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Is it Time to Just Say No to Eating Beef?

Conservation organizations are working with industry to try to make beef production more sustainable. But is that really the right solution?

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All the partners say the roundtable’s work will be driven by science. If that leads to more of the large-scale feedlots that some foodies find distasteful, so be it. Clay and others point to evidence that indicates that beef cattle raised in CAFOs have a lighter footprint than pasture-raised beef. “I see a lot of ideology and assumptions being thrown around as science,” Clay told me. “We have to start figuring out what we can measure, and what we can manage. How many liters of water does it take to produce a calorie? How many meters of land?”

Globally, Clay notes, the largest environmental impact of agriculture is the conversion of natural habitats to farm land. Beef production is a land hog; it accounts for 60 percent of the land used to produce food but generates about 1.3 percent of the world’s calories. (Outside of the U.S., most cattle graze.) CAFOs diminish those impacts — in part because they use far less land, and in part because the cattle in feedlots grow bigger and faster: The U.S. produces more beef than Brazil, with about half the cattle. At the roundtable’s first meeting in Denver, Chandler Keys, an executive with Brazil-based JBS, the world’s largest beef producer, told reporters: “In the next 20 years, you’re going to see more cattle in Brazil come off grass and going into grow yards.”

Others say that’s exactly the wrong approach. Fewer cattle should be in feedlots, they say, and land now devoted to growing corn and soy should be allowed to revert to pasture. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which accepts no corporate money, lists on its website  10 reasons why meat lovers should opt for beef that have been fed all their lives on pasture. Courtney White of the nonprofit Quivira Coalition  writes about carbon ranching, a way of raising cattle that enriches soil, sequesters CO2 and produces what he calls “climate-friendly beef.”

By email, the author Michael Pollan tells me: “When it’s done well, (grazing) is a great positive — to carbon sequestration, improved fertility, soil biodiversity, etc. The idea of putting more animals of grass is also to re-perennialize a bunch of corn fields in the midwest, which will have tremendous environmental benefits. It's all part of shifting from annual monoculture to perennial polyculture farming, which I would think any environmental organization would want to support.”

By phone, the NRDC’s Jon Gelbard, a PhD biologist, says the debate about how to produce beef should not be reduced to an either-or. “People are lobbing life-cycle metrics over a fence at each other,” he says. Environmental impacts depend on the places where cattle are raised and corn is grown, as well as ranching and feedlot practices. “The scale will tip between grass-fed and feedlot depending on the inputs,” he says. Like Clay, he says metrics and standards are needed to drive better practices. “We need a signal in the marketplace,” he says. “Let’s create a system that generates a race to the top.”

Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer and a blogger