Thursday, March 26, 2009

Underlying Detriments of Grass-fed Beef

This is a response to an article posted on "Mother Earth News". A magazine supposedly dedicated to environmental restoration. Here is the link to the article followed by my rebuttal:

"It is not unrealistic to expect that we as a nation could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs that cannot currently be used for grazing) to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the bargain."

So you're giving up conservation programs to feed cattle? That would further destroy sensitive areas where many species are already endangered.

"The label certifies the beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots; received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed; and were humanely raised and handled."

Are they branded? Dehorned? Raped? Slaughtered? Confined at all? Sounds like many of the same inhumane treatments would still be applied.

"Besides, grass-fed beef tastes better. I know because I eat it. However, it only tastes better if it’s raised right."

Rather contradictory and pure opinion (i.e. biased) to begin with!

"It is not as simple as pointing cows at pasture and waiting for results. In fact, a trained eye will notice a similar scene at virtually any modern grass-fed beef operation: a couple of strands of electric fencing running around a bunch of cattle grazing in a clump. In fact, you could argue that the current revolution in grass-fed beef would not be possible without poly-wire electric fencing, which is cheap and easy to move."

Electricity demands. Electric shocks to animals. Sounds really humane and environmentally friendly. It even talks about FORCING the animals to feed where the FARMER wants them!

"It works this way: Graziers use the temporary electric fences to confine a herd of perhaps 50 calves or steers to an area the size of a small suburban front lawn for a short period, often as short as a half a day."

Sounds like they're equally confined as most industrially produced livestock for the majority of their time alive!

"Churchill’s producers are raising cattle this way on converted corn and soybean land in Minnesota...Part of this is a result of lower or no costs for inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, pesticides and machinery."

Nobody is saying industrial agriculture is a good thing. But it is a necessity to meat the world's meat demands in particular. 60-70% of all soybeans and corn in the states alone goes to feeding livestock. Chances are these former soybean and cornfields were used for that purpose. Most soy is already grown organically. Usually even without the aid of genetic modification. It would be better if we used those fields for soy to feed directly to us as primary consumers (Clearly without the assistance of industrial machinery). It would result in reduced methane emissions from selectively bred livestock ruminators as well!

"If we convert from grain-fed to grass-fed meat, we can turn millions of acres of row crops into carbon sinks, and use permanent pasture to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as conserve water."

If everyone went Vegan, we would probably see an even greater decrease in carbon emissions and more naturalization (instead of using conservation lands for cattle), as opposed to shifting to another form of industrial agriculture. Particularly if veganic Permaculture techniques were used!

"There is even some evidence that perennial grasslands are, under certain conditions, even better at sequestering carbon than forests."

Rather a vague and ungrounded statement. Most scientists realise that forests (particularly rainforests which would have to be cut down for meat production elsewhere in the world to follow this model) are vital to biodiversity. They are also much healthier ecosystems with complex symbiotic relationships with all its inhabitants. Tree plantation in regions susceptible to desertisation has been shown to slow, and even in some instances reverse, its effects. Something grassland probably could not do.

"A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a source of global warming gases, but a permanent pasture is a pump that pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility."

Are they taking into count the fact that genetically altered and bred cattle grow faster and ruminate more methane and CO2 than their ancestral counterparts? Basically they are bred to consume as much and grow as quickly as possible. This model doesn't address this in the slightest. Especially with reference to methane, a greenhouse gas with 24 times the effect of CO2!

"Production of high-input annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rates."

Key word is high-input. As I previously stated, the high input is a necessity to facilitate current meat production methods. Low-intensity farming and especially Permaculture would/could create equally impressive carbon sinks with nitrogen fixers to boot (particular in the case of legumes and bean crops)!

"Early on, especially in organic farming and with the rise of vegetarianism, we began thinking we could approach that diversity by raising a variety of a dozen or so tilled crops (never mind that an acre of pure prairie contains hundreds of species of plants). But it seems obvious now that this line of thinking needed to step up a couple of levels on the taxonomic hierarchy. Why did we think we could in any meaningful way mimic nature’s biodiversity by excluding the animal kingdom?"

Firstly, there are countless crops. This is a huge strawman argument. These "artificial" prairies used for agriculture, would probably only contain species beneficial to the growth/production of the livestock. This is not a "pure" prairie by any stretch of the imagination (save for those whose livelihood depends on it). Nobody ever said any method of farming is exclusive of animals. Even veganic agriculture would promote visits from pollinators (without the need to confine them mind you), beneficial insects and animals (particularly those aiding in decomposition), fungi, all to promote a carbon reducing method of agriculture. Industrial agriculture itself is a problem. But its impacts would be greatly reduced without livestock production (which contributes 18% of greenhouse emissions). Organic agriculture is certainly a step in the right direction. As is truly fair trade produce (which is often hand picked, and organic). Being primary consumers is the best way to reduce energy usage. As only ~10% of a trophic levels energy is given the to level above it. So these vast amount of land that are used for this method of animal agriculture could be done away with altogether if everyone adopted a vegan diet. This would allow it to revert to a truly PURE prairie or forest to a state before it became ravished by industrial animal agriculture.

"There are studies to suggest grain produces less methane, but those studies, by and large, compare conventional pastures with feedlots...On the other hand, studies of rotational grazing have shown decreases of as much as 45 percent in methane production, when compared with conventional pastures."

So, probably studies done by the rotational grazing farmers themselves in order to sell their product. Even a reduction of AT MOST 45% is still a lot more methane than would be produced than on a strict vegetarian diet. But, once again, this is a rather vague statement that is contradicted by itself.

"Remove them from the food chain, and other methane-producing organisms — termites, deer, elk, grasshoppers, not to mention an unimaginable array of microbes — would cheerfully assume the niche."

Once again, these animals are in their natural state and not bred to grow and eat as much and as quickly as possible. Plus all animals produce some level of methane. And it's shown that livestock are/were bred in a way in that they would produce a lot.

"No doubt, at least some environmental good would come from reducing the world’s consumption of beef, but the trend is in the opposite direction. Humans and cattle have worked together for almost 8,000 years, and that is not likely to change soon. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t learn to raise cattle better."

Purely opinion, and a plea to 8000 years of history is nothing when most other creatures have lived in homeostasis for millions. 8000 years is only a minute fraction of the "human" timeline. They simply say we're going in the wrong direction because they don't want to lose business by people realising a vegetable based diet is the only true way to reduce our ecological footprint the most!