Beef and Global Warming Denial

» December 28th, 2014

In her recent op-ed salvo, this one in the Wall Street Journal, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian rancher (which, really, strikes me as kind of like an “Amish carpet bomber”) tells us that, in fact, a global consensus of environmental science has it all backwards and that she, again, a rancher, wants us to know that raising beef—and not just on grass (but especially so)—has environmental consequences that have not only been overstated by this global cabal of science people, but, hold up your steak knives in solidarity, “is an environmental gain for the planet.”

Read all about it here.

Let’s all catch our breath before proceeding to the main point I’d like to make about this op-ed. We know things, right? Like, empirically. We’ve known since the 1960s, empirically speaking, that beef production wreaks substantial ecological havoc on our limited natural resources and we know that, since then, since the population of humans has doubled, that, viz empirically, it’s not only factory farms that cause the trouble, but even small grass-fed operations run by good-looking environmentally conscious “stewards of the land,” and we know this because very serious research has shown that not only is grass-fed beef ecologically damaging but it can be worse so. To repeat, we know things. Even if not a rancher or a scientist or lawyer, we know them.

Ms. Niman sort of—it’s there, read the tone—mocks those who know things. She draws our attention to critics who worry about “ bovine burps, flatulence and even breath for climate change.” That, folks, is pure-grade, first-order-Fox News industry-strategizing for spinning the science to make its followers seem like ditto-head nitwits who believe anything you tell them to confirm a bias.

But what’s really real here? Those farts and burps and deep bovine exhalations might sound silly—but, unless I’ve been led by the nose into a hall of mirrors by four decades of good science—they matter. Live animals are resource intensive beings. They breath and burp and pass gas. Methane, anyone? Niman eventually gets there, assuring us that there are ways to mitigate methane’s impact and that, rest assured, how to do so is “now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world.” Well.

One thing that I’ve learned over a decade of writing about this stuff is that it’s important to be charitable. Of course, deep down I want to be as right as anyone. I want the evidence to fit my bias as much as the next op-ed scribbler. But I now work more than ever before to be charitable, fair minded. That said, I simply cannot find a way to reconcile Hahn’s—again and again, a rancher’s— opening plea for us to  thumb our nose at deep conventional scientific wisdom and then spend the rest of the article asking us to trust the science she has spelunked from netherworld caves of research, science that serves her financial bottom line.

Which takes me to my big point. If you study the way Hahn arranges her evidence, and examine the way she dresses it up rhetorically, it may ring a bell. You may discern a familiar pattern at work and, especially if you are a liberal-enviro-type who knows stuff but would love to have an excuse/justification/WSJ verification for eating beef, you may eventually find yourself slightly queasy by the creeping (and, actually, creepy) realization that the pattern at work is one that has been brilliantly honed by none other than: global warming deniers.

Yeah, those people. And this is my big problem with Hahn’s op-ed. It is, in its rejection of science such as that summarized here and reified by thousands of other studies, it engages in the populist politics of distrust, a weird and very American sort of suspicion-mongering that has caused immense damage to public discourse and the enlightened policies it can, in moments of clarity, engender.

17 Responses to Beef and Global Warming Denial

  1. Sailesh Rao says:

    To paraphrase Andrew Weaver from the AGU Fall Meeting, 2014, Nicolette Niman is engaged in decision-based evidence-making, instead of evidence-based decision-making.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    Mitigation is a type of denial or responsibility for addressing the problem itself. When I read the WSJ op-ed a few days ago I dismissed it as more of the same. She is merely catnip to insecure white males in need of justification for their acts of consumption and inherent cruelty embodied in the meat eating lifestyle in much the same way that Sarah Palin presents as sexualized mommy figure for reactionary politics served to the same audience. The question then becomes: is it better to ignore this sort of ludicrous nonsense? No minds will be changes and NHM hardly controls the rhetoric of global warming. While JMC is correct to cry “tripe!” but is NHN and her nonsensical apologia for the T-Bone worth it?

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “catnip to insecure white males”

      i prefer:

      catnip to insecure and ethically-conflicted omnivores.

      • John T. Maher says:

        I can see your point about expanding the audience to omnivores but I doubt the majority of them are ethically conflicted. I was describing the demographic profile of the average WSJ reader although they come in all flavors.

  3. Teresa Wagner says:

    Bravo James!

  4. Taylor says:

    George Monbiot:

    “Fairlie pointed out that around half the current global meat supply causes no loss to human nutrition. In fact it delivers a net gain, as it comes from animals eating grass and crop residues that people can’t consume.

    “Since then, two things have persuaded me that I was wrong to have changed my mind. The first is that my article was used by factory farmers as a vindication of their monstrous practices. The subtle distinctions Fairlie and I were trying to make turn out to be vulnerable to misrepresentation.

    “The second is that while researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”

  5. Arthur Brooke says:

    Who would think the phrases “ecological havoc” or “miniscule productivity” or “environmental devastation” would be so cheering, but I welcome any sign that the enormous costs of animal agriculture are becoming more widely known. Recently read a blog comment arguing against veganism on the grounds that we would have to clear more land to grow vegan food. One quick answer to that would be “not if you live on the north island of New Zealand, where there are only 1000 acres of natural native vegetation left, protected by several layers of fencing”. Or I could respond that I know well a small farm which grows a few beefers(for tax purposes) on a few acres, and given the amazingly low efficiency of large animal conversion of plant calories, I could grow more human food calories(veganically) on their modest front lawn. Thanks James for this and many other fine articles, thanks Taylor for the link. ab

  6. Objective Observer says:

    Your editorial reminds me of a person who is writing on behalf of GMO’s who is claiming that there is consensus, and that anyone who refutes that there is consensus is “anti-science.” Where in truth, there are a number of organizations of scientists like the Union of Concerned Scientists that aren’t part of that “consensus.”

    Though if you actually read Niman’s book, she doesn’t deny that livestock have an environmental impact, she argues that the impact depends on how the livestock is raised. Coincidentally the Union of Concerned Scientists agree with her in their 2011 report “Climate-friendly beef production practices reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions while increasing carbon sequestration.”

    Now abolitionists like yourself readily borrow from industrial studies to argue that pastured livestock are worse for the environment so much so that sometimes you almost come off as a shill for factory farms. The reality is that your assertion is a bunch of hogwash along with many of the inflated GHG numbers from sources like the World Watch report….and the pro-factory farm 2006 FAO long shadow report.

    Niman does provide more current data from sources like the recent UN International Climate change negotiation meetings in Peru that show in the US and the EU that emissions from all of agriculture are at 8% of GHG’s emissions where enteric emissions are 25% of that 8% or only a total of around 2% of emissions…which is significantly less the hyperbola that people such as yourself promulgate. (These latest numbers also coincide with the EPA’s numbers). So yes, better diets can further reduce these enteric emissions by another 30%. And carbon sequestration can offset these numbers completely in the developed world for cattle which is exactly what the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote.

    Now when you and others of your ilk blame all of the world’s ills on “cows” all your really doing is distracting from the larger sources and causes of global warming that need to be addressed specifically energy and transportation uses.

    • peter says:

      I can’t speak for him, but I am capable of caring about animal Ag, energy, and transport emissions all at the same time. I would also argue that, while one system of cattle raising is a bit better here and there than another, it is still a Turd. But now it is a Turd with sprinkles on it.

      • Objective Observer says:

        Actually there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the cattle themselves. What’s wrong is the way they are managed. When managed poorly, they are environmentally detrimental. When properly managed, cattle are environmentally beneficial as specifically noted by the Union of Concerned Scientists as well as a number of other groups. The problem is humans, not cattle. Vegans will not acknowledge this simply because of their own food/religious beliefs.

  7. Carbon Man says:

    James, guess you’re still going to argue that the world is flat, while researchers at other prestigious colleges actually challenge and question conventional wisdom of today since that’s what universities, in theory, are set-up to do.

    “…The idea of soil sequestration is still under the radar,” notes Soil Science Professor Chuck Rice of Kansas State University, a member of the IPCC panel who directs a joint project of nine American universities and the U.S. Department of Energy studying the potential for reducing greenhouse gases through agricultural practices. “There is more carbon stored in the soil than in the atmosphere. If we can make a small change in managing that carbon in the soil, it would make a big difference in the atmosphere.”.’

    ‘Rice suggests adopting a wide range of carbon sequestration strategies, ranging from planting more trees to cultivating crops using no-till agriculture (which minimizes plowing) to raising animals on grasslands instead of feedlots—the idea that excites Wick and his fellow ranchers in California. In Canada, a group of power utilities has already signed an agreement with Saskatchewan farmers practicing no-till agriculture to offset the carbon produced by their power plants….’

    “….Professor Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist in the Environmental Policy and Management department at the University of California-Berkeley concurs. “Absolutely I think it’s possible to sequester carbon in the soil. This is a hot topic of research right now,” she says. She just began a study of 36 agricultural fields in California—including John Wick’s and Peggy Rathmann’s ranch—that are being managed in ways that boost the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon….”

    Source: Can Cattle Save Us From Global Warming?

    • James says:

      Selectively quoting research done over a decade ago really doesn’t cut it. What we’ve learned in the last decade renders this piece largely irrelevant.

      • Carbon Man says:

        Not at all. The body of research is growing as these management practices have been expanding to over 50 million acres on 5 continents. Though philosophically your argument appears to be that it’s better to raise animals in factory farms, than to do what ranches like the Niman’s ranch does, because such a warped warped point of view seems to think it is more consistent to treat the animals badly if the whole purpose is to take their lives for food.

      • Carbon Man says:

        Plus there was no “selective” quoting. I chose quotes for the sake of brevity, and provided a link so people may read the entire article.

        Regardless, here’s an additional video that reinforces both this link and Niman’s editorial. Due to your linear and dogmatic thought process, you may though have difficulty understanding this video


    • peter says:

      All this still suggests that, better than even grass fed cattle or feed lots, is to stop raising animals all together, and move to plant based soil carbon sequestering. We are extremely ignorant about soil- only a decade ago did we really even begin to identify in a serious way the soil biosphere- so up to date stuff I’m sure will keep changing. It will be interesting to watch.

      • Mountain says:

        Plants co-evolved with animals. Eliminate animals from the picture, and you greatly reduce the ability of plants to sequester carbon in the soil.

  8. Mountain says:

    In the last 20 years, Gabe Brown has roughly tripled the amount of carbon in his soils, stopped using tillage and fertilizer, increased his yields, and become much more profitable. He also has a far greater diversity of plant and animal species within those fields.

    So, what’s the downside?

    A massive quantity of carbon has been moved from the atmosphere– where we have far too much– to the soil, where we don’t have enough. I understand that there are methane emissions with cattle (though how much seems to be in substantial dispute), which is why I am interested in whether we can achieve similar levels of carbon sequestration with animals that are less prone to methane production– specifically, donkeys, goats, and chickens.

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