Beef, Carbon and the Whole Farm Organism
We are constantly asked to evaluate how our actions as individuals affect the environment in the aggregate. We measure our carbon foot prints in commute miles, thermostat settings, and kilowatt hours. I also frequently hear red meat consumption in that mix. I listen to a fair amount of NPR and when guests on the show talk about how to limit your carbon emissions they say, drive less, set the temperature in your house lower, and eat less beef and other red meat. The thought that eating less meat is good for the environment is approaching orthodoxy. I raise cows for meat consumption, and so I may be biased on this issue, but the issue is more complicated than the simple statement that “Meat is bad for the environment.”
Why does meat have a bad rap?
The argument that eating less meat would be good for the environment follows a pretty simple logic, and its all based around feed conversion ratios. Here is the basic out line: chicken has a pretty good feed conversion ratio: 2:1. For every 2 pounds of feed a chicken eats they gain 1 pound of meat. Pigs don’t convert quite as well at 3:1, but still they are doing alright. (It’s important to note that these are hybrids kept in industrial standards. Animals in confinement gain weight more efficiently, because they are kept close to the food, and they don’t burn energy moving around as much. Chickens and pigs that are less aggressively bred, and raised on pasture are less efficient converters of feed.)
Cows fed grain are inefficient converters of feed to meat. It takes 16 pounds of grain for a cow to gain a pound of meat. So, the idea that eating beef is extremely energy intensive is very persuasive. Along with methane production, this inefficiency is what gives cattle a bad reputation when it comes to climate change.
When energy became cheap and plentiful in the mid 20th century, there was a parallel development in the meat industry that centralized meat production, and it was all made possible by cheap energy. The food was monetarily cheap, but costly energy wise. Farming was at the forefront of science and technology boom with the power of industrialization leading the green revolution which promised cheaper and easier food. There are also parallels in the government subsidy programs that took many shapes over the decades following World War I, but again the backbone of the green revolution was cheap fossil fuel. Cheap fuel, along with price supports, led to cheap grain which led to cows, pigs, and chickens, in centralized animal feeding operations (CAFO’s). Meat eating increased in part because the price dropped.
Now, 75 years later, we are facing consequences from a generation or two of cheap fuel, cheap food, and the industrial green revolution. It is easy to blame the result of cheap energy for the use of energy itself, but attacking the head doesn’t slay the Hydra. I think the problems and the solutions are more complicated.
Here is a complication: one of the greatest emitters of carbon in agriculture is the tillage of soil. Breaking the ground to plant releases carbon stored in the ground into the air. This is why tilling millions of acres for corn, planting, dumping chemicals on the ground, harvesting, and trucking the corn to CAFO’s is so inefficient, yet has happened because of cheap fossil fuels and price supports.
Here is another complication: Not all farm land is the same. A lot of land is not fit for tillage. When you hear about acreage devoted to cows, and how much food that acreage could produce if put into vegetables or grain, a lot of those generalizations are false comparisons.
Here are a couple of ways farmers can gather food: planting plants and harvesting them, or sending animals out to eat what is growing naturally on the land, and then harvest the animals. As far as carbon is concerned, it seems pretty decided that tilling, cultivating, and harvesting plants produces more carbon impact per acre than grasslands. Actually, grasslands that feed cows sink carbon into the ground over the years.
Now before we decide to become carnivores who only eat grass fed beef, we have to be realistic. The sheer population numbers suggest we can’t all eat grass fed beef all the time; we must, for the sake of producing enough food for the world, till land and grow vegetables which, while having a higher carbon cost per acre compared to pasture, has a much greater caloric output.
Here is the great part: Plants and animals have a naturally occurring symbiotic relationship. They help feed each other. Wendell Berry pointed out that industrial farming separated plants and animals, and thus “took a good solution and made two problems.” There is little doubt that beef raised in CAFO’s and beef raised on pasture have different environmental impacts. And further, beef raised as part of a whole farm organism have positive benefits on the farm plant life, that their presence supports.
Not all the studies have been done, not all the evidence is in, but it seems to bear out that farms that are mixed in both plant and animal production will be more balanced and have less of a carbon impact. At Jubilee Farm, we talk a lot about the whole farm organism. We have about 40 acres in plant production and about 60 – 70 acres in pasture for animal production. The vegetable side of our farm creates the most carbon, and the pastures used to support our beef herd sequesters the most carbon. The backbone of our plant production is our compost, which comes from our animals and feeds our plants. Our system isn’t perfect, but I am convinced animals play a productive role on the farm, and without animals there would be a missing link.
When well-intentioned people do not distinguish between local grass fed beef and industrially produced beef, and withdraw their support from beef, they can unintentionally hobble farms that are attempting to get this balance right. These farms have a harder time selling beef, and the absence of a few sales can break the back of a small meat producer. Industrial beef, that still relies on cheap fuel and heavy carbon, is hurt somewhat but hardly significantly, it will weather the storm, because the bulk of the population will still eat beef, as we are culturally conditioned to do.
The Green Revolution of the 20th century put the power of industry into farming, and wildly distorted the farming landscape with cheap energy. I’m not saying that we should give up every technologically innovation; I like driving my tractor! But sometimes we need to choose to pull weeds instead of spray, and walk when we could drive.
The environmental green movement places carbon emissions as a central crucible in agriculture. However, over focusing on a single aspect of farming will likely again distort farms and create an imbalance in the whole farm organism. We should learn the lessons of the Green Revolution, and dial back our dependence on cheap fuel, and be hesitant about becoming hyper focused on one aspect of the farm. If a farm’s involvement in the carbon cycle becomes the ultimate barometer of a farm’s success, the farm will likely become unbalanced in some way.