Thursday, November 5, 2009

Less meat or better meat?

This past Saturday, Nicolette Hahn Niman (of Niman Ranch fame) had an op-ed published in the New York Times pushing back against the idea that reducing meat consumption is key in fighting climate change... instead, she makes the case that it's factory farmed meat that's the real problem, and if we all ate pasture fed beef in our hamburgers everything would be super awesome. Obviously she has a dog in this fight... being in the pasture fed meat business... but she made some interesting points. Helen York at The Atlantic, however, was not so impressed, feeling that getting Americans to eat less meat was far more important than getting them to eat pasture fed meat... and that the case for pasture fed is not so strong as Niman made it seem. Besides emphasizing that methane from the animals digestion is a bigger problem than CO2 from machinery et al, York's main points appear to be that pasture fed meat is too expensive to be for most Americans and that any greenhouse gas advantages of pasture farming would be eliminated if they were done on a large enough scale to replace factory farming. To me, the first point is a feature not a bug... more expensive meat means eating less of it... and I tend to agree that many small farm advocates are a tad unrealistic when they imagine our food needs met by a thousand picturesque Niman Ranches dotting the countryside. There is just no way that we can feed everyone without embracing economies of scale to some extent. Regardless, the Nimans responded... though they didn't really address what I consider to be York's main criticisms. They do push back against the methane bit... saying that better feeding reduces those emissions, and that we've had giant herds of ruminating animals for basically ever... which is sort of fair, I guess. They also say it's federal policy, not scale that causes the high costs... but don't really cite any evidence. They do bring up an interesting tidbit:
A related point I emphasize in my op-ed but York ignores in her response is that a food's environmental impact should be considered holistically. It's important to consider grazing's significant environmental benefits. For one thing, pastures have been shown to sequester substantial amounts of carbon, much more than cropland. A mountain of studies have shown that pasture is by far the most ecologically sound method of producing food. Compared to cropland, pastures have much less soil erosion and cause much less water pollution. As the op-ed mentioned, they can also be excellent ways to maintain natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Moreover, the rumen's role in food production is nothing short of miraculous. As Cornell University professor David Pimentel wrote in Food, Energy and Society, ruminants can effectively make use of marginal land that is otherwise unsuitable for food production;they are intermediaries between naturally occurring, inedible cellulosic vegetation and human beings. In other words, by grazing on forage that humans cannot digest--thanks to their rumens, the very cause of those enteric emissions--grazing animals make efficient use of natural resources.

I'm a little curious about the "mountain of studies have shown that pasture is by far the most ecologically sound method of producing food"... but it sounds plausible. After all, the entire organic food thing arose out of a desire to stem the massive ecological damage of industrial farming methods. But if we're talking about all the livestock in the US, is there enough "marginal land that is otherwise unsuitable for food production" to pasture them all on?

They then go on to state that they want Americans to eat less meat too, but then complain that if you get all the foodies to eat less meat, then who is going to pay over $30 a pound for our steaks? Well O.K., not really... but that's kind of what it sounded like. While I think making meat more expensive is a good idea, it really is hard to believe Niman Ranch is a very good model for how food production should be structured. I would like to see some more hard analysis about what it would mean to say "all animals have to be pastured" or whatever. Is that even feasible? Would it make meat so expensive to put it out of the reach of most Americans? What would it do to greenhouse gas emissions?

I suspect, however, that the answer to this post's title is (predictably): both.

photo by flickr user publicenergy used under a Creative Commons license