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Sustainable Beef?

Ungrazed (Dutchwoman Butte, Arizona)

Grazed (Dutchwoman Butte, Arizona)

After Diet for a Small Planet was published in the 1970's, many people became vegetarians when they realized that feeding crops to animals is extremely inefficient use of food resources. But what about cows that eat grass, rather than cows which are fed foods that people could eat such as corn and soybeans? Is there such a thing as sustainable beef production?

Cattle illegally grazing in Gila National Forest, New Mexico

Some people evidently think so. "Natural beef" proponents have argued that grazing cows on grasslands is a better use of grasslands. A recent letter by Mark Muller in the September / October 2004 of WorldWatch magazine ("A Disservice to Environmentally Appropriate Livestock Producers") is the latest volley in this debate.

Polluted cattle watering hole, Gila National Forest

The whole idea that "grass-fed beef" based on "free-ranging animals" is "a better way to protect the environment" is nonsense. The destructiveness of livestock agriculture is not something invented in the twentieth century. Worldwide and historically, grazing systems have been far more destructive than factory farms. Grass-fed free-ranging animals reduced much of North Africa to desert after the fall of the Roman Empire. Grass-fed free-ranging animals created extensive deserts in the American southwest in the late nineteenth century, probably the greatest single human-created environmental disaster in this area. Grass-fed free-ranging beef is now eliminating the rainforests in Central and South America.

For the amount of meat produced, grazing animals is far more destructive of habitat than factory farms ó simply because so much more land is required to support each livestock animal. Soil erosion on the land used to grow crops for cattle is a serious problem, and we shouldnít minimize it; but it is dwarfed by the damage done by intensive cattle grazing.

Grazed (background) vs. ungrazed (foreground)
Burnt Creek Exclosure, Idaho

Furthermore, meat is not healthy, and returning some extra omega-three fatty acids to beef isnít going to make it healthy. Meat, whether "environmentally correct" or not, is almost entirely fat and protein, and contains no fiber. Decades of research have established that diets high in fat, high in protein, and low in fiber are associated with the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and the other "diseases of civilization" ó the treatment of which is sending our health-care costs in the U. S. through the roof. Sure, itís relatively better to get the antibiotics and corn out of cows, but like the "safe cigarette," this at best only ameliorates the problem.

Nothing rivals overgrazing as a destroyer of wildlife habitat, for so little return. This is not environmentally appropriate. The fundamental problem is that eating high on the food chain is going to be inefficient. Itís physics, itís a law of nature. By concentrating on one resource rather than another ó cropland instead of wildlife habitat ó grass-fed beef may seem to be an "efficient" source of food, but this is essentially a shell game, and when you lay all of your agricultural resources on the table, this is fairly easy to see. Itís like advertising a bag of refined sugar as "no cholesterol, fat free!"

Grass-fed free-ranging animals are extremely destructive environmentally, and so-called "sustainable" beef can at best be no more than a niche market for the conscience-stricken elite to which this industry caters.

-- Keith Akers

P. S. Mike Hudak has done an admirable job of documenting the damage done by livestock agriculture.  The pictures used above come from his excellent website.