Smarter Living: Eating Well

Lately there have been some much-deserved attacks on the livestock industry. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has delineated the horrors of factory farms in Eating Animals and the highly influential documentary Food, Inc. exposed the corporate control and mismanagement of our food system, from grains to poultry to beef. The USDA and the Department of Justice recently developed a task force to address antitrust issues in the meat industry. And the Obama administration's recent attention to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock has led to proposed legislation that would drastically reduce and regulate the antibiotics given to animals in food production.

But we shouldn't write off meat entirely as environmentally destructive, say many supporters of sustainable agriculture, like Bob Scowcroft, a cofounder and executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. The cow itself is not to blame, they say, but the factory farms in which most cattle are raised and the manner in which most beef is produced. Grass-fed cattle can actually do the environment a favor by playing an important natural role in the ecosystem; the problem may be that there isn't enough grassland to sustainably meet America's demand for meat in the form of 94.5 million head of cattle. (Notably, this number is down from its peak in 1996 at 103.3 million head; U.S. imports have decreased as well.)

Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of Kirschenmann Family Farms, says that to successfully reorganize the food industry, we need a fundamental shift in our thinking. "We need to start by asking, 'What does nature need? What does our community ecology need?' and then ask how do we eat in a healthy way from that," he states.

Typical meat in the United States is produced using the cheapest, quickest methods in order to be able to produce 95-cent hamburgers. Subsidies facilitate this, making the system appear more efficient than it really is. Because of the economies of scale, 43 percent of the world's beef comes from industrial factory farms with livestock at high density and problems with manure-tainted runoff polluting waterways. Factory-farmed cattle on corn diets (rather than grass) emit significantly more methane; in fact, cows contribute 16 percent of the world's methane, a much more potent global warmer than CO2. Deforestation and overgrazing often result from the demand for space and the sheer number of cattle. Small, sustainable farms have been steadily displaced. Only a few firms control most slaughtering operations, and this aspect of the meat business is moving toward a monopoly, according to Martha Noble, a senior policy associate for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Is this the only way to raise cattle, and is it impossible for meat to be produced as a "green" product? No.

Dispersed on diversified farms, cattle are necessary to complete an important nutrient cycle, according to Kirschenmann. They can convert crop leftovers into human food, and their manure, one of the most environmentally benign sources of fertilizer, naturally improves soil quality, reduces the need for irrigation, and helps prevent erosion. Greater use of manure could lead to a reduction in the use of synthetic nitrogen, which is one of the biggest culprits in water contamination. Ruminants even contribute to the soil's natural sequestering of carbon--one of the main ways CO2 can be converted into necessary carbon in the soil is through grazing.

Clearly, the meat industry is in need of a serious overhaul. To eliminate meat altogether from the food infrastructure is not the answer; it would cause a host of environmental problems. And with nearly 100 million cattle and America's grasslands split up by interstates, to expect all of this livestock to be dispersed and grass-fed is not realistic. So what needs to happen to achieve a balance between ecosystem and consumer? The cold, hard truth may be that Americans must reduce their consumption of meat, which could be a dramatic change for the typical American's diet.

"I'm the first person to admit that we eat too much meat," Kirschenmann says. "We need to eat less meat and better meat." Scowcroft agrees that reduced demand will be one component of a healthier meat industry. And he has some other, relatively simple suggestions that could make a difference.

First, he says, current laws must be obeyed--like the Packers and Stockyards Act, which is intended to work in the public interest against manipulations and trusts. The USDA and the Department of Justice announced that beginning in early 2010, the first-ever joint public workshops to discuss competition in the agriculture industry will be held. Noble says the results may not be a "miracle" because of the power of the big packing and processing firms, but she does see one guaranteed benefit: "It will be a really great opportunity for publicizing the problem of how these markets are controlled."

The second simple change Scowcroft says could make a big difference is re-regulating antibiotics and growth hormones, so that they are given only to sick animals, not to all animals. Because this practice has been largely unregulated, the ranks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are growing. The proposed legislation would ban giving animals antibiotics to promote rapid growth and would mandate that they be given to animals only under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Third, says Scowcroft, concentrated factory farms should have to keep waste on site. He also supports mobile slaughterhouse facilities that can move around to smaller operations so that farmers don't have to send meat hundreds of miles away to concentrated slaughterhouses. Finally, Scowcroft advocates the encouragement of heritage breeds of cattle. This fosters growth of rare breeds that suit particular climates--and typically thrive only on grasslands. (Find heritage meat at localharvest.org.)

Scowcroft, Kirschenmann and Noble agree that smaller-scale, diversified farms are a big part of the answer, but they also acknowledge that the current food industry is extremely complex, with many interwoven variables and big powers to contend with. So what can you do as a consumer of beef, besides just eating less of it? The power of the consumer is great, and the more we support responsibly raised beef, the more we work toward breaking up the highly concentrated ownership of factory farms.

As consumers, Scowcroft says, we must be evolutionary activists. "Know your meat and know how it's produced--and ideally, it's organic. If you do that, you are a part of the solution."

last revised 9/21/2011

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