Sara Hessenflow Harper
Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) On-Demand Services. This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability -- including the market forces and hidden drivers propelling it from a pragmatic and solutions-oriented point of view. Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg. Views expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.
Can You Really Save the Planet by Boycotting Beef?
Aug 26, 2014
Recently, there have been numerous news stories (see Fox news and yesterday's Triple Pundit articles) capturing a great deal of media attention by claiming that the best thing one can do to reduce climate change, is to simply boycott beef and eat some other meat instead. Despite my love of beef, if the problem were truly that simple, I might be inclined to participate. But, as is almost always the case with navigating sustainability (or life for that matter), the answer is never simple and there are always trade-offs and unintended consequences to whatever choices are made. Sustainability should be about balancing these trade-offs, not declaring definitive winners and losers in a highly variable and dynamic living system.
Certainly some of the concerns raised by these studies should be taken seriously regarding the amount of energy and water needed to create beef in our current system. One area identified that deserves some real thought is for grain-finished cattle that are fed corn from water-scarce regions using irrigation . . . well, that can’t sustainably last forever and this is a worthy area of concern. But going from some legitimate environmental concerns to "just eat chicken" is a pretty big leap.
Going to college at Kansas State University right beside the beautiful Konza Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, I was able to see firsthand what that ecosystem looks like and how all the pieces within it (including cattle) work together. As I read and listened to the coverage of these recent studies assailing beef’s climate impact, I found a lot missing that perhaps comes back to a lack of understanding about the full system. I found myself wondering if the studies had truly accounted for all that is involved with raising cattle. Here are a few questions that came to my mind:
- Beef cattle spend a good deal of their lives converting grass and other forage/fiber that we cannot eat, into a nutritious and delicious protein source. Was this conversion of grass -- which ALL cattle spend a signficant amount of time eating, factored into the environmental impact assessment? Since cattle are converting something people cannot eat into nutrients that can be part of a healthy diet (in moderation), that is a signficant environmental benefit. While chicken convert grain faster to meat, they are not spending signficant time converting grass to meat, therefore they are dependent almost entirely on crops we raise to feed them. That is not a huge problem now, but if you signficantly increased the number of chickens raised, you are also going to need that grain that was going to finish cattle to go to other livestock -- so at the end of the day, how much have you really saved on impacts?
- What about the ecosystem value provided from cattle grazing on the grasslands themselves? Cattle, and bison before them are a key part of the grass and prairie landscape. If we suddenly removed all the cattle, which is what would happen if everyone stopped eating beef, these large grasslands would also lose their value and be more susceptible to development. Even for those that remained as grasslands, without cattle grazing, they would face deterioration that could result in greater GHG emissions. This is because when cattle eat grass, more grass growth is stimulated and more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are stored as carbon in the soil. There are even indications that proper cattle grazing contributes to grasslands ability to adapt to climate change and drought by encouraging greater growth and species diversity than would otherwise occur. Cattle provide a natural source of fertilizer in their manure as they graze, and studies have found that as they walk on grassland, their weight and hooves serve to stimulate positive soil carbon developments below ground. Just look at the environmental and carbon sequestration differences between land that was taken out of production and not grazed (as in some parcels of Conservation Reserve Program) vs. proper rotational grazing pastures and you will see the difference cattle make to this ecosystem.
This fenceline view shows the effect grazing can have on a grassland. The area on the right has been grazed, changing aboveground biomass and species composition. Photo used with permission by J Ham/Kansas State Univ.
- Using a GHG impact standard alone as the means to make production and eating decisions presents a distorted picture. What about foods and beverages that provide little to no nutritional value (i.e. soda, candy) and in fact contribute to multiple health problems when consumed in large amounts? For these items, we are seeing a negative on nutrition, a negative on health impacts and yet a significant use of energy/creation of GHG emissions for the generation of those calories. If one is looking for a place to start in terms of reducing GHG emissions from the food and agriculture sector, doesn’t it make sense to start with food that contributes to GHG emissions AND other problems?
- How realistic is it to think that a significant number of people will make food choices solely on GHG criteria? Isn’t it a far better use of academic energy to ensure greater balance of food consumption and to contribute to knowledge transfer to countries that do not produce beef as efficiently as the U.S.?
- Since grain-finished beef is the most efficient system in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for producing beef, doesn’t this mean there should be special emphasis on avoiding solely grass-fed beef if GHG emissions are the only criteria being examined?
- How much more of other protein sources will be needed if everyone stopped eating beef? What is the environmental impact of a LOT more concentrated chicken production in the U.S. for example, to make up for meat eaters that stop eating beef to save the climate? What does that do to water quality and the already high phosphorus loads coming from chicken waste in an already heavily concentrated industry? What about the fact that chicken manure is much harder to re-use as a nutrient than cow manure? Is that factored in?
- What about the socio-economic and cultural values associated with raising beef? The beef supply chain remains one of the most independent of all food production systems in the U.S. To encourage consumers to boycott this form of protein is simultaneously encouraging
None of these questions or thoughts is intended to infer that greenhouse gas emissions -- or other environmental impacts in the beef sector are not a real concern – of course they are, and should be. It is important to have studies that define and help us all reduce the impact of all products – that is in our common interest. I would even say that it is important to have more actual measurement of impacts throughout the food supply chain so that consumers who want to make informed choices are able to see impacts and trade-offs and make those choices for themselves. The problem comes in when someone decides to look at a complex problem and posit a simple solution. I find that when this is the case there is usually some other ideology or bias coming along for the ride.
Should the beef industry continue to push its efficiency up and reduce its environmental impact? Of course! Should we all stop eating beef to save the planet? That’s just silly.
Special thanks to the following folks who have contributed to my understanding of the cattle and grassland systems over many years of shared knowledge and good conversations:
Dr Charles Rice, KSU,
Christine & Dr. Eddie Hamilton
Dr. Robbie Pritchard, SDSU
Dr. Dan Thomson, KSU
Follow Sara on Twitter @SustainAg