Posts Tagged ‘grass fed beef

The Stubborn Economics of Density

» August 23rd, 2014

First: take any product on earth and imagine producing a better—but inherently more expensive—version of it. Now imagine marketing it. You don’t have to be a whiz in economics to conclude that your target market will be a relative minority who values that product enough to pay more for a higher quality version. As a savvy producer, you will never lose sight of the fact that the core value of your product derives as much from the higher costs of production as the virtuous connotations your loyal followers confer on the commodity. As a sober producer, you will also never lose sight of the fact that your market will always be a small one compared to the millions upon millions of consumers who will remain perfectly happy with the cheaper mainstream version of the same commodity.

Second: take animal products made from animals raised on pasture and think about their place in the global meat market. These goods are inherently more expensive to produce: nothing you do as a producer to reduce costs will compete with the mainstream version. This fact is due to an inescapable reality: consolidating animals into CAFOs—even when the externalities are considered—is cost effective. The product is cheaper. The reasons confinement is more efficient are numerous: you need less land, you are less reliant on independent variables such as weather, the animals reach slaughter weight faster, you can  benefit from mechanization, you can capitalize on scale economies, and so on. Given the costs of production, the price of grass-fed anything will, on balance, always be higher. Whether we’re talking about houses or cows, density pays.

Finally: ask yourself how the second option will ever compete in a mass market with the first. I’m not saying millions and millions of consumers won’t vote with their forks and, recognizing the many benefits (in addition to the product’s quality) of the pastured version, choose to buy it. Good for them. But what I am saying is that the benefit will only be to their consciences, and nothing beyond. After all, with billions of consumers in the meat market, it would defy not only basic economics, but the history of basic human behavior for a majority of those consumers to choose the inherently more expensive version of the same product. That would be the definition of irrational.

Conclusion: those who want to reform the horrors of industrial animal agriculture by substituting the more expensive pastured version of meat and dairy with the cheaper and more efficient industrial version are irrational. There’s no other way to say it. The foodie media that writes glowing articles about pastured this or that under the assumption that this version of beef or pork or cheese is the wave of the future (in addition to animal welfare organizations that promote “humane” animal agriculture as a step in the “right direction”) need to wake up and realize that their fantasy—given what industrial agriculture is doing to animals and the environment—is one we really cannot afford.

Does this mean the end of eating animals? Not necessarily (more on this later). But, for now, we can only conclude that it would make so much more sense to promote the real benefits of saying no to all animals raised for the purposes of selling and eating them, rather than trying to clear an impossible hurdle.


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.

Grass Backwards

» May 22nd, 2013

You hear defenders of pastured beef say it all the time: cows were meant to eat grass. They typically make this claim to justify their choice of pastured beef over industrial, grain-fed beef—the stuff that hogs all the media attention for causing grave ecological damage with total disregard for animal welfare.

These claims might indeed be true. Cows probably are meant to eat grass and there is little doubt that growing grain to feed cows in feedlots is one of the most flagrantly dumb things humans do. Likewise, a feedlot is the antithesis of welfare. So, sure, cows were meant to eat grass.

Regrettably, the conversation usually ends here. That’s too bad. Any acknowledgment of grass-fed beef vis-a-vis grain-fed is, or at least should be, a starting point for a far more complicated discussion, one we tend to avoid, in part because it’s complicated and in part because it undermines the rationale for switching to pastured beef and claiming everything is just so very cool.

The popular media only scratches the surface of the grass-fed issue, typically failing to reveal those complications that are endemic to pastured beef production and, when probed closely, highlight fatal flaws to the alternative that we’re so eager to deem viable and grillable.

What if you learned that the vast majority of the grass that cows in the United States graze is infected with a fungus that systematically compromises their health?  Insane, right?  How could this be? One word: fescue. Fescue is the most commonly grazed grass in the United States, covering 35 million acres and, without doubt, pleasing cattle (compared to other forage) because, for whatever reason, they prefer the taste of it to other grasses. Because cows take to it so quickly, ranchers promote it.

The problem is that fescue is virtually all (90 percent) infected with an endophyte fungus that causes considerable problems for cows. Problems such as: difficulty gaining weight, reproductive issues, excessive salivation, less time spent grazing, reduced blood serum prolactin levels, a greater need for water, lower milk production. And so on. Some of these problems might have welfare implications.

More obviously, though, they reveal a fundamental malfunction with the grand environmental claims about the animal-land relationship at the core of intensively managed grazing systems. What’s often presented as an elegant model of efficiency—cows eating grass— is, when you properly consider the fescue issue, undermined by a grave mismatch between animal and forage, one that requires more grazing and more water to generate less milk and less flesh.

Let’s face a fact and make it a mantra: natural conditions are virtually impossible to recreate. To think we can do so and then consume the product of that “natural” relationship is folly. In any case, add fescue to the growing list of why pastured beef is no answer to the industrial production of beef. Cows may have been meant to eat grass. But that hardly means that we were meant to eat them.


Speaking of fungus, here is my latest piece in The 

What’s Your Beef?: Grass Fed Cattle in Texas

» May 2nd, 2012


This piece ran in the May issue of  The Texas Observer. Regular readers will see some familiar information, but there’s some new material in here as well.  –jm

Times are tough these days for Texas producers of grass-fed beef. Grass grows poorly, if at all, during the worst drought in recorded history. Costs skyrocket as forage suppliers—upon whom grass-feeding producers have to rely when grass won’t grow—raise rates as high as the invisible hand will allow. As the land hardens, cattle are corralled into barns, watered and fed bales of expensive hay and alfalfa, which alter the sublime taste that a select group of consumers fetishize as a carnivore’s ambrosia. Lord only knows how these changes influence those magic omega-3/6 acid ratios that grass-fed devotees treat as the fountain of youth.

I take zero pleasure in the economic demise of anyone who plays by the rules. That said, the grass-fed game has enjoyed such a long run of popularity—based largely on overhyped assumptions—that the industry was due for at least a distilled dose of truth in advertising. The current situation provides an opportunity for a critical assessment of the pervasive (and sometimes dangerous) mythology of grass-fed beef.

We’re told that grass-fed beef is safer to eat than grain-fed beef. Specifically, we’re told that there’s no E. coli in grass-fed beef because it’s natural for cows to eat grass (forgetting, of course, that corn is a grass). In 2006 Nina Planck wrote the following about E. coli O157 in The New York Times: “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”

In an age of horrific food scares (pink slime!), this assessment was eagerly accepted as gospel. But it’s wrong. As I reported in a 2010 Slate article, “scientists [between 2000-2006] showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows.”

While it’s true that overall rates of E. coli are much higher in grain-fed cattle, E. coli O157:H7—known for being able to kill us—congregates just as effectively in grass-fed as grain-fed cows.

We’re also told that grass-fed systems are more ecologically sound than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where cows are herded into giant feedlots. This claim is true in some respects, certainly when it comes to manure run-off from CAFO poop lagoons. Considerable evidence, however, questions the overall comparative environmental benefit of grass-fed cattle. In 2008, a study conducted by scientists at Canada’s Dalhousie University found that, pound for pound, grass-fed cattle emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than their grain-fed counterparts. The reason is threefold: grass-fed cows produce significantly more methane than grain-fed cows (through burps), they take longer to reach slaughter weight, and, as demand grows, producers are growing grass with synthetic fertilizers to minimize ranging stress. These hidden pitfalls of grass-fed production are routinely overlooked by a foodie media eager to offer a guiltless alternative to industrial beef.

Then there’s the matter of land. It takes anywhere from two to 20 acres to raise a single cow exclusively on grass. This land requirement has already resulted in a region the size of France being carved out of the Brazilian rainforest to accommodate grass-fed cattle. Figures released by Greenpeace in February 2009 confirm that beef continues to be the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Such biodiversity loss is immeasurable. Nicolette Hahn Niman, the noted vegetarian advocate for grass-fed beef in California, has said that what’s happening in the rainforest has nothing to do with her cows in California. Fine. But let’s say all the confined cows in the United States—98 million—were raised on grass (on, say, 10 acres per cow). The result would make Hahn’s California cows matter: They would occupy half the land in the United States.

Finally, there’s the matter of human health. I’ll concede that the magical omega-3/6 ratio—which is critical for the proper balance of fatty acids—in grass-fed cattle is much healthier than in grain-fed cattle. But so what. You can find similarly impressive fatty acid profiles in flaxseed. Flaxseed, moreover, was not found to dramatically reduce one’s lifespan. Beef was. As The Daily Beast reported on a seminal Harvard University study, “The survey of 110,000 adults over 20 years found that adding just one three-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat to their daily diet increased participants’ risk of dying during the study by 13 percent.”

The case I make here is ultimately superseded by the fact that cows are sentient beings with rich emotional lives that deserve moral consideration. We should not be raising, killing and commodifying them at all. The reality, though, is that we’re in the midst of a food movement that speaks eloquently of community, localism, fairness and justice, but won’t touch the issue of animal ethics with a locally sourced 10-foot pole. So it seems necessary to reconsider our relationship with grass-fed beef on the grounds of ecological responsibility and human health. Maybe one day we will worry more about the integrity of our diet than that of the cows we eat.

Let them Eat Kale (and Quinoa): Richard Oppenlander Offers a Brilliant Critique

» March 12th, 2012

I’ve been reading Richard Oppenlander’s persuasive new book Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Responsibility . . . What You Choose to Eat is Killing Our Planet. One aspect of the book that I especially appreciate is Oppenlander’s condemnation of not only factory farming–a big fat target if there ever was one–but his equally condemnatory take on so-called sustainable alternatives–free-range this, grass-fed that, cage-free whatever, etc. As readers of this blog know full well, I’ve  repeatedly noted that there’s very little difference between the two forms of animal agriculture. In fact, I’ve even argued that supporting the alternatives systems is, however inadvertently, supporting CAFOs.

My perspective has been animal welfare. Oppenlander, however, illuminates the environmental consequences of choosing alternative sources of animal products. This is an important, much needed, emphasis. How many times have you heard, after all, the comment that “I choose grass-fed beef because it’s more sustainable”? Well, it’s not more sustainable. Especially if you compare it, as Oppenlander does, to growing kale and quinoa–two of the healthiest foods on the planet.

His juxtaposition of the inputs and outputs of raising a grass fed cow on two acres of land versus growing kale and quinoa on that same land is astounding.  After two years of raising a cow on grass you’d have 480 pounds of “edible muscle tissue.” You’d also have produced tons of greenhouse gasses (especially methane), used 15,000-20,000 gallons of water, imported loads of hay for winter feeding, been left with a carcass needing disposal, wound up with food that, eaten beyond moderation, would cause heart disease, and very likely trampled the soil, establishing preconditions for erosion. In a world of 7 billion people (about to be 9 billion) crunched by diminished resources, we cannot afford this waste.

By contrast, if you used those two acres to grow kale and quinoa, you’d end up with–get this–30,000 pounds of nutrient-rich, delicious, fibrous food. You’d have done this while having used very little water (if any), produced no greenhouse gases, and been left with loads of green manure to work back into the soil as fertilizer.  We could not only feed the world this way (with, of course, a huge diversity of plants), but we could do so on much less land.

So, which do you consider more sustainable? This would be an excellent example to keep in mind next time you hear some earnest foodie “environmentalist” spouting on about the sustainability of local, organic, grass-fed, humanely treated, peace-causing, world-saving grass . . .fed . . .  beef. I say there’s no such thing as sustainable animal agriculture. I say there’s no such thing as a meat-egg-dairy-eating environmentalist. I say we let them all eat kale.

Grass-Fed Sham: The Undercooked Science

» November 29th, 2011

Last year, Huntington Meat Packing Inc. recalled a whopping 864,000 pounds of beef thought to contain a particularly nasty strain of E. coli bacteria called O157:H7. Coming shortly after the recall of 248,000 pounds of beef by National Steak and Poultry on Christmas Eve 2009—and dozens of other scares over contaminated beef and pork—this news reminded consumers yet again that the mass production of meat is fraught with danger.

Consumers who still have an appetite for burgers and sirloins have been pushed toward alternative food sources. In particular, they’ve started to seek out more “wholesome” meat from animals raised in accordance with their “natural” inclinations and heritage. According to Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, there’s been a dramatic rise in demand for cattle reared on a pasture diet instead of an industrial feed lot. Grass-fed beef should account for 10 percent of America’s beef consumption overall by 2016, she says—a more than threefold increase from 2006.

The comparative health benefits of grass-fed beef shouldn’t be ignored. Scores of studies indicate that it’s higher in omega 3s and lower in saturated fat. But when it comes to E. coli O157:H7, the advantages of grass-fed beef aren’t so clear. In fact, exploring the connection between grass-fed beef and these dangerous bacteria offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster. Step back from it all and veganism starts to look like the best option.

Could grass-fed beef ever be afflicted with E. coli O157:H7? Not according to the conventional wisdom among culinary tastemakers. This idea rose to the top of the journalistic food chain in the fall of 2006, when food activist Nina Planck wrote about the bacteria strain on the op-ed page of the New York Times. At that time, people were getting sick from bad organic spinach, but the contamination seemed to have originated with herds of conventionally raised cattle that lived upstream. Not every animal excretes this nasty type of E. coli, she argued. “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”

The Times speaks, the world listens. Planck’s appraisal of grain- vs. grass-fed beef was highlighted on the Web sites for the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for a Livable Future, Grist, and, among other enviro-foodie venues. A few months later, Hannah Wallace of Salon warned that “a cow’s corn diet can also make us sick” on account of the acidic environment it creates for bacteria. Even Michael Pollan, perhaps the most widely read food writer on the planet, explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 … was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle.” These animals, he added, “stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow’s rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7.”

For many consumers, the case was closed: To avoid E. coli O157:H7, just eat grass-fed beef.

But the scientific evidence tells a very different story. Planck’s assertion seems to be based on a 1998 report published in the journal Science. In this study, the authors fed three cows a variety of diets in order to ascertain how feed type influenced intestinal acidity in cows and, in turn, how intestinal acidity influenced the concentration of acid-resistant strains of E. coli. They hypothesized that these strains would be especially dangerous to humans, since they could survive the low-pH environment of the human stomach. It turned out that grain-fed cattle did indeed have a much more acidic stomach than those fed grass or hay. And sure enough, they had a million times more acid-resistant E. coli in their colons.

This appeared to be good news for grass-fed beef: Eliminate grain from a cow’s diet and you’ll keep its intestines from getting too acidic and spawning dangerous, acid-resistant bacteria. There was only one catch. The authors of the Science piece never specifically tested for E. coli O157:H7. Instead, they guessed that the pattern of O157:H7 growth and induction of acid-resistance would mirror that of E. coli strains that are always living in the colons of cattle. If this assertion were true, E. coli O157:H7 would reach dangerous levels only in gastrointestinal tracts of grain-fed cows.

But between 2000 and 2006, scientists began to take a closer look at the effect of diet on E. coli O157:H7 specifically. A different set of findings emerged to indicate that this particular strain did not, in fact, behave like other strains of E. coli found in cattle guts. Most importantly (in terms of consumer safety), scientists showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows. The effect postulated (and widely publicized) in the 1998 Science report—that grain-fed, acidic intestines induced the colonization of acid-resistant E. coli—did not apply to the very strain of bacteria that was triggering all the recalls.

What might explain this discrepancy? Scientists wondered whether there could be two subtypes of E. coli O157:H7 with varying degrees of acid-resistance. By that logic, the microbes from the grass-fed guts would be less resilient—and therefore less dangerous—than the ones that were growing up in the cows reared on grain. So they started running tests to find out.

In 2003, a research team from the University of Idaho reported no difference at all in the levels of acid resistance between E. coli O157:H7 from grass- and grain-fed cattle. (In both cases resistance was high.) Their conclusion stands in direct contrast to the broad claims about grain diets that have been made in the popular press since 2006. It must be that some other factor or factors were responsible for the development of E. coli O157:H7. 

We don’t yet know what these might be. But four studies, published between 2003 and 2005, have developed an intriguing hypothesis. Maybe, some reasoned, E. coli O157:H7 behaves differently from other strains because it develops in a different part of the cow’s intricate digestive system. Sure enough, O157:H7 turned out to have a strong tendency to congregate in the recto-anal junction, whereas most other E. coli tend to gather primarily in the colon. Given that, we might presume that the production of E. coli O157:H7 depends more on its unique location than on what its cow host happens to be eating.

The point in dredging up these studies—ones the media never covered—is not to play gotcha with advocates of grass-fed beef.  Instead, it’s a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be fatal.

When it comes to the intricacies of our food system—and especially the meat industry—what’s true one day can be less true the next. A case in point involves the final FDA report (PDF) on the source of the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that motivated Planck to write her seminal Times op-ed. Released in March 2007, it suggests that the spinach wasn’t contaminated by grain-fed, industrial cattle. Rather, the culprits were more likely to have been wild pigs or pastured (i.e., grass-fed) cattle—animals that were, of course, doing nothing more than eating what they were meant to eat.

Author’s Note: I published these findings in Slate in 2010 and the piece was studiously ignored by a foodie culture that simply will not be told that there are no viable alternatives when it comes to eating animals and animal products. As I see it, this study is yet another reason to go vegan, an option that those who shape the discourse on responsible eating refuse to entertain. How much evidence do we have to shove in their faces?

Reason To Go Vegan #2

» August 24th, 2011


It’s an environmentally responsible choice. Meat production accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. In the United States, the livestock industry swallows 70 percent of the water in the American west. More than half of all antibiotics produced are fed to healthy cattle. The vast majority of the synthetic fertilizer run-off causing the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is used to grow corn and soy to feed to cows. It requires 2500 gallons of water to generate one pound of beef; it takes 13 to grow a pound of tomatoes.

Alternative systems–free range, grass fed, etc.–come with their own environmental issues. Grass-fed cows emit three times more methane than confined cows. Demand for grass-fed beef is leading to the destruction of rain forests in South America. A prominent study has shown that grass-fed beef has, pound for pound, a higher rate of GHG emission than confined cows. Grazing livestock leads to soil erosion. The land requirements are enormous.

Defenders of the alternatives will inevitably argue that cattle, if properly managed, can improve degraded landscape with their nutrient rich manure. This argument–the agro-ecological argument–has two faults: a) it sounds great on paper but is rarely executed in reality; and b) even if it was effectively carries out in reality, it would only be able to produce a very small amount of meat, thus raising the price of meat and leaving the poorest to eat cake. This would certainly be an environmental improvement; but do we want to seek environmental improvement by limiting access to all to a just diet?

One more point, perhaps the ultimate one, environmentally: no matter how an animal is raised, only 40 percent of it is turned into edible meat. The rest is carcass. And eliminating a carcass–as I will explore in a future post–is an inherently energy intensive process.

All of which is yet another reason to go vegan. Make the leap–it’s not a hard one to make–and you will find it hard to believe that you ever ate the way you once did.

Veganism vs. Local Food

» August 10th, 2011

Published on: Friday, August 05, 2011

A Greens Revolution

Note: this piece appeared in the August issue of The Texas Observer


OVER THE PAST DECADE A POWERFUL GROUP OF WRITERS has revolutionized how we contemplate food. In essence, they’ve taught us the importance of eating local.

In response, an equally powerful group of consumers has echoed the “Eat Local” mantra with lockstep loyalty, marching off to buy homegrown produce at farmers markets, insisting that grocery chains support “their” local farmers, and even grazing a backyard hen or two in a nod to the old “back to the land” ethos.

The ultimate message behind this fervent quest to leave the culinary grid is that the food revolution must be decentralized. “Locavores,” as the movement’s acolytes are known, seek to build food systems that are diffuse, attuned to indigenous habits and, most important, small.

A small, fragmented food system keeps the consumer on the move. A dreamscape of the locavore future in Austin would have one buying produce from Carol and Larry at Boggy Creek Farm, scoring a freshly killed bird from that big French guy who raises “wild” game on the outskirts of town, getting some Texas chardonnay from a Hill Country vintner, and picking up some goat cheese, candles, and a copy of Edible Austin at the downtown farmers market. All of this would be accomplished, of course, on a bike, without plastic.

OK, I’m exaggerating (barely). But I do so because I think the locavore movement, for all its benefits, has gone too far—not quite to the point of self-parody, but certainly to the point of counter-productivity. And hence my concern: There’s too much at stake for the 21st century’s most powerful food reform movement to be counter-productive.

Our planet’s on the verge of a genuine food crisis. Global population is expected to rise from 6.9 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050; food production must increase 70 percent to meet this demand; the vast majority of calories will be required by the world’s poorest; and there’s very little arable land left to expand agriculturally. In a word: frightening.

But back in locavore land we’re told that decentralizing the food system is the way to go. Advocates typically tout the environmental benefits that ensue from supporting regional “foodsheds.” Numerous studies, however, cast doubt on this claim. A Lincoln University report, published in 2006, demonstrated that it was four times more energy efficient for a London resident to purchase New Zealand lamb rather than local lamb. Last month, Harvard professor Edward Glaeser wrote an article called “The Locavore’s Dilemma,” in which he argued that urban farms displaced people and, in so doing, increased the need for consumers to drive to buy food. “Shipping food,” he concluded, “is less energy intensive than moving people.”

If it sounds like I’m pushing the status quo here, hold onto your feedbag. The core problem with the western food system isn’t with producers. It’s with consumers.  And consumers aren’t eating too much imported food. We’re eating too many animals. If you, as a conscientious consumer, are truly serious about food sustainability, here’s one thing that you can do, right now, for free, without corporate interference, and with almost certain improvement to your health: You can adopt a plant-based diet.

The logic for doing so couldn’t be more convincing. Take any serious problem marring our current food system—fertilizers, subsidies, GM corn and soy, antibiotics, overuse of pesticides, growth hormones, animal cruelty etc.—and you’ll find at its root the production of animal-based products. A 2011 article published in Environmental Science and Technology showed that eliminating red meat and dairy consumption just once a week would reduce carbon emissions more than eating all one’s food locally. The lesson here should be clear enough: It’s not where our food is grown that ultimately matters when it comes to allocating precious resources to feed the world a just diet; it’s what we’re eating that truly counts.

Charismatic writers persuasively argue that we can effectively replace factory-farmed meat with viable alternatives: free-range this, cage-free that, locally-raised this, cruelty-free that. But these alternatives will only have a limited impact in a world of nine billion. Grass-fed cows produce more methane than corn-fed cows; free-range animals require extensive land to graze; every animal, no matter how it’s raised, imperfectly converts plant food into edible flesh; and every animal, no matter how it’s raised, ends up as a carcass that must be disposed. In the end, these “alternatives” would only replace old meat-based problems with new ones.

Bottom line: The most realistic, humane, ecological, and cost-effective way to feed an expanding population is through globally linked, medium-to-large-scale farms growing a wide diversity of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Producers, big or small, local or international, will move in this direction only if consumers lead them to it. It’s for this reason that the most empowering decision you can make as a socially conscious consumer of food isn’t necessarily to eat locally, but to eat plants.