Probably few practices are sustainable for a species which a) is relentlessly expanding; and b) has an economic and social culture that reveres and requires consumption. But this op-ed, “The Myth Of Sustainable Meat,” caught my eye a few weeks ago, because it argues–for all my meat-loving, environmentally-conscious friends–that organic, grass-fed, meat, is not really sustainable.
Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.
Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.
The economics of alternative animal systems are similarly problematic. Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn’t last. These businesses — no matter how virtuous in intention — would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.
This is an important point. Factory farming is both a blight on the planet and a daily holocaust for millions of animals. And while small, organic farms address the toxic outputs, as well as the inhumanity, of industrial meat production, they do not really resolved the climate change impact of meat farming. And if all the world’s meat lovers abandoned factory-farmed meat, and demanded organic meat from small, humane, farms, meat-eating would still wreak environmental destruction on the planet (more pasture, fewer trees, more carbon output, etc., etc.).
The inevitable conclusion: while industrial meat-farming is an abomination for all sorts of reasons, the real environmental problem is that humanity eats WAY TOO MUCH meat. So the best thing our species could do for the planet and the animals is to stop eating meat. But the next best thing, a point made by many who wrote letters in response to the op-ed, is to eat a lot less meat.
So go ahead, enjoy your grass-fed, happy-cow steak, if you insist on eating meat. It’s better for you and better for the animals. But don’t feel smug or righteous about what you are doing for the planet. The only way you get to honestly feel you are doing something with impact is if you cut your meat consumption to near zero, or zero (basically, eat like a Bangladeshi–see below). Sorry, that’s just the reality. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Eating Animals, if you eat meat you can’t really claim to be an environmentalist.