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Carnivore’s Dilemma - IBGEO

Carnivore’s Dilemma


Unhealthy. Nutritious. Cruel. Delicious. Unsustainable. All-American. In the beef debate there are so many sides.

Meat is murder. Meat—especially beef—is cigarettes and a Hummer rolled into one. For the sake of the animals, our own health, and the health of the planet, we must eat less of it.

Meat is delicious. Meat is nutritious. Global demand is soaring for good reason, and we must find a way to produce more of it.

In short, meat—especially beef—has become the stuff of fierce debate.

People can’t settle that debate for others—Americans, say, can’t decide how much beef or other meat Chinese should eat as their living standards improve. But each of us takes a personal stand with every trip to the supermarket. Critics of industrial-scale beef production say it’s warming our climate, wasting land we could use to feed more people, and polluting and wasting precious water—all while subjecting millions of cattle to early death and a wretched life in confinement. Most of us, though, have little idea how our beef is actually produced. Last January, as part of a longer journey into the world of meat, I spent a week at Wrangler, in Tulia, Texas. I was looking for an answer to one fundamental question: Is it all right for an American to eat beef?

Pharmaceuticals are crucial to the feedlot industry. Every animal that arrives at Wrangler receives implants of two steroid hormones that add muscle: estradiol, a form of estrogen, and trenbolone acetate, a synthetic hormone. Defoor says these drugs save about a hundred dollars’ worth of feed per animal—a significant sum, given the industry’s traditionally low profit margins. Finally, during the last three weeks of their lives, the Wrangler cattle are given a beta-agonist. Zilpaterol, the one with the biggest effect, causes them to pack on an extra 30 pounds of lean meat.

Are feedlots sustainable? The question has too many facets for there to be an easy answer. With antibiotic resistance in humans a growing concern, the FDA has adopted voluntary guidelines to limit antimicrobial drug use in animal-feeding operations—but those guidelines won’t affect Wrangler much, because the antibiotics there are either not used in humans (monensin) or can be prescribed by a veterinarian to prevent disease (tylosin). The hormones and beta-agonists used at Wrangler are not considered, by the FDA at least, to be a human health concern. But as the animals excrete them, the effect they might have on the environment is less clear.

The issue that concerns some experts most is water. The panhandle farmers who supply corn and other crops to the feedlots are draining the Ogallala aquifer; at the current pace it could be exhausted in this century. But Texas feedlots long ago outgrew the local grain supply. Much of the corn now comes by train from the corn belt.

The biggest, most mind-numbing issue of all is the global one: How do we meet demand for meat while protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change? A common argument these days is that people in developed countries need to eat less meat in general, eat chicken instead of beef, and, if they must eat beef, make it grass fed. I’ve come to doubt that the solution is that simple.

For starters, that advice neglects animal welfare. After my week at Wrangler, I visited a modern broiler farm in Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula, a region that raised 565 million chickens last year. The farm was clean, and the owners seemed well-intentioned. But the floor of the dimly lit, 500-foot-long shed—one of six at the farm—was solidly carpeted with 39,000 white birds that had been bred to grow fat-breasted and mature in under seven weeks. If your goal as a meat-eater is to minimize total animal suffering, you’re better off eating beef.

But would Americans help feed the world if they ate less beef? The argument that it’s wasteful to feed grain to animals, especially cattle—which pound for pound require four times as much of it as chickens—has been around at least since Diet for a Small Planet was published in 1971. The portion of the U.S. grain harvest consumed by all animals, 81 percent then, has plummeted to 42 percent today, as yields have soared and more grain has been converted to ethanol. Ethanol now consumes 36 percent of the available grain, beef cattle only about 10 percent. Still, you might think that if Americans ate less beef, more grain would become available for hungry people in poor countries.

There’s little evidence that would happen in the world we actually live in. Using an economic model of the world food system, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C., have projected what would happen if the entire developed world were to cut its consumption of all meat by half—a radical change. “The impact on food security in developing countries is minimal,” says Mark Rosegrant of IFPRI. Prices for corn and sorghum drop, which helps a bit in Africa, but globally the key food grains are wheat and rice. If Americans eat less beef, corn farmers in Iowa won’t export wheat and rice to Africa and Asia.

The notion that curbing U.S. beef eating might have a big impact on global warming is similarly suspect. A study last year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that beef production accounts for 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But if the world abstained entirely from beef, emissions would drop by less than 6 percent, because more than a third of them come from the fertilizer and fossil fuels used in raising and shipping feed grain. Those farmers would continue to farm—after all, there’s a hungry world to feed.

If Americans eliminated beef cattle entirely from the landscape, we could be confident of cutting emissions by about 2 percent—the amount that beef cattle emit directly by belching methane and dropping manure that gives off methane and nitrous oxide. We made that kind of emissions cut once before, in a regrettable way. According to an estimate by A. N. Hristov of Penn State, the 50 million bison that roamed North America before settlers arrived emitted more methane than beef cattle do today.

The problem of global warming is overwhelmingly one of replacing fossil fuels with clean energy sources—but it’s certainly true that you can reduce your own carbon footprint by eating less beef. If that’s your goal, though, you should probably avoid grass-fed beef (or bison). Cattle belch at least twice as much methane on grass-based diets as they do on grain, says animal nutritionist Andy Cole, who has put them in respiration chambers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service lab in Bushland, Texas. The animals gain weight slower on grass, because it’s higher in fiber and less digestible, and for the same reason they emit more methane—wasting carbon instead of converting it to meat. If we were to close all the feedlots and finish all cattle on pasture, we’d need more land and a much larger cattle herd, emitting a lot more methane per animal, to meet the demand for beef.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: Feedlots, with their troubling use of pharmaceuticals, save land and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Latin American beef, according to the FAO, produces more than twice as many emissions per pound as its North American counterpart—because more of the cattle are on pasture, and because ranchers have been cutting down so much rain forest to make pastures and cropland for feed. Faced with the staggering problem of meeting rising global demand for meat, “feedlots are better than grass fed, no question,” says Jason Clay, a food expert at WWF. “We have got to intensify. We’ve got to produce more with less.”

DMU Timestamp: September 10, 2021 01:39

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