By Donella Meadows
–May 14, 1992–
I became a vegetarian in the 1970s in India, because the people around me lived that way. I stayed a vegetarian when I came home, because young idealists back then were inspired by Frances Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet. She convinced us that meat-eating was equivalent to taking grain out of the mouths of hungry people.
It takes nine pounds of feed grain to produce a single pound of beef, she said. Why not eat a pound of grain directly, and release eight pounds for those who need it?
In the 1980s I was still a vegetarian when the yuppies, in their quest to stay young forever, discovered the evils of cholesterol. For the sake of their hearts they ventured no farther into the world of carnivores than skinless chicken. I was glad to quote a fashionable reason for my avoidance of meat, though it wasn’t my real reason.
Still a meat-avoider in the 1990s, I see that Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book, Beyond Beef, is now telling us to abstain from beef in order to save the planet. Tropical forests are levelled to provide pasture for beef exports to North America. Overgrazing cattle — “hoofed locusts” — create deserts. The methane released from cows’ rumens is a greenhouse gas powerful enough to change the global climate. Avoid beef and you can prevent all these disasters, release food for the hungry, and be good to your heart too!
Rifkin’s condemnation of beef takes a good idea and exaggerates it to the point of hysteria. We don’t need to give up beef to save the climate, the forests, the land, the hungry people, or our own health. But it would be a better world if those who do eat meat ate less of it, and if they cared about how it is raised.
To start with the starving people, cattle need not compete with human beings for grain. The beauty of cows, sheep, goats, and other ruminants is that they can digest what we can’t — grass, clover, cornstalks.
It makes sense to include ruminants in a sustainable farming system, to rotate forage crops with grain crops, to feed the forage to animals, and to return the manure to the land. If you can find beef raised that way by an organic farmer (and you can — there are more such farmers every year), eat it in good conscience. You haven’t diverted grain from people, and you have done business with a producer who is building up soil instead of tearing it down.
If the meat you eat comes from a feedlot, though, it undermines the land, the hungry people, and your health. Feedlots stuff animals with grain, to make the marbled fat that is the hiding place of cholesterol. The manure, which would be an asset if the animals were spread out on many farms, becomes a concentrated nuisance. The feed is laced with hormones to speed up growth, and with antibiotics to ward off diseases, which can run rampant when so many animals are crowded together. Who would want to eat that kind of beef?
As for tropical forests, it is true that in Latin America many of them are being turned into massive pastures owned by rich landowners. Much of the beef they raise is shipped north. To discourage that practice, if I ate beef, I would make sure that it is domestic. If enough people did that, forest clearing might slow in this hemisphere, but not in Asia and Africa, where the forests go down for other reasons. Much more is required to save the tropical forests than to stop eating “rainforest beef.”
If you insist on using your eating habits to help stop land ruination, I recommend a cause closer to home. How about boycotting beef produced by ranchers who send their herds onto our nationally owned grazing lands, pay much less than market price for the privilege, and graze them down to dust?
Then there’s the charge that cow flatulence can change the global climate. Methane is indeed a strong greenhouse gas, and it is increasing in the atmosphere. But cattle are by no means proved to be the cause. For millenia nature has accommodated hundreds of millions of methane-generating ruminants, from buffalo to wildebeest to antelope, without a climate upset. Cattle have replaced these natural species, and that is a problem of biodiversity, but not necessarily one of climate change.
A more likely explanation for the methane increase is that human-produced air pollutants are tying up natural scavenger molecules that destroy methane in the atmosphere. Methane could be building up not because of increasing sources, including cows, but because of decreasing sinks. There’s a lot to do here, from reducing air pollution to keeping cattle from overrunning wild species, but we don’t have to stop eating beef to do it.
More out of habit and taste than any particular conviction, I still prefer not to eat meat. But I’m not about to condemn people who do. From an environmental point of view, there’s nothing wrong with eating sensible amounts of meat, even beef, raised with care by farmers who feed mostly forage and who don’t use chemical additives.
As with many environmental issues, the problem is not with the basic practice, but with its excess. In moderation this planet can support both ruminants and carnivores. It has done so for millions of years. It can go on doing so. In moderation.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992