image cc Paul Stevenson
You may have heard that, raised properly, grass-fed beef doesn’t hurt the climate. That’s a convenient lie: a recent lifecycle analysis of the carbon impact of grass-fed beef revealed that cows who are pastured for their entire lives emit 50% more greenhouse gasses than their less well treated colleagues trapped in Concentrated Animal Feed Operations.
The report examined the way in which most grass-fed beef is actually raised, in the real world, instead of the idealized one where there’s a magical, unlimited supply of pristine, sustainably managed rangeland out there somewhere. The overwhelming majority of grass fed beef are raised on managed pasture. Managed pasture requires irrigation and periodic fertilization, and because grass-fed beef require a lot of space, that means a lot of irrigation and fertilization.
Which is to say, eating cow is fundamentally bad for the planet, and no amount of $20 a pound contrition at your local Whole Foods is going to change that fact.
There are quite a few other good reasons not to eat beef – animal welfare, heart disease, taxpayer-funded cleanups of small inland seas of cow shit, etc. – but whatever your feelings about your health, animal sentience or your pocketbook, the best reason of all remains that eating beef is, like all other non-essential wastes of natural resources, a disservice to every generation that will inhabit the planet after you.
A new study from the Worldwatch Institute claims that livestock are responsible for half of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. That’s more than transportation and power generation combined! The UN had previously estimated that the figure was closer to 18%, but wherever the number lies, it’s a tragedy.
If you don’t think so, go down to McDonald’s, buy a big mac, and videotape yourself eating it while you tell your grandchildren, around mouthfuls ground chuck, why you decided to increase your carbon footprint by something like a third – hastening the arrival of all sorts of climate change tipping points by decades – in service of a dietary preference.
I know it’s not easy: If you’re a meat addict like me, beef is delicious. And I realize that all the feel-good talk surrounding grass fed beef has an Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten-type appeal to our instinct that something ‘natural’ just has to be good for the environment.
But there are plenty of other delicious creatures crawling, swimming or possibly even walking across the surface of the Earth, not to mention plants, which are even easier to catch, and any one of these foodstuffs has significantly less impact on the climate and our environment than beef. Even grass fed beef.
The idea that if only we could be virtuous enough in the treatment of our livestock, they’ll be as good for the environment as a plant-based diet – that rhetoric has to stop. Our Bobo instincts may support it, but the science doesn’t.