My beef with beef

Should environmentalists just say no to eating meat?

That was the headline over my latest story for the YaleEnvironment360 website. The story looked at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a collaboration between environmental groups  and industry to improve the way beef is produced. The roundtable was put together by Jason Clay, a top executive at  the WWF, and includes such companies as McDonald’s, Cargill and Walmart. The roundtable will try to measure the environmental footprint of beef production methods, and spread best practices. If people are going to keep eating beef — and they are — the roundtable’s work should be valuable. While I’d feel better about the effort if it were not predominantly financed by industry, Clay and his colleagues are well-intentioned, in my view.

Having said that…I can’t help but wonder why environmental groups aren’t more vocal about asking their supporters to eat less beef–and especially to avoid beef from factory farms (or, if you prefer, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs).

As I wrote in the YaleE360 story, beef

…has twice the greenhouse gas emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken, and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu, according to the Environmental Working Group. Eating less meat is the most important thing an individual can do to curb climate change, some scientists say. If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius, according to Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago.

And yet:

… green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC’s chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: “Most environmental groups don’t want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It’s a personal issue that’s tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old.”

Danielle is correct–no one likes to be nagged about eating, or not eating, their dinner–but I think there’s more to it than that. The big environmental NGOs are generally reluctant to tackle the issue of overconsumption. Americans, as a group, drive big cars, live in big houses, buy too much stuff and throw too much of it away. None of this makes us, as a group, much happier, research indicates. But environmental groups don’t talk about this as much as they should, perhaps because they don’t want to alienate their well-to-do donors.

Beef would be a great place for them to start. According to NPR, though meat consumption in the U.S. has fallen, we still eat more meat per person — about 270 pounds a year! — than do people in almost any other country; beef consumption this year will be about 54 per pounds per person, according to USDA, via Reuters. Beef consumption at those levels contributes to chronic and preventable ailments like obesity and heart disease. And, of course, beef production in confined feedlots raises animal welfare issues, to put it mildly.

This doesn’t mean that we all need to become vegetarians or vegans. But environmentalists, at least, ought to think about what it means to tuck into a burger, steak or prime rib, again, especially one raised by conventional methods.*

Jonathan Safran Foer, the novelist and author of a book called Eating Animals, asks:

What does it mean exactly to be an environmentalist on a daily basis if you are not thinking about the number one cause of global warming or one of the top two or three causes of all other environmental problems? Does it mean you are necessarily someone who doesn’t care about the environment? Obviously not, but it might mean you have a blind spot for something big.

Bill McKibben put it this way in Orion:

Industrial livestock production is essentially indefensible—ethically, ecologically, and otherwise. We now use an enormous percentage of our arable land to grow corn that we feed to cows who stand in feedlots and eructate until they are slaughtered in a variety of gross ways and lodge in our ever-larger abdomens. And the fact that the product of this exercise “tastes good” sounds pretty lame as an excuse. There are technofixes—engineering the corn feed so it produces less methane, or giving the cows shots so they eructate less violently. But this type of tailpipe fix only works around the edges, and with the planet warming fast that’s not enough. We should simply stop eating factory-farmed meat, and the effects on climate change would be but one of the many benefits.

You can read the rest of my YaleE360 story here. Your thoughts?

* I’m talking here about factory-farmed beef. In researching my story, I had a fascinating conversation with Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition about the benefits of pasture-fed cattle and what he calls “carbon farming.” A topic for another day…


  1. says

    I agree we need to eat less beef. I love meat, but have greatly reduced my beef and lamb (another ruminant with high methane emissions) intake in favor of pork and poultry. Obviously I could do better, but that’s not the point of this comment.

    My point is that I’m conflicted about industrial beef vs. grass fed. Grass fed is clearly more humane, but the methane emissions are much higher. According to “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (FAO, 2006, p. 113) grass fed cattle contribute 8 times as much methane as feedlots cattle. Harder to digest grass leads to more burps. So if we’re going to eat beef, which should we prefer, the well being of the cow, or the well being of the climate? I’m not so sure I agree with your comment that we should abjure CAFOs.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Tom, it’s a great question, and there’s a lot of debate about this–and that UN report has been criticized as both over- and under-estimating livestock’s impacts. Michael Pollan, Courtney White, Jon Gelbard of NRDC and others believe that pasture-fed beef, under the right circumstances, are better for the environment and the climate than feedlot beef. I hope to dig into this more deeply before long.

      • laurie says

        I’m all for giving thought to what we eat and even making sacrifices where necessary. But given that the plains of the US were once covered with bison doing what bison do, and we didn’t have a climate problem then, it seems clear to me that ungulates grazing and passing gas out one end or the other, however exuberantly, are not the problem. It seems worth investigating that it’s not the ungulates, nor human consumption of them, but rather the hydrocarbon-intensive cultivation of foods for them and all the transportation involved, from one end of the process to the other – the thing that is new – that has (along with all the other things we’re doing that our forebears didn’t, like say, jetting from one continent to another) tipped the balance, resulting in our new problem.

  2. Kat says

    There are so many American’s who are glutons, if they would reduce consumption the farms, CAFO’s and otherwise, would shrink. And I see Cargill took a hit last year although I didn’t read enough of their annual report to learn why. As a vegetarian borderline vegan I hope they go under (yes, I’d rather people be forced to find another job then work at a place that shanks sentient beings in the neck). America does not need beef to survive.

    I truly believe based on science reports that the nitrates/nitrites they preserve with cause colon cancer if you consume beef regularly, and I think McKibben hit the nail on the head “…use an enormous percentage of our arable land to grow corn that we feed to cows who stand in feedlots and eructate until they are slaughtered in a variety of gross ways and lodge in our ever-larger abdomens…” “We” are stupid humans for allowing that, but…I feel like we’re coming around as reflected by the information in this article.

    Free the Cows. Ban overconsumption. Maybe Safeway and such could set purchase limits, if you wanna say you can’t tell America what to do, well what about when America as a whole is contributing to the decay of the planet that sustains us?

  3. Andrew Gunther says

    This is a complicated subject made worse by lose allegations and some headline grabbing studies, not all beef is bad and certainly chicken eating soy isn’t sustainable solution. There is a huge conversation to be had but we must avoid painting every meat producer with the same brush. Research demonstrates that truly pasture based production can be carbon neutral. A conversation must be had but at the same time we must ensure good farming practices don’t get caught up in an attempt to oversimplify an issue. There is no silver bullet to the challenges food animal production causes, a complex challenge needs thoughtful inclusive solutions. And sooner rather than later would be 2 cents.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks, Andrew (no relation). I agree that we shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. I’m very interested in the potential of pasture-fed beef. I intend to look into that, and will write about it before long. I also hope the roundtable’s work helps clarify these questions.

    • Dylan says

      I think I am missing something. Isn’t methane the main concern with animal production? Does being carbon neutral include that?

  4. Dr. Jude Capper says

    A question for you. You state “While I’d feel better about the effort if it were not predominantly financed by industry…” yet whom do you suggest should fund such an effort? Are those NGOs or companies who have no ties to beef production really going to have sufficient understanding of the complexities of the production system to make recommendations that are practically achievable by ranchers and farmers? Aren’t beef industry stakeholders the best placed to know and understand which management practices will help to mitigate resource use and greenhouse gas emissions? There appears to be a cultural tendency nowadays to suggest that only the “independent” expert is capable of making recommendations, and that anything funded by industry must be suspect at the very least. Yet if I’m looking for a cardiology diagnosis, I’m going to seek out a cardiologist who has years of experience and research in that field rather than an oncologist, dentist or even a librarian who has read books on cardiology and thus can be considered independent.
    I would suggest that it would behoove you to understand more about the relative efficiencies of grass-fed vs. so-called factory farmed beef, and, assuming that the “follow the money” adage is the reasoning behind your objection to the industry funding for the GRSB, you more closely examine the Environmental Working Group’s report, which is neither peer-reviewed, published in a scientific journal nor shows any in-depth understanding of beef production. Some scientific resources that may be useful are available here: and here:

    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks for your comment, Dr. Capper. I agree that beef industry stakeholders throughout the supply chain need to be involved in any effort to better manage the environmental footprint of beef. But the big companies also have a stake in the status quo–which externalizes many of the environmental costs. If they are financing the effort, hiring the experts, donating to the environmental groups, yes, it will be harder to trust the results. Groups like EDF and NRDC manage to work closely with industry without taking money from companies. Their first and only loyalty is to the environment. As far as your example of the cardiologist is concerned–yes, I want advice from a doctor, but one who is loyal to me, and not making a substantial part of his income from the drug company.
      Your point about EWG is a good one and I will take a look at those resources. Thanks for the pointers.

  5. Amy says

    The biggest issue I have with your article is that it is based on the idea that methane from cows really has an effect on climate. Methane from cattle is so minor compared to what bubbles up from the ocean floors…water vapor is the biggest green house gas. My second issue with your article is the problem with feed lots is actually dust and waste, not methane. The specialists work on the dust and waste issue 24/7. Still, it is the biggest issue. The third issue, is contamination due to processing huge vats of…well, you know. But lastly, that there is something wrong with eating meat. We are so busy running around- paleo-diet, low-fat diet, low-red meat diet, low-salt diet…thanks to all of this, most people eat chicken must more often than beef in the US, and the chicken industry is way worse than the beef in so many ways.

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