Flash In The Pan: Beefing About Beef

The Grass Vs. Grain Debate Rages On

Ari LeVaux
4 min read
Beefing About Beef
( George Routledge and Sons )
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The prevailing rhetoric coming from the environmental, dietary and vegetarian communities paints cattle as agents of personal and planetary demise. From both ends of a cow’s alimentary canal, a climate toxin—methane—spews forth that is so heat-trapping, it makes carbon dioxide look like an amateur.

Climate-fearing omnivores have long sought out grass-fed beef, believing it less taxing to the Earth, but some scientists are now arguing that grain-fed, feedlot beef may actually be more climate friendly.

According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of the new book
Defending Beef, the idea that grass-fed cattle are a burden on the Earth at all, much less worse for the planet than grain-fed beef is, in so many words, udder bullshit. But it’s an idea that she bought into herself during college in the 1980s and held onto for years.

"I drank the Kool-Aid. I quit eating beef and enthusiastically embraced the attitude that no beef was good beef," Niman writes. She went on to become a practicing environmental lawyer. Then she married a rancher. Then she become one.

Today, Niman argues that cattle are good to have around for many reasons. They can improve biodiversity on a landscape and increase the biomass of an ecosystem. These improvements, she writes, can lead to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

To those concerned about global warming, the methane issue is the most concerning threat posed by beef. But Niman’s read on the evidence is that improved landscapes created by properly raised cattle will absorb enough carbon dioxide to offset the methane they emit.

I contacted Emily Cassidy, a research analyst at the
Environmental Working Group, to ask her about this. She acknowledged via email that cattle can have beneficial impacts on the soil. But, she writes, "There are a lot of scientific leaps to be assumed from [improved] soil fertility to offsetting the methane emissions from cattle."

The main problem with grass-fed beef, she wrote, is that the cows, “… take at least twice as long to reach slaughter weight [than grain-fed beef], and during this time beef cattle continue to emit methane, a greenhouse gas—30 times as potent as carbon dioxide."

But, as Niman explained to me by phone, many of the Earth’s ecosystems were once covered by enormous populations of large grazing animals. Her read on the evidence is that we need these grazing animals, properly managed, for the health of some ecosystems.

But Cassidy says that even if this is true, the meat of the methane debate comes down to how much carbon sequestration these ecological improvements might facilitate, and how this compares to the amount of methane emitted by those cattle.

If this debate has demonstrated anything to me, it’s that the methane question hasn’t been settled either way.

A 2011 study published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "
Raising the Steaks," concludes that managing forage crops to improve their nutritional quality could reduce methane emissions by as much as 30 percent, and could also help cattle reach marketable weight sooner, resulting in shorter cow life spans and less methane.

"Corn efficiency has gone up tremendously after receiving decades of serious investment. We’ve done almost no research in improving forage crops," the study’s author Doug Gurian-Sherman told me. "I’ve no doubt that we could improve forage crops if we put some effort into it."

Whether or not grass-fed beef can actually be climate friendly isn’t settled. But beef consumption is going up, no matter what some environmentalists have to say about it. This reality makes Niman’s prescriptions for how to maximize the upsides of cattle on the land, while reducing their harm, worth exploring, whatever the exact carbon cost of cattle may be.
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