A Defense of Meat Goes Too Far


Photo by avlxyz/Flickr CC

Nicolette Niman, the marketing maven of Bill Niman's independent ranching operations in Northern California, environmental lawyer, activist, and author of Righteous Porkchop, and contributor to the Food Channel, published a balanced defense of meat in Saturday's New York Times. In it she argued that meat shouldn't be demonized for its contribution to global warming, because it isn't as potent a contributor as we think. Not the pasture-raised stuff anyway.

There's truth in her assertions, but I'm compelled to point out some qualifications. Niman is clearly vexed by the one-note activists whose goals are to promote vegan or vegetarian diets as the "only option"--for climate change, moral/animal welfare arguments, or both. As a partner in pasture-based systems, she wants to draw a clear distinction between the environmental record of industrially produced meat (and soy) versus other systems. And there are many.

But Niman goes too far in saying that "meat and dairy eaters need not be part of [the real story of meat's connection to global warming]." The halo of the small ranch is not entirely deserved. Nor is it within reach of most Americans--financially or practically. I'm a fan of what she and her husband do. In fact, I spent the better part of last week arranging the stocking of hundreds of Niman's heritage breed turkeys from the Bolinas farm and their distribution to a meat distributor, to go to the colleges and corporations we serve at Bon Appetit Management Company. The Nimans' BN Ranch is so local to some accounts that the turkeys could walk there themselves if they didn't have to be delivered dead. Their production systems are what meat production should be.

The American diet is so meat-based compared with the rest of the world that questioning how much meat we eat, and what kinds, is a very good place to start the conversation.

The conclusion Niman wants us to draw is that family ranchers not only do it better but the food they produce--as opposed to by industrial farms or processed food--is ultimately "low-carbon." I'm with her on the first point. I step off on the second.

Ruminant animals belch methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, no matter what you feed them. No other food type has that burden. Research from numerous on-farm studies is showing that methane emissions vary by breed, size of animal, and what the animals eat, and can be lessened by diet and choosing different breeds. How much less is up for debate (the literature is inconclusive), but it is potentially significant. If changing animals' diets or breed types is necessary to reduce--but by no means eliminate--methane emissions from digestion, though, will people eat meat that might have a very different taste?

Methane also comes from animal waste. Niman's carefully worded assertion that in "animal farming, much of the methane comes from lagoons of liquefied manure at industrial facilities" is true, but a bit misleading. Most methane comes from enteric fermentation--digestive processes. It isn't true that with no lagoons, there's no methane emitted from waste.

In many pasture-based, more humane systems, animals live longer and mothers are kept to feed their young. When counting environmental impact, then, we have to as much as double the methane emissions and other impacts for a pound of meat produced. No matter how you measure it, carbon dioxide is a much smaller percentage of greenhouse gas emissions related to meat production than methane. So much so that we really shouldn't even discuss CO2 when comparing meat production. While it's true that many smaller, traditional farms and ranches in the United States emit significantly less CO2 because they keep their animals on pasture rather than in fossil fuel-powered facilities, use less machinery and less often, and frequently grow their own feed, their virtues are often erased by lack of infrastructure support. Our meat production system is set up to favor industrial operations, so slaughterhouses are often located hundreds of miles from small ranches. The transport miles saved for feed is canceled due to the (literally) heavier burden of transporting animals to slaughterhouses and remote processing and distribution centers. It is simply not true to say "there are no emissions from long-distance transport" on farms that pasture their animals or supplement their feed with home-grown soy.

We're in agreement on many points. There's no question that "efforts to minimize greenhouse gases need to be much more sophisticated than just making blanket condemnations of certain foods." But the American diet is so meat-based compared with the rest of the world that questioning how much meat we eat, and what kinds, is a very good place to start the conversation.

Changes in the food system are coming. Besides livestock production changes, more processed foods are being manufactured in solar-powered facilities, and transport fleets are adopting cleaner fuel. And some producers are making changes in animal husbandry on the margins. In the food service sector, we're rethinking and radically reducing food waste throughout the supply chain.

But is the combination of these potential changes sufficient? Canadian food systems researcher Nathan Pelletier told a distinguished audience in February that "Given the projected doubling of [global] meat production by 2050, we're going to have to cut our emissions by half just to maintain current levels"--and, of course, our current levels of emissions are unsustainable. Lesson: if viewed through a lifecycle accounting of environmental impacts, meat and dairy products carry a relatively heavy burden no matter how they're produced. Most of the world's meat is, in fact, already produced on pasture-based systems.

Rather than defend meat as having less of a climate change burden, I think we should focus on the real question of how we should produce the meat we still want to eat. Pasture-based local meat is radically more expensive than industrially produced meat--unlike sustainably produced vegetables, which often come in for the same criticism. The Nimans' birds are twice the price of the sustainably raised bird our chefs generally buy, and three to four times the price of industrially produced turkey this time of year. In other words, what they do is completely out of reach for most consumers.

It shouldn't be. Federal policy, more than the scale of operations, makes the price of industrially produced meats so much less expensive than pasture-raised meats. That's what we need to be talking about, and trying to change.