Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production
by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Chelsea Green Publishing
Our culture has descended to the level where we are industriously trashing our environment, but many refuse to accept the blame. Whom to blame? Whom to blame? I know, let’s blame cows. Yeah, that’s the ticket. The cows did it. Those dirty rotten cows.
That solution may be very convenient for the irresponsible-American demographic but their arguments are so lame that it has reached the point where a vegetarian has stepped up to defend the poor, defenseless cows.
One of the most popular accusations is that cows increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that will overheat the planet and it will melt, or something. There are many things wrong with that theory. How much CO2 is generated depends on how beef is produced. If the beef is produced by proper grass-based farming, carbon dioxide is released, but it is also sequestered in possibly greater amounts in the soil. If beef is produced by feeding soy to the cows in large commercial operations, that is much worse. A lot of soy is produced by tearing down rainforests, planting and harvesting soy, then shipping it all over the world, all of which generates a lot of carbon dioxide.
I don’t think this point was made in the book, but if you want to remove all CO2 from the atmosphere, you might want to be careful what you wish for. Without it, life on this planet ends. We need carbon dioxide. Members of the pop-environmentalist religion may vent much angst in my general direction for saying this, but, when the term “global warming” was displaced by the very ambiguous “climate change,” that kind of gave away the scam that we’re all going to melt.
Nicolette Hahn Niman has no doubt that climate change is happening and neither do I. It’s been happening as long as there has been a climate. What specific changes constitute a crisis and why is not clear to me. We are doing many bad things to our environment, but I find the evidence for a CO2-based crisis deeply and profoundly underwhelming. To be clear, Hahn Niman never says that the goal is elimination of all CO2 in the atmosphere.
Another charge brought against cows is that they damage the land by overgrazing it. Allan Savory thought that early in his career. He orchestrated several experiments based on this theory which involved removing large herds from damaged land. The result was the same every time. The land got worse. Finally he realized he “had the bull by the udder” and understood that cows, elephants and other herd animals don’t damage the land. In fact, if properly managed, they repair it and improve it.
Then there’s the one about how they use too much water. Some of the more popular estimates are greatly overblown, but even if not, who cares? This is not gasoline we are talking about where using it means it is up in smoke and gone forever. Nobody is smoking water, least of all cows. Used water doesn’t disappear forever. It is just temporarily diverted. So what? When realistic water usage per pound of beef is compared to rice or sugar (which it never is), suddenly it doesn’t look excessive at all.
If you like honey bees and the variety of foods they make possible, then you need grassland and pasture, which is not possible in the long run without cows and other ruminants.
There is also evidence that human immune systems are more robust when regularly exposed to livestock. One interesting illustration of this point is what happened when Europeans invaded the western hemisphere. The Plains Indians with their buffalo seemed to be much less affected by the European diseases that nearly wiped out eastern tribes.
Many pages are devoted to debunking health claims against beef. Cancer and heart disease skyrocketed in the 20th century. Some people want to blame the cow for that too. One of the most obvious counter-arguments is that we are eating less animal food and saturated fat than we did 100 years ago. If that proves anything, it proves we need more, not less of those things.
I read recently that it is important for us to establish a colony on Mars because the survival of the human race may depend on it. That is hilarious. Earth is the most optimal environment we know of for human beings. If we can’t make it here, how are we going to make it on Mars? Mars is a wasteland. In fact it’s cold as hell (I think I heard that from some guy named Elton John).
That makes almost as much sense as the idea that we can produce more food by kicking cows off the land. That idea may fool city-slicker vegans but not anyone who knows anything about agriculture or nature. Probably most of the land occupied by cows is not good for anything else. Large tracts of land in the world are useless for growing crops but can support grass and cattle. Removing cattle will reduce our total food supply, not increase it.
In the discussion of ethics at the end of the book, the author makes a very important point. One billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock. That is all they have. That makes the ethics argument pretty simple for me.
So we have here a book loaded with good points about the value of beef written by a vegetarian cattle rancher. How can the thumb point anywhere but UP?
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2014