No, you can’t be an environmentalist, even if you eat pasture-fed beef

The Utne Reader published an article encouraging people to eat “environmentally friendly” beef. This is supposed to be good because the waste from pasture-fed cattle gets recycled into the earth, dramatically reducing their carbon footprint. The article ends with a quote from Lisa Hamilton in Audubon magazine:

“In order for pasture-based livestock to become a significant part of the meat industry, we need to eat more of its meat, not less,” Hamilton writes. “So if you want to use your food choices to impact climate change, by all means follow Dr. Pachauri’s suggestion for a meatless Monday. But on Tuesday, have a grass-fed burger—and feel good about it.”

The Florida Sierra Club also argues in favor of pasture-fed beef because such cattle require fewer pesticides and antibiotics.

Beef, and meat generally, are part of a large issue involving the environment, the amount of food we have available to feed a world population which now approaches seven billion, and the land it takes to produce that food. Whether you keep cattle in factory farms or more humanely on pastures, they require food and lots of it. And growing that food requires lots of land.

P.W. Gerbens-Leenes and S. Nonhebel estimated that a meat-based diet requires six times the amount of land as a wheat-based diet. And you can’t use just any land. “On a global scale, 31% of the soil surface can be used for arable crops, while an additional 33% is suitable for grassland,” they write.

In the United States, that picture is worsening. Not only is much of this land being developed, but drought has punished a lot of traditional agricultural land in the west. Though the article doesn’t explain this, Colorado River water is over-allocated. And now it’s running low.

Las Vegas is now aiming to tap into an aquifer under the Snake Valley that straddles eastern Nevada and western Utah. Recently, a rancher friend who ekes out a precarious living there mentioned the obvious to me: the dusty surface of that arid high desert is barely held in place by a thin covering of brush, sage, and grass. Drop the water table even a few more inches and it all dies.

A Tomgram notes similar effects around the world:

Jump a few thousand miles and along with neighboring Syria, Iraq has been going through an almost biblical drought which has turned parts of that country into a dustbowl, sweeping the former soil of the former Fertile Crescent via vast dust storms into the lungs of city dwellers.

In Africa, formerly prosperous Kenya is withering in the face of another fearsome drought that has left people desperate and livestock, crops, and children, as well as elephants, dying.

And, if you happen to be on the lookout, you can read about drought in India, where rice and sugar cane farmers as well as government finances are suffering. Or consider Mexico, where the 2009 wet season never arrived and crops are wilting in a parched countryside from the U.S. border to the Yucatan Peninsula.

It probably isn’t just drought and development that is doing this. About the time that Ronald Reagan was elected and inaugurated, during the years 1980 to 1981, I was working as a programmer/analyst under contract to the Bureau of Land Management Nevada State Office in Reno, Nevada. The major project I was working on was a conversion program from their old forage inventory system to something called “Soils and Vegetation Inventory Management,” which was an attempt to calculate the number of animals a given unit of land could sustainably support. This was a Jimmy Carter-era project and was assumed to be doomed when a less environmentally-friendly Reagan was elected.

I became very familiar with the data. And I saw oddities, such as domestic horses being allocated 1000 pounds each of forage per month while wild horses only got 800 pounds. I learned that the ranchers wanted to count every pound of plant available, whether animals would eat it or not. Cattle will eat everything else available, absolutely destroying the ecosystem, before resorting to sagebrush, but ranchers complained about the “preference use factor” allocated for sagebrush. Calculating it the ranchers’ way meant that nothing but sagebrush would be left, but it also meant they could put more cattle, sheep, and horses on the ground.

One of the movements that helped Reagan’s election was something called the “sagebrush rebellion.” It was ostensibly about the amount of land in the west under federal control. But it was really about how many cattle, sheep, and horses ranchers could put on that land. Ranchers would insist that they were just as interested in long-term sustainability as environmentalists, but with a hindsight that now includes the present financial collapse, it is hard to argue that this wasn’t just more of the same old capitalism at work. I don’t actually know how this came out because I didn’t stick around to see it, but I have little doubt that with Reagan in the White House and James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, the ranchers won and the ecosystem lost.

Reagan was in power for eight years. He was followed by George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. But some liberals still think you can eat meat and be an environmentalist.

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