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Making the ecological and nutritional case for beef

Cutting down forests in the developing world, as troubling as it may be, actually has almost no connection to American beef consumption.

Close up of brown cattle
JP WALLET

The following excerpt is from Nicolette Hahn Niman’s new book, "Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat, 2nd Edition" (Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. The above is an affiliate link and we may get a small commission if you purchase from the site.

Defending Beef book cover

Now I want to take a moment to dive a little deeper into Livestock’s Long Shadow’s 18 percent figure for meat’s contribution to global warming. It has some serious credibility problems.

For starters, this figure was always an outlier. As Simon Fairlie points out in his thoughtful and meticulously researched book, "Meat: A Benign Extravagance," the 18 percent number far exceeded most other estimates from reputable scientific organizations. Among those were the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said at the same time that the whole of agriculture causes between 10 and 12 percent of global greenhouse gases. Likewise, here in the United States, official Environmental Protection Agency reports show U.S. agriculture causing just 8 percent of U.S. global warming emissions. It bears restating this is for all U.S. agriculture, not just meat production. (By comparison, EPA reports that U.S. transportation causes 28 percent of emissions.) Clearly, the Long Shadow figure never reflected a scientific consensus, and has limited application to animal farming here in the United States where fossil fuel emissions are a far more urgent problem.

Additionally, the 18 percent figure cannot be regarded as objective, scientific data. It is clear Livestock’s Long Shadow, like other reports, was crafted to support a particular policy agenda. In this case, the recommendations strongly suggest it was devised to strengthen the following argument: The global demand for meat is rising; confined pig and poultry operations have a lower climate change impact than cattle; thus, the world food supply should move away from grazing animals and toward industrial poultry and pork. (Remember, this is the report’s perspective, not my own.) Even before its release, Long Shadow’s lead author, Henning Steinfeld, a German agricultural economist, was on record making precisely this argument.

I’ve personally met Steinfeld twice: once when he visited our California ranch, and once on a panel at a livestock conference in Bonn, Germany. From our direct conversations, as well from listening to him present his views at the conference, it was clear Steinfeld favors just such an approach. He believes that to fulfill a growing appetite for meat, the world should increase confined pork and poultry operations while shrinking herds of grazing animals.

I’m not suggesting Steinfeld is anything less than competent and sincere; he strikes me as both. But authors do have perspectives. And understanding an author’s point of view helps explain why certain things are included in a calculation while others are omitted. Such decisions are hotly debated in emerging fields like climate change. Henning Steinfeld views grazing animals as problematic, poultry and pork confinement operations less so. For reasons that will become clear in this book, I strongly disagree.

Official EPA reports show U.S. agriculture causing just 8% of U.S. global warming emissions.

More recently, Livestock’s Long Shadow’s 18 percent figure has fallen out of favor within the United Nations, even at FAO. In September 2013, FAO released a report it characterized as an "update" to Livestock’s Long Shadow. It revised the 18 percent figure to 14 percent, a 22 percent reduction. Similarly, in November 2013, FAO’s sister agency, the United Nations Environment Program, released a report called The Emissions Gap Report 2013, which stated that the whole of agriculture caused 11 percent of greenhouse gases. These and other more recent analyses should take precedence.

The 18 percent figure should never be cited again.

In addition to FAO, others have attempted to quantify livestock’s total global warming impact, generally with less credibility. Among them were two policy analysts (neither a climate scientist) who asserted in a 2009 World Watch publication that livestock were responsible for a whopping 51 percent of all global warming gases. Predictably, this bold pronouncement attracted media attention.

However, the wild claim quickly crumpled under scrutiny, as it turned out the number was simply hatched by the authors. In interviews, the acknowledged the 51 percent figure resulted from neither new research nor even new anecdotal information. Rather, they explained, they had read an article by a physicist who suggested including livestock respiration in greenhouse gas calculations. The authors (the senior of whom, now deceased, was an outspoken vegan advocate) then simply took the figures from Livestock’s Long Shadow and recalculated them, adding in a (very large) number for animal respiration. Mind you, the physicist’s article was also not reporting results of any fieldwork or climate change research; it was simply a two-page essay in which he espoused an idea. Hmm.

Notably, FAO’s newer study (which concludes livestock’s role in greenhouse gases totals 14 percent rather than 18) explicitly excluded respiration. Hopefully it puts to rest once and for all this breathy idea. This must have shocked the authors of the World Watch piece, who had earlier stated: "We heard recently that FAO have been sparked by our work to do their own recalculation ... They have a lot of money and a lot of people; a lot of good mathematicians, and they have the world’s best database on all these things, and so they’re going to recalculate their own work and I’m sure that their 18 percent will move towards our 51 percent, or even exceed it." Um, no.

As one would expect, the figures in Livestock’s Long Shadow have also been dissected and criticized by those who feel they overstate livestock emissions. The most important of these objections, discussed earlier, is that nearly half of the 18 percent number was due to carbon releases from deforestation in the developing world, particularly Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Sudan. The idea of including such emissions was novel, and it’s the main reason Long Shadow’s number was so much higher than any other previous credible calculation. Yet including deforestation emissions raises several red flags.

In addition to the problems already highlighted, there’s this one: A figure for numbers of acres cleared cannot be the basis for a credible annual figure of greenhouse gas emissions. As trees are felled and burned, carbon that was stored in them is released to the air as CO2. This is a onetime event. Once an area has been cleared it cannot be deforested again the next year, let alone the next. The CO2 emitted from deforestation happens once, period. To treat this as an annual, recurring figure is patently misleading. The fallacy in taking this approach is illustrated by FAO’s own updated figure (14 percent), which was, its authors said, considerably lower primarily because Brazil was taking serious measures to rein in its deforestation problem (although the 14 percent figure, too, includes the deforestation emissions in its total).

Beef isn’t causing deforestation in the U.S. Trees are not being cut down here to make way for cattle, and, despite a popular myth to the contrary, they never were.

Cutting down forests in the developing world, as troubling as it may be, actually has almost no connection to American beef consumption. In theory, soy from deforested areas could be imported to the United States as livestock feed. In reality, however, the amount is tiny because nearly all soy used in U.S. feeds is domestically grown. Less than one-third of 1 percent of all soybeans used as feed in the United States are imported from all other countries. Three-quarters of Brazil’s soybeans go to China, with nearly all of the rest going to the EU. If any soy at all goes from deforested Brazilian fields to American beef feedlots, it is statistically zero.

By the same token, less than a fifth of all beef and veal consumed by Americans (16 percent, according to USDA researchers) is imported. And over 80 percent of that 16 percent comes from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In other words, the most that could possibly originate from all deforested developing countries combined is just 3 percent. All of which means the environmental advocacy pamphlet I saw as a college student depicting my hamburger destroying the Amazonian rain forests was simply a fiction. Deforested lands in the developing world are the source neither of U.S. cattle feed nor of American beef.

Meanwhile, beef isn’t causing deforestation in the United States. Trees are not being cut down here to make way for cattle, and, despite a popular myth to the contrary, they never were. Historically, forests in this part of the world were cleared for crop agriculture, timber, and railroads, not for grazing. Vast stretches of the United States — particularly in the Southeast, Midwest, and Far West — were grasslands when Europeans arrived. There is active discourse over the contribution of Native Americans to the creation and maintenance of these grasslands. Regardless of any human role, land available for grazing was in place when Europeans began populating North America with their cattle in the 16th and 17th centuries. These existing grassy areas served as the primary grazing areas for both wild herbivores and domesticated livestock. When humans cleared land of trees or actively prevented foresting, it was done for reasons other than grazing cattle.

The views expressed in this article are solely the opinion of the author.

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