When I started eating meat again, after 14 years as a vegetarian, I felt guilty. After all, my decision to stop eating meat was intentional. I had done the research and decided that raising animals for food was an inefficient use of natural resources. Plus, it seemed inhumane. To abandon those principles felt like losing my moral compass.
But I was persistently anemic and both my doctor and an acupuncturist advised me to introduce a small amount of high-quality beef into my diet. That first night, when I added a few ounces of meat to my black bean tacos, I felt nauseous, as I did the second and third time I ate beef.
Eventually, though, I fell in love—the tender bits, the peppery juices. I was eating meat again, and I liked it. Soon, there was no going back. And now it looks like I don’t have to. There is growing evidence that suggests eating meat can benefit the environment. Yes, the return of my carnivorous ways could actually help save the planet.
Cattle can thrive in areas unsuitable for growing crops, thus enabling farmers to utilize otherwise unusable land. Additionally, herds can graze on fallow fields during crop rotations, further maximizing land use. Plus, grazing cattle offer a triple win for sustainable agriculture: grasses provide cows with a healthy, natural food supply; the cattle produce nutrient-rich manure that’s reabsorbed into the soil (instant organic fertilizer!); and the churning movement of the cattle’s hooves releases more nutrients into the soil and helps sequester carbon. It’s a poetic, symbiotic relationship among animal, plant and Earth, contributing to a more efficient, more sustainable and ultimately healthier model of farming—as well as truly delicious meat.
“Eating some meat can be more efficient than eating no meat,” says Sanderine Nonhebel, a scientist at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Groningen University in the Netherlands. Livestock can eat food and crop waste that would otherwise be burned or deposited in landfills, providing “an answer to how to use resources efficiently,” according to Nonhebel. So, for our own health and the health of the planet, meat is back on the menu.
To understand the environmental benefits of raising and eating red meat, it’s necessary to recognize that not all beef is created equal. The stuff that’s actually good for the planet is organic and antibiotic-free. The cows eat grass instead of grain and graze on open land as opposed to languishing in pens.
But the distinction is also about proper land management, defined by Holistic Management International, a U.S. non-profit, as allowing for “relationships between land, grazing animals and water in ways that mimic nature.” That means raising animals as nature intended, by correctly managing the ratio of animals to land, by feeding animals a natural diet and by allowing animals to maintain their role in the environmental cycle.
In contrast, “bad beef” is meat raised without concern for either the animals’ welfare or the environmental impact of production. The cattle live in overcrowded pens, subsisting on an artificial diet and antibiotics, suffering from a lack of exercise and a poor quality of life. The environment suffers as well. According to a 2006 UN report, “The livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.” Factory-farmed meat is also one of the leading contributors to rainforest destruction in Latin America as large swaths of land are cleared to raise cattle and grow grain for feed.
Some of the statistics on the ecological impact of the livestock sector are contested. What isn’t contested, though, is that “good beef” can benefit the environment. Grazing, grass-fed cattle eat a nutrient-rich diet and produce a nutrient-rich manure that breaks down in the soil, depositing the majority of the nutrients back into the earth. According to Simon Fairlie, a small-scale farmer in Dorset, England, and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, “The grasses are there to bring nitrogen into the soil for arable crops. When you put them through a cow, 80 percent to 90 percent of the nutrients come out the other end, so they are kept in the soil for the subsequent crop of wheat or maize or whatever it may be.”
The richer soil means crops yield better, and the grasses needed to feed the cattle thrive the following season, allowing the cycle to continue. The land feeds the animal and the animal feeds the land, while supplying sustainably raised beef for people.
Fairlie’s experience with meat is instructive. Born in England, Fairlie moved to France in the 1970s, when he was in his twenties, to work as an agricultural laborer. “I was so broke that I wasn’t eating any meat so I thought, ‘Oh well, might as well go vegetarian.’” He remained a vegetarian for six years, but once he moved to the English countryside it no longer made sense. “I started keeping goats for milk and chicken for eggs, and there was this question of what to do with the male [goat]. It seemed stupid to bury it and stupid to give it away to someone else who would eat it. We couldn’t keep it, so the logic seemed to be—especially because we were extremely broke—that the best thing to do was to eat it.” So he did.
Fairlie spent a lot of time thinking about how to use natural resources most efficiently. As part of that exploration, he worked as a shepherd, a fisherman and a stonemason before joining a community farm in 1994, where he managed the cows, pigs and a working horse for 10 years. Today, his five acres in Dorset are home to two cows and two pigs. “The animals on my farm are just a little by-product of the farm itself,” he says. “The cows are fed almost entirely on grass that is on land, most of which couldn’t possibly be cultivated because it is on such a slope.”
With only a few animals and a small parcel of mangy land, Fairlie can satisfy the dairy needs of his small village. “Basically, I provide milk and cheese for a local community of about 30 to 40 people a day … and it’s almost all coming off the five acres that surround the community. It’s amazing how much protein comes just off that small area of grass. And when they get cowed at the end of life, they’ll go as low-grade meat. Of course, if it was a vegan community, all that nourishment would be inaccessible.”
As illustrated by Fairlie’s farm, cows can thrive in areas unsuitable for growing crops, making sustainably farmed meat a highly efficient use of land. “In the United States, there is plenty of rainfall for crop growth in the north and east,” says Christian Peters, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts. “But land may be hilly and therefore prone to erosion, which is one reason it might be limited to pasture [for cattle]. Or soils may be relatively thin, so it may be considered too poor for crop growth and therefore limited to pasture.”
Similarly, in the western United States, where there is less rain, cattle can sometimes flourish in areas too dry for crops. “Criollo cattle thrive in drought conditions,” explains Deborah Krasner, author of Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat. “The beef tastes great, and they can survive year after year of drought.”
And sustainably farmed beef helps the ecosystem by reducing carbon emissions, a major cause of global warming and a major by-product of industrial meat production. Through carbon sequestration, grasses naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and grazing cattle actually enhance this process. Moving through open pasture, herds trample the grass. As the grass decomposed, it releases carbon, which the soil absorbs, in effect storing the gas so that it does not escape into the environment. New grass grows, and as the process repeats cycle after cycle, the soil absorbs more and more carbon.
“A diversified, sustainable agriculture—which can sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil—holds the potential not just to mitigate but actually to help solve environmental problems, including climate change,” food writer Michael Pollan wrote last summer in the New York Times Review of Books. Pollan is not the only exponent of carbon sequestration. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, is studying methods for reducing greenhouse gases through agricultural practices.
Many of the concerns surrounding factory-farmed meat could be at least partially resolved through sustainable farming. If animals grazed freely, they wouldn’t require antibiotics, both because they would be less likely to contract diseases the way they tend to when crammed together in small pens and because they would get more exercise and thus be healthier. If cattle were fed grass instead of grain, many fewer acres of rainforest would be cleared to grow feed. If manure were the primary fertilizer, animal waste would not have to be burned, significantly reducing the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But this is only possible if two things happen. First, we have to eat less meat. In the European Union and U.S. alone, 2008 per capita meat consumption was 170 pounds (77 kilograms) and 166 pounds (75 kilograms) respectively. In contrast, the sustainable global average is probably more like 26 to 40 pounds (12 to 18 kilograms) per person per year, according to Fairlie. As even passionate vegetarian Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals, “And if we consumers can limit our desire for pork and poultry to the capacity of the land (a big “if”), there are no knockdown ecological arguments against [sustainable] farming.”
In addition to eating less meat, the meat we do eat has to be sustainably farmed. “Eating less meat but better meat, meat that is organic, antibiotic free, is better for a person’s diet and better for the environment,” says Stephen McDonnell, founder and CEO of organic meat producer Applegate Farms.
McDonnell grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, raised on the traditional post-war diet of meat and potatoes. During the 1970s, as an undergraduate at the uber-progressive Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, he became a vegetarian. “In the liberal universities, it was all the rage,” he explains. “If you were a guy and you were interested in dating, you better be a vegetarian or you were out of it.”
Today, McDonnell considers his time as a vegetarian his introduction to sustainable meat. “Everyone should be a vegetarian during college because you’re going to learn how to eat properly, learn about the fruits, the grains, the vegetables, all those core nutrients. Vegetarianism is about the consciousness of eating properly, and is misallocated as to whether to eat meat or not.”
Which is why McDonnell eventually embraced his inner carnivore. “I decided I don’t care if I can’t get a date. I love meat. Then I learned about nitrate-free bacon, and I realized I could integrate my childhood [love of meat] with my broader awareness. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can have my cake and eat it, too.’” So, in his late twenties, McDonnell purchased Jugtown Smokehouse, a family-owned business specializing in nitrate-free bacon and the precursor to today’s Applegate Farms.
McDonnell is one of a handful of entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrating that sustainably farmed meat can be scaled. In Europe, Dutch producer De Groene Weg provides sustainably farmed beef not only in the Netherlands but also throughout Italy, Germany and the U.K. De Groene Weg works with 355 farmers to produce 30 million pounds (13.6 million kilograms) of meat annually. It employs the standard principles of organic meat, but the company goes a step further, using dairy cows as the main source of beef.
In the U.S., California-based Niman Ranch works with 650 farmers and ranchers to process more than 33 million pounds (14.9 million kilograms) of meat annually. Like the animals at De Groene Weg, Niman Ranch’s cows roam freely, eat an organic diet and are treated humanely. Additionally, company policy dictates that the environment remain unaffected by business practices. “Our goal is not to change anything on that land,” says Jeff Tripician, chief marketing officer for Niman Ranch. “So if the land only supports a certain amount of crops or animals, that’s what it is. We’re not going to change that, and we’ll prescribe certain standards to ensure that we protect the land, the water table and the air.”
A similar philosophy guides McDonnell’s Applegate Farms, which partners with 300 farmers to produce 22.7 million pounds (10.3 million kilograms) of meat annually. “For us, ‘local’ in animal production is what’s local to where the animal can most naturally grow,” McDonnell explains. Applegate Farms is headquartered in Colorado, where the harsh winters and limited grassland make it difficult to raise sustainable meat. Thus, the company sources most of its beef from farmers in Uruguay, where the temperate climate and expansive pastures allow the cattle to graze year-round across the wide, open plains.
As a result, Applegate Farms’ meat must be transported from Uruguay to the U.S., raising the issue of “food miles,” the distance dinner travels from the farm to the consumer and the environmental impact of that journey. In general, locally grown food is considered more environmentally friendly than edibles imported from afar because less energy is required for local transport, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of Applegate Farms, McDonnell has been careful to maintain his commitment to sustainable meat while minimizing the pollution associated with transportation. “Our beef gets on a ship from Montevideo for the 12 days up to Philadelphia,” he says. “The ship is so huge and efficient that the carbon footprint is actually lower than a diesel truck, even though it’s a farther distance.”
Sustainably raised meat remains only a small part of the larger market, but one that is growing quickly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS). In a report released in September 2009, the USDA ERS called the organic meat sector “one of the fastest growing [sectors] in the organic industry, with total retail sales having increased by a factor of 46 between 1997 and 2007.”
As companies like De Groene Weg, Niman Ranch and Applegate Farms continue to grow, most people no longer have to go to specialty shops to find good beef. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of consumers to support these farming practices, to use our dollars to buy beef that benefits the land.
Which is doable, if we can shift our expectations around how often we eat meat. “Good meat” costs more than “bad meat,” as I learned recently when I purchased four pounds of sustainably farmed round roast at $6 a pound, compared to $4.50 a pound for the factory-farmed equivalent. Because “good meat” costs more, I’m forced to buy less meat. Though my budget for meat hasn’t changed, the quantity I eat has.
In today’s era of super-sized meals, it’s a counterintuitive approach: Pay more for less. But it’s only less in terms of quantity. With regards to quality, I get so much more for my dollar. Sustainably farmed meat tastes better. It’s more succulent, and it’s healthier, as I’m not consuming the antibiotics or pesticides associated with factory-farmed meat. It’s beef that leaves me satisfied, juicy meat that I savor, like a fancy brie or a good chocolate tort.
So go on, have a nice slab of meat tonight, maybe wine-braised beef brisket with some caramelized onions. And then, tomorrow night, enjoy a nice three bean salad with garlic.
Loren Berlin lives in New York City with her husband and their cast iron grill pan; she hopes to one day replace the latter with an actual grill.