • John T. Maher says:

          The Facebook gatekeeper aspect is a real problem and alternate links should always be provided. Let’s all marginalize Facebook and choke off its revenue stream by refusing to conform and participate in our own means of control.

          As for the important fact of Joel Salatin’s use of imported soy and corn which James points out — that is the man behind the curtain in this discussion and means any use of the term “sustainable” by Salatin is fraudulent because it involves external sources of energy. Without the imports he Harsh words? Not really, selling a false claim on a feel-good basis is harsh. There is no such thing as “sustainable” in a system which is not “closed” without violating Maxwell’s Second Law of Thermodynamics no matter how many times that term is misappropriated.

          It sounds like the blog post today is sort of backing into a discussion of neo-primitivism and the entire Derrick Jensen/Liere Kieth “Deep Green Resistance” point of a more integrated relationship to domestic and wild animals e.g. picture a Danish village of 15 about 400 B.C. (They really come closest to advocating for modern savages). While I disagree with them that any meat should be consumed, certainly the Jensen/Keith view is a more ethically defensible way to eat flesh than industrial agriculture. And better for the macro-biome (something which we should all consider in any discussion of sustainability) and its nitrogen fixation ability of the pasture for both animals and anything close to sustainable use. The real tragedy of the pasture is human agency and Salatin would do better to cut off imports and let the critters wander if he wants sustainability. He can then eat then when they die of natural causes.

  2. Tina Eden says:

    “Sorry if this post is tedious. If you’re bored, you can always skip back to the “sexism and PETA” discussion, which is still smoldering, from two days ago.”

    Great laugh for the early morning!

    This reader is not bored — always trying to accrue more relevant/environmental info to pass on to my carnivorous husband!

    Thanks for the insight.

  3. bill says:

    Your point is nonsensical. All cattle start their lives on pasture. The land is already there and in use. What the grass-fed movement is trying to do is to assure they stay there for an extra year rather than have them shipped off to feedlots. Kept, that is, and grazed in such a way as to improve the rangeland. And the 100 million number you use is based on meat over-consumption thanks to the CAFO faster/cheaper model. By all rights and means, meat consumption in this country should be cut in half.

    That said, I work with cattle on pasture and can say I’ve never seen them belch, which is the alleged most significant means of GHG production from grass-fed cattle. I’m not sure where they get that information from, but, they should try asking a rancher. And I’d imagine that the methane produced by the breakdown of grasses not consumed by bovine and left to grow, die, and rot on pasture is quite possibly equal to that produced in their rumen.

    Is that the best you can do — rehash old and refuted talking points — on this matter?

    • James says:

      I don’t think my critique is at all nonsensical. I know that all cattle spend time on pasture, but not all of them at once, right? So, there is solid ground to make a case that turning all cattle into entirely pasture-raised beef would place tremendous stress on available land resources, much more than we currently cause. More to the point, you do not consider the third option–the one favored here at Eating Plants– of removing cattle from pastures altogether, be they grass or grain fed. There are ways to improve landscapes (destroyed by overgrazing) without cow manure. Your call for reduction is certainly one that I share, but how do you propose doing that without stigmatizing the production of all beef? I ask because the economics of consolidation are clear: it pays to consolidate, even without subsidies. As for the fact that you’ve never heard a cow burp, I don’t know what to say, other than I’ve never heard a rancher say they’ve never heard a cow burp. Do they fart? That said, surely you’ve seen pugging, the impact of drought, sickness, the prevalence of endophyte infected fescue, the culling and selling of calves at auction, and other ecological and ethical problems associated with grass farming? Finally, we value every perspective here at EP, and I’d personally be honored if you stayed in touch to share your experience. I must warn you though, that we avoid insulting rhetoric (“Is that the best you can do — rehash old and refuted talking points — on this matter?”) in favor of respect and genuine curiosity.
      Warm Regards,

    • I will say up front that I have not researched the grass fed v. grain fed issue enough to comment on the particulars. But one important take away here is that large scale meat based agriculture is not sustainable, no matter the feed used. We will not be able to feed the burgeoning human population on a meat-based diet. It’s just not sustainable. There will not be enough grain or grass, water, and other materials to go into the animals, and the pollutants coming out of such massive agricultural efforts can no longer be absorbed by the planet without devastating consequences. Not to mention the land use dedication required for these efforts. I think it is important to discuss this grain v. grass issue for the present, while a large proportion of the world still consumes meat. But whether through in-vitro meat, plant based meat analogs, or people just becoming vegan, a large scale change is going to have to happen. Ecologically, it will not be an option. ~Linda

  4. Ummm says:

    Thank you Monsanto for an excellent article.

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