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.

But a greater flaw in York's reasoning is that she ignores the many other environmental attributes of food production.

All foods have environmental impacts, and they go well beyond methane emissions. These factors simply must be taken into account. Food production's environmental impacts include at least the following:

• Water pollution: fish kills, outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscida, "blue baby syndrome," beach closures, tainted drinking water, contamination of ground and surface waters with hormones, agricultural chemicals, hormones, pathogens (including drug-resistant ones), antibiotics and other drug residues, pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides, all of which are connected to confinement animal agriculture and the growing of row crops
    • Dead zones from nutrient runoff, including one in the Gulf of Mexico larger than the state of New Jersey, connected to the growing of row crops in the Mississippi Basin
    • Pollution of air by noxious gasses (like sulfur dioxide and ammonia) and pathogens (including drug-resistant ones), connected to confinement animal agriculture
    • Water depletion (such as diminishment of the Ogallala Aquifer) related to confinement agriculture and crop growing
    • Impacts on biodiversity and other injury to wildlife
    • Soil erosion
    • Emission of greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and yes, methane

Of these important environmental considerations, soil erosion may be the most significant. According to The Fatal Harvest Reader, the United States has lost half of its topsoil since 1960 and we continue to lose topsoil 17 times faster than nature can replenish it. Some 90 percent of U.S. cropland is losing soil above replacement rates. Remember: cropland is a key part of the feedlot beef system, not the raising of grass-fed beef.

Looking at the environmental impacts I've listed—by no means a comprehensive list—it's clear that one cannot look at a single environmental factor and announce that a food is or is not green. When soil erosion, water and air pollution, and biodiversity are considered, well-managed grass-fed beef ranching fares very well.

Compared to crop agriculture, perennial pastures used for grazing can reduce erosion by 80 percent and markedly improve water quality, according to multi-year research at Minnesota's Land Stewardship Project. Pastures and grazing lands sequester significant amounts of carbon, increasing it by about 20 percent compared to croplands. The UN report York cites notes: "There is growing evidence that cattle ranching and pastoralism can have positive impacts on biodiversity." And, as rangeland ecologist Karen Launchbaugh states, "Managed grazing can also reduce the risk and extent of wildfire and improve wildlife habitat."

So why should an environmentally minded omnivore eat a grass-fed burger and feel good about it, rather than just abandoning beef? Because those farmers and ranchers that are doing things the right way need your support. Making a living outside the commodity system is a challenge, now more than ever. If we want a better food system, we must support the people who are building it. And grass-fed cattle ranchers are leading the way.