Commentary: Meat grower’s guide to hogwash and B.S.

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Consciously limiting your carbon footprint has become quite trendy among many young, urban Americans. It’s a practice I whole-heartedly support – it’s just that their ideas to achieve their goal are often way off the mark. This week produced another round of anti-meat chatter with the release of the “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health” by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based non-profit “organization that advocates on Capitol Hill for health-protective and subsidy-shifting policies.”

The research by EWG examined every stage of food production, processing, consumption and waste disposal, and determined that if everyone in the U.S. eliminated meat and cheese from their diet just one day a week for a year, “the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.”

The report found that traditionally raised lamb has the worst carbon footprint, followed by beef, cheese, pork and fish. EWG also made recommendations for people who choose not to give up eating meat. For beef eaters the suggestion is to eat grass-fed beef because it is “lean and healthiest.” It was also recommended that you choose “certified humane.”

From agriculture’s perspective, the “Meat Eater’s Guide” provides plenty of fodder for criticism. For instance, the report criticizes both antibiotic and hormone use by livestock feeders with unproven claims about the safety of those products. It’s also suggested that “pasture raised” animals are treated more “humanely” than traditionally raised livestock.

More important is the fact that this new EWG report provides new material for a host of writers and bloggers who have miniscule understanding of either economics or agriculture. Susie Middleton, a food writer for the Huffington Post, used the report as the basis of a column that listed 10 strategies for eating less meat.

Susie, like a lot of trendy food writers, quickly grabs the sensational tidbits of misinformation spewed out by the anti-meat crowd, such as: “We need big change fast: The latest studies estimate that our current system of intensive livestock farming is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse gases.” Fifty-one percent? Susie, have you ever been fishing? Because that’s a whopper.

Like many other trendy food writers, Susie also says, “I want to support small farmers.” She encourages her readers to buy locally produced food from “small diversified family farms” as a way to reduce their carbon footprints.

That’s admirable, Susie. A worthy goal and one you obviously can afford. Reality is that even if every American could afford the luxury of eating only locally, naturally-produced meats and vegetables, small, diversified farmers couldn’t begin to meet the demand.

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John Johnson    
Denver  |  July, 20, 2011 at 07:10 AM

Greg , you say its all a bunch of hogwash, but you don't say why. This is not a crusade against meat, its simply that all serious scientific studies show that producing meat requires massive amounts of energy, water, and vegetation. Its just a fact. Denial won't change that.

Greg Henderson    
Kansas City  |  July, 20, 2011 at 09:10 AM

John: Drovers/CattleNetwork has published many articles on the subject of beef's environmental footprint. In general, our research of published scientific information shows beef's footprint is far smaller than what many environmental activists claim. However, it's acknowledged that producing meat requires the use of energy, water and forage, but we believe the efficiency of that food production is much greater than the industry is given credit for. Here are a few points we've published earlier: •In EPA’s April 15, 2007 report, “Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2005,” the EPA does not even list livestock as a concern in the United States with regard to carbon dioxide emissions. •Additionally, the EPA says that from 1990 to 2005, methane emissions from beef cattle operations have declined by 3 percent due to the decreasing population of beef cattle and improvements in feed quality. •By far, the EPA says, the largest emitter of methane gases is solid waste landfills which account for 24 percent of all methane emissions. •The U.N. report claims that livestock contribute 37 percent of human-induced methane, but the EPA says animal agriculture accounts for 27 percent of U.S. methane emissions, and methane accounts for less than 8 percent of total greenhouse gases. •Overall, the EPA says, from 1990 to 2005, emissions of methane from all sources decreased by 11.5 percent.•Methane is responsible for 24 percent of anthropogenic global warming. •Of that, ruminants are responsible for 26.4 percent of methane. •So, ruminants are directly responsible for 6.3 percent of global warming. For more information about this subject from Drovers/CattleNetwork, see these stories: Livestock's long shadow? Gaining perspective on livestock's shadow Debunking "livestock's long shadow"

Jim Crawford    
Louisville, GA  |  July, 20, 2011 at 10:23 AM

I'll never stop eating meat, in fact, I don't consider I've had lunch or supper if meat isn't included. These people know nothing but continue to live in la-la land. I guess brainwashing their own kids is part of their plan because if they get their way, no one will have meat in the distant future so their kids won't get the choice. Besides having nothing but contempt for people preaching about something they know nothing about, my fear is where will they stop. Ban meat...then those dirty, herbicide/insecticide vegetables...then cancer causing fruits until we're living off synthetic products that taste like cardboard or worse. These are probably the same people that feed beef from cutter/canner cattle to their darling little lap dogs they carry in their 'shoulder bags'.

Les Wetmore    
vt  |  July, 21, 2011 at 06:43 AM

Who are these people and how do you figure they know nothing? Maybe there are a lot of "soccer moms" that are hardly informed buying organics because it's trendy, but that does make organic proponents ignorant or brainwashed buddy. Fact of the matter is, pouring poison on the field is not a good idea and here we have science, not just gut feelings saying that. There is a lot of information out there (look up Don Huber) about the dangers of GMO's and "traditional" agroculture. As an organic farmer, I know there are better ways. Unfortunatly, it is profit and laziness that drives the Ag industry and not sensabliy and envirnmental stewardship. That is a fact as well and so are the data is this study. So think what you want, but it is you who are living in La-la-land.

Jude Capper    
Ohio  |  July, 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM

There are two main issues with this report. Firstly, their assumptions with regards to beef and lamb production appear to be lacking both detail and understanding. For example, bulls are not included within the beef population, only steers are raised for beef (no information as to the fate of the heifers not used for replacements) and there is no acknowledgement of the dairy industry's contribution to beef supply (calf-fed calves and cull cows). There is no information as to growth rates, diet composition, dry matter intake or days from birth to slaughter, all of which are key parameters affecting the carbon footprint per unit of beef. The data regarding lamb production has the same lack of production and flock dynamics data and does not account for the multiple lambs born per ewe per year (national average of 1.65 lambs per ewe) and the fact that ewes are physiologically mature earlier than heifers. Given the differences in reproductive efficiency, lamb would be expected to have a carbon footprint one-half to two-thirds that of beef, not 44% higher as shown in their report. The peer-reviewers of the report had no background in animal production and the assumption were obviously no verified. The life cycle analysis process that they have used is entirely sound, however, inserting nonsensical assumptions into a model will produce entirely incorrect results. Until a wholescale analysis is conducted that accounts for the environmental effects of all human activities (e.g. driving to the store vs. drinking French wine vs. having three children vs. eating a tofu burger), reports that are founded on erroneous data and do not provide context are entirely meaningless except as a reminder that all food production has an environmental impact. For more discussion of this report, please refer to this blog:

Mack H. Graves    
Denver, CO  |  July, 20, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Greg, Is there no place in your world for ranchers and beef marketers such as my company that offer consumers certified organic, 100% grass-fed beef? There is a demand for this product and like all entrepreneurs, our company is filling this demand. And, we are paying ranchers significant premiums to the conventional market price to raise cattle to organic and grass-fed specifications. It seems to me this is a win-win. Ranchers get more for their cattle than they could at the sale barn or auction yard, consumers get a product they want and my company facilitates both and makes a profit. I simply don't understand the reasoning of those in the conventional cattle busines of insisting that all cattle be raised to the lowest common denominator of feedlot finished, with antibiotic and hormone induced growth and a resultant highly marbled (and saturated fat laden) beef whether all consumers want that or not. Is there room for alternative raising and marketing methods or is it "beef it's what for dinner" as long as it's beef raised the conventional way? I think we in the beef industry need to get the collective chip off our shoulder and recognize that all cattle ranchers are striving for one thing--a consumer that desires their product. And, that consumer has many desires that a "one size fits all" beef isn't going to satisfy. My response to the vegans I encounter doing demos of our organic grass-fed beef in many many stores is, "When you fall off that wagon, fall our way." I think that jokingly tells them that there is room for all of us and we believe in our beef products and hope you try them some time. Thanks, Mack H. Graves 303-882-5453

Maren Bell Jones DVM, MA    
Missouri  |  July, 20, 2011 at 10:59 AM

Excellent post, Mack. It is free enterprise, after all. There will always be those that want the cheapest meat possible at Wal-Mart, no matter the bland taste or the questionable husbandry practices. There were always be those who want locally produced grass fed beef, even if it does cost more. There is plenty of room in the sandbox and consumers simply want the right to choose.

T. Martin Bickett    
MN  |  July, 20, 2011 at 11:32 AM

Mack: I congratulate you on your efforts. By all means promote your product and be profitable. My question is why Organic? Why Grass Fed? How was this market built? Every time I hear someone promoting these lines of products it is not without condemnation on the way I raise beef that feed not only my children but people worldwide. In my humble opinion the promotion of organics as a healthier food choice is false. It implicates that any technology used in the production of food is bad. How is a chemical compound say nitrogen found in it's natural state different from the same chemical compound that is 'man-made'? The propaganda that 'local' food movement is more efficient and a smaller carbon footprint is flawed at best. I am not anti-change nor a lackey for any large company, however I believe we have a moral obligation to use the resources available to us in the most efficient manner not only to feed the masses but also ensure viable food production well into the future. You have the right to produce whatever you feel like however don't sell your product on false implications about what the food the vast majority produce is or is not.

Charlie Andrews    
Chicago-Kansas  |  July, 20, 2011 at 11:16 AM

In 1962 Warren Monfort sent me to LA to meet a Japanese delegation that wanted to learn about cattle/beef. Their first words were that the average Japanese cousin raised in the US was 8 inches taller than his cousin in Japan. Simply the amino acids beef provides was responsible. Animal proteins are necessary for proper body functions. Humans were the lowest preidtor among mamels until they startedd eating the marrow from crushed bones which then rose to the most intelegent in th animal chain. The Japanese wanted us to teach them the cattle and beef business. The rest is history. We let the USDA baboozel us by interjecting that colestrol-fat was very bad which caused much distress to prices in the 1980's. Now stand up with pure facts and let us provide beef/ amino acids to the masses of undernourshed. When we sell beef as amino acids we will have arrived.

Karen H    
Colo  |  July, 20, 2011 at 11:18 AM

Mack, Greg wasn't slamming your business, organic, grassfed, or small farms. He was simply pointing out that yet another totally inaccurate report is out there written by people who can't be bothered to do any research into scientific facts. Facts don't sell, horror stories do. Another fact is that reverting to the good ol' days of 40 acres and a mule will not feed today's population. Modern efficiencys are a must.

New Mexico  |  July, 20, 2011 at 12:54 PM

Do I have the correct information that beef consumption is the lowest per capita in decades? Perception is reality and if you really want to know there is a difference nutritionally between organic grass fed and feedlot beef. I am of the mind to produce what my customers want. I denigrate my competition to sell my product my customers are seeking it. However I have read more than one article in this publication calling me for what I (raise and market organic beef) a liar and a fraud. The wat I see it is I'm selling pounds of beef that might have been chicken instead. I do believe we have created the most economically efficient system in the world to produce beef but are their other costs associated with the system that many people are perceiving to have problems. The industry has to stop thinking that the consumer is and idiot and doesn't know what is good for him. Not all issues are strictly pocket book issues. Let's produce what the consumer wants, which will include a variety of methods.

New Mexico  |  July, 20, 2011 at 01:55 PM

Correction on my last post I do not denigrate my competition. I sell into both markets.

Ragnar the Impetuous    
North Texas  |  July, 20, 2011 at 03:08 PM

I get it if a grow corn and eat it myself it has a higher carbon foot print than feeding it to a cow and growing the cow and then me eating the cow. Thanks for setting my poor old simple minded head straight. Me go eat burger now to celebrate that it takes less to produce corn than a cow feed on corn. Thank you for doing the hard think work for me, knew report with transparent methodology is bogus. Now me call Rush and tell him. More guns solve gun violence, earth only 5 thousand years old, global warming does not exist, evolution never occurs, cutting tax rates raises tax revenue intakes. Me never use brain to think. Duhh. You guys are a hoot. Keep it up SNL never made me laugh as much as you editorial nonsense.

Nebraska  |  July, 20, 2011 at 03:57 PM

Ragnar! If you visit Harvard and talk to their best thinkers, or visit with anyone off the street, about a subject they are not schooled in, you find that ignorance on any one subject does not have intellectual boundaries. Two basic topics come to mind in this string. 1 how hard are you willing to work to do your job ethically and fairly without regard to your agenda of seeking success in your life's passion. 2 Are you willing to accept a free market that has thousands of niches and thousands of vendors to fill the needs. How did YOU respond to these topics? With all you have to offer. Nothing. To simply call people with a different mind set than you - Stupid- is to show that you are unwilling to enter the arena of debate. Are you lazy? Ignorant yourself? Willing to go along with unethical behavior if it forwards your agenda? No matter how difficult it is to find truth, the pursuit is still important. You do nothing for society. You do nothing for your own improvement. You are wasting everyone's time and embarrass the people that would share your same views.

Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  July, 20, 2011 at 08:00 PM

"diversified farmers couldn’t begin to meet the demand." Everything up must come down. "Demand" is/will continue to decline. There will be a world of people who'd rather eat a plant based (ethical) diet... The only thing certain is change - A future that is ever progressive towards modifying human eating habits is inevitable. I'll put my new money and best sense in those industries. Nice to see you guys infight though! ;)

manhattan, ks.  |  July, 21, 2011 at 06:02 PM

Bea-Whats ethical about having to kill a plant to sustain yourself? Its the same thing as killing an animal to sustain life, you just think a plant has less value so it doesn't bother you, thats hypocrisy at the highest level. You call it ethical, I call it limiting your food supply. "There will be a world of people who'd rather eat a plant based (ethical) diet", you're right there are alot of those people and guess what they're starving in third world countries all around the world, but i doubt those people wouldn't like to eat a big, juicy, nutritious steak every once and a while if they had more money to spend! Theres nothing more ethical about your plant diet compared to eating meat you just believe there is. Just to let you know there has never been a successful, long-term vegetarian/vegan society ever in the history of the world, so if we follow your lead its straight into extinction, I'll choose a steak over that any day!

Dave Anderson    
montana  |  July, 21, 2011 at 10:06 AM

Many people in the information world live and were raised in cities . They have no idea about how much meat and produce the eating machine of America consumes . Vast volumes of food can only be produced on a large scale . Electric cars in cities would eliminate high fuel demands , smog , air quality problems ,the list goes on . That would leave fuel for farmers to raise food for all the city folk .

Dave Moeller    
Indiana  |  July, 21, 2011 at 10:36 AM

It is very interesting to see the interplay between the two extremes ("Modern" vs. Sustainable). As a grass based cow-calf operator I think there is room for both in the "sandbox". Cattle and Sheep have an inherent advantage in today's high grain cost environment. As ruminants they can utilize produce from marginal land (Pasture) as well as crop residues. It is just wrong to think that we have to have high grain inputs to produce enough beef or lamb for our population. How many cattle could be raised utilizing the two tons of stover per acre left to rot in corn fields instead. Our grandfathers produced an awful lot of beef and lamb that way 50 years ago. Well now we know why it won't work!!!! It's not "Modern".

Dave Moeller    
Indiana  |  July, 21, 2011 at 10:36 AM

It is very interesting to see the interplay between the two extremes ("Modern" vs. Sustainable). As a grass based cow-calf operator I think there is room for both in the "sandbox". Cattle and Sheep have an inherent advantage in today's high grain cost environment. As ruminants they can utilize produce from marginal land (Pasture) as well as crop residues. It is just wrong to think that we have to have high grain inputs to produce enough beef or lamb for our population. How many cattle could be raised utilizing the two tons of stover per acre left to rot in corn fields instead. Our grandfathers produced an awful lot of beef and lamb that way 50 years ago. Well now we know why it won't work!!!! It's not "Modern".

Idaho  |  July, 22, 2011 at 10:22 AM

I think an unfortunate disconnect, and why conversation between the livestock industry and those opposed to raising animals for meat, is seen in the title. You view farmers and ranchers as 'growing meat' (like growing 'corn') while others may view the practice as 'raising livestock' or 'animal husbandry'. Words are powerful things and this title (not to mention the article itself) does not advance the conversation.

manhattan, ks.  |  July, 22, 2011 at 01:42 PM

Robert- India, really India! I knew someone was going to bring that up when I made that statement. Isn't that the same India that Norman Borlaug had to start the Green Revolution to keep its civilians from starving? Isn't that the same country that was conquered and ruled by the British for how many decades? Is that the same country that Alexander the Great managed to invade and conquer? I could go on and on, but to me that doesn't sound like a very sucessful civilization. In all fairness they have contributed many things to education, religion and so on but a country that can't sucessfully protect its own borders isn't a successful civilization. You essentially lost your main point when you stated, "While not a completely vegetarian society". I agree its more complicated then just eating meat but a society that limits what resources they are willing to use to survive will always eventually lose power, authority and influence.


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