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