How Good Meat Makes a Difference

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Photo by julieabrown1/Flickr CC


On Saturday, the New York Times published an essay of mine, "The Carnivore's Dilemma," which made the point that all foods--not just meat--play a role in global warming, and that focusing solely on meat (as a veritable flood of media coverage has done of late) is unhelpful, especially since few Americans have any intention of becoming vegans. All eaters, I concluded, can reduce their global warming contribution by avoiding processed foods and those from industrialized farms; reducing their food waste; and buying food that's local and in season.

But fellow Atlantic Food Channel blogger Helene York wrote yesterday that my essay "went too far." Specifically, she objected to my statements that the global warming impact of traditional, grass-based animal farming is markedly lower than those at industrial animal operations. She also argues that the higher purchase price of foods from pasture-based farms put them out of reach for most Americans. Thus, she concludes, advocating for reduced meat consumption is more important than encouraging consumers to buy from pasture-based farms. While I have a boatload of objections to minor points York makes in her post, let me stick to those major areas of disagreement.

York's first claim, that my essay overstated the climate benefits of pasture-based farming, misses the mark in several ways. She emphasizes that methane, especially from enteric emissions (related to ruminants' digestion), rather than CO2 or nitrous oxides, is the real global warming threat related to meat. I agree that methane is the gas of greatest concern. However, as my op-ed notes, there are viable remedies. University studies have demonstrated that good cattle nutrition and management can substantially reduce such emissions. In addition to the research cited in the essay, consider the following: a study published in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science showed that access to high-quality pasture reduced cattle methane emissions by as much as 50 percent and that cattle grazing on pastures containing legumes and grass produced 25 percent lower methane emissions than cattle grazing on pastures without legumes. Legumes, such as clover and vetch, can be seeded in grazed pastures. In other words, enteric methane is a solvable problem.

It's illogical, or at the least skewed, to single out meat.

There's another thing about enteric methane: it's been around for eons. Logically, climate change policy should focus on things that are in fact changing, especially those caused by human activity that can be altered. The original draft of my Times essay contained the following paragraph, which we needed to cut due to space constraints:

Prior to European colonization of North America, enormous herds of large ruminant mammals covered the continent, including millions of deer, an estimated 10 million elk and somewhere between 30 and 75 million bison. "The moving multitude...darkened the whole plains," Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.

Additionally, as the op-ed also points out, rice fields cause as much as one third of the world's human generated methane. So it's illogical, or at the least skewed, to single out meat.

Presented by

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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