Defending Grass-Fed Beef: A Rancher Weighs in


Nicolette Hahn Niman

Helene York's at it again: determinedly arguing that beef, even when entirely grass-fed, can't be "green." But her recent post falls far short of proving this provocative claim. She argues, essentially, that because cattle belch and fart a lot, beef is bad for the environment, focusing entirely on methane emissions, to the exclusion of all else. But zeroing in on a single environmental consequence is nonsensical. (Since rice farming contributes as much as 29 percent of the world's anthropogenic methane, one may well wonder why she is not urging us to cut back our rice consumption.) As with all foods, the environmental impact of beef varies widely, depending on many factors.

Let's start with greenhouse gasses. While it's true that some research indicates that methane emissions from grass-fed cattle are the same as or greater than feedlot beef, there's also credible research showing that their emissions can be lower than corn-fed. That's because the frequency with which cattle are rotated to new pastures, the quality of forages, and the use of dietary supplements can all dramatically affect how much methane a grass-fed beef operation produces. Simply put, good management reduces methane.

Moreover, it's important to note that there were plenty of animal methane emissions in this country long before cattle. 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.

As for the other major greenhouse gases, there's no contest: grass-fed beef fares much better than conventional meats of all kinds. Carbon dioxide, which makes up the majority of climate change emissions from agriculture, has various causes. In the United States, carbon dioxide is mostly due to fuel burned by machinery and vehicles. Unlike feedlot beef (and pork, chicken, and turkey), which relies heavily on machinery for the plowing, planting, harvesting, drying, transporting, and feeding of grains, grass-fed beef can be done virtually without machinery. At our ranch, we use a small truck for some ranch chores and have a utility tractor for periodic mowing. That's about it. The other grass-fed cattle ranches I've visited function much the same way.

Likewise, nitrous oxides, the other major greenhouse gasses from farming, are closely connected to commodity agriculture, not grass ranching. More than three-quarters of U.S. farming's nitrous oxides are from commercial fertilizers. Corn and other grains are usually heavily fertilized. On our ranch (and other grass ranches we know), we use absolutely no manmade fertilizers. None.

York cites reports from the University of Chicago and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. But neither of these reports support her argument against the "greenness" of grass-fed beef. Both merely examine prevailing methods for raising beef and conclude that these methods are environmentally damaging. I agree. As the UN report shows, Brazil, Sudan, India, and other parts of the developing world are deforesting to raise beef. True: that's bad. In fact, deforestation in developing nations accounts for almost half—48 percent—of the total 18 percent figure so frequently cited from the UN report. But in the U.S., there is little to no deforestation occurring to raise beef cattle. Forest acreage in the United States is actually increasing.

Presented by

Nicolette Hahn Niman

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a livestock rancher, environmental attorney, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2009). More

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.

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