Eating Beef and Climate Change: The real story is [finally] on the way
Climate change is a complex topic.
There are lots of reasons why it’s taken us, the human race, collectively, something like 40 years to finally grasp and accept that this is real, it’s happening, and it’s possibly the biggest threat to our own existence we have ever faced.
Among those reasons…
- Is the fact that it’s not a simple picture. It’s complex, it’s happening over long time scales, what we think of as lifetimes, and that makes it hard to grasp and understand that our every-day actions make a difference.
- Variance clouds our understanding.
- Oil companies, allegedly, have spent billions on promoting confusion and denial. There is a lot of money in fossil fuel, and a lot of people don’t want to face change.
- The science is also really quite dry and boring, it’s all CO2 this, and ppm that. It’s not very sexy, not very rock ‘n’ roll.
Society-wide, we can grasp simple issues, and we humans like simple solutions. If it can be explained in one line (both the problem and the solution) then folks get it and grab it and run with it.
For example, David Attenborough fronts a beautifully-filmed new show, we see turtles trapped in plastic rings, whales and sea birds with plastic in their stomachs, and here come the one liners:
- Problem: plastic pollution in the oceans is killing all this beautiful wildlife.
- Solution: society must give up single-use plastic.
Folks get it, and jump in to action.
Suddenly, almost overnight, UK supermarkets start charging people for plastic bags. Schools and cities start banning plastic drinking straws, and everyone you meet is suddenly on an anti-plastic crusade. That’s all great, single-use plastic is a problem that needed addressing, so I am glad to see these moves, but tackling this plastics headache is distracting the public from the real big issue that needs our focus - CO2 emissions.
The devil is in the detail
As I said, one of the problems is, climate change is complex. Most of our environmental issues are not straight forward, they are nuanced. Even the plastic pollution problem is nuanced.
- In reality, a large percentage of the plastic pollution in our oceans comes from fishing industry waste.
- Much of the plastic in our oceans comes from discarded fishing nets, fishing line, buoys, tackle and other waste.
- Of the remaining portion of plastics polluting our oceans, the vast majority is waste that comes from rivers and beaches in developing nations, particularly in Asia
- It’s easy for consumers in developed nations to see a viral video on social media and blame the folks living in Asian or Latin American countries for the problem. But in reality, the people throwing plastic bottles into waterways in impoverished Asian cities, do so because they have no other choice. They live in slums, there is no waste collection, there is no running water, they don’t have hot and cold taps, flushing toilets and kerbside recycling like we do. They buy a plastic bottle of water, refill it as many times as they can until it splits, then discard the broken bottle either on the land or in a river.
- The problem is poverty, not lazy litter louts.
- When you have nowhere else to throw your waste, and your biggest concern each day is keeping your children alive, trash ends up in the river, it’s the least of your worries.
- So, consumers in developed nations cutting down on supermarket plastic bags might help slightly reduce our own landfill burden, but it isn’t really going to make much difference to the plastic pollution in our oceans. What will help is -
- Tighter controls on fishing industry pollution
- Design innovation in fishing equipment
- Consumers making better choices when buying fish, purchasing only sustainably caught produce and shunning trawling
- Helping developing nations continue on their journey out of extreme poverty
- Putting pressure on the big global manufacturers of processed foods and drinks to shift the cheapest products to use biodegradable packaging materials
- Meanwhile, along the way, as we have demonised plastic bags, people are now shifting to using more paper bags instead. The thing is, it creates more carbon emissions to make a paper bag than it does to make a plastic bag.
- If I bring home fruits or vegetables in a paper bag and the bag gets slightly damp in transit (fruits and vegetables can often be a little damp when fresh) then by the time I get that bag home it is holed and useless, and goes in the recycling bin.
- But the plastic bag would not have holed, it is more resistant to damp, and then I may use that bag again for something.
- You see the irony, we’ve created more carbon emissions to manufacture the paper bag, which has been used only once, where I could have used a plastic bag three or four or five times, all with considerably lower emissions.
- The anti-plastic crusade has become a distraction from what really matters - carbon emissions.
That’s an example of nuance. That’s what I am talking about. Folks running around thinking they are “saving the planet” because they use paper bags instead of plastic, and they have ditched plastic drinking straws, are well-intentioned, but missing the point that really matters.
See what I mean, this stuff is complex
That example, the plastics issue, is one of many.
The palm oil story is nuanced too.
In short, while it’s right that we should look to reduce our use of palm oil because of deforestation and habitat loss, if we all switch en masse to other oils, we’ll need multiple times as much land to grow the required crops for those alternatives.
Therefore, the solution is to use sustainably-farmed palm oil, not just to boycott palm oil altogether. Even better, I suggest adopting the Mother Nature’s Diet lifestyle and reducing/eliminating your consumption of foods that use processed oils completely.
You see, nuance is everything. Wealthy Westerners just ditching plastic bags and boycotting palm oil is knee-jerk reaction stuff that makes the wealthy Westerners feel better about themselves but actually does little to address the real problems.
Maybe you noticed that the real answers to our problems often come down to the same things:
- Consume less manufactured and processed ‘stuff’ (less plastic crap, less throw-away stuff, less overly-packaged foods)
- Shop for sustainability (in bags, in plastic goods, in fish, in farmed foods)
Meat, beef, and climate change
And so, with that rather long but necessary preamble about the complexities of climate change and its causes, and how the problems and solutions are rarely straight-forward, but nuanced, and too hard to explain in a one-liner, let’s move on to the point of this post - meat eating and the environmental impact of raising animals for meat.
Once again, this is highly nuanced.
I strongly, very strongly, urge you to please read this press release, it’s just a six or seven minute read, not long: Study: White Oak Pastures Beef Reduces Atmospheric Carbon. The middle bit uses a few sciencey-sounding terms, but stick it out, it’s very important.
This is very, very big news.
I want to keep this simple, so allow me to abbreviate everything to bullet points.
- We hear all the time that eating beef is bad for the environment.
- People like me, promote eating grass-fed meat.
- But the media is full off stories about plant-based diets. It’s very trendy at the moment to be a vegan. The narrative being thrust upon us from every angle is to ‘eat less meat to reduce your carbon footprint’.
- People challenge me and the idea of eating pasture-raised meat…
- I respond that it is nuanced. I say factory-farmed meat is causing greenhouse gas emissions, but pasture-raised meat, grass-fed meat, is the opposite, and offers environmental benefits.
- My line doesn’t fit with what is trendy and popular right now. Most people are afraid of standing out, so they follow the herd and the ‘eat less meat’ message
Let’s stop for a moment and analyse just why factory-farmed meat is causing greenhouse gas emissions:
- All-too-often, particularly in countries in North and South America and in Asia, forests are cleared to grow crops such as corn (maize) or soybeans.
- There are emissions from the deforestation, from the ploughing, the sowing, the harvesting, and then the trucking of the crops to the cattle.
- The cattle live in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or ‘feedlots’ causing concentrations of methane and other emissions from the vast pools of manure.
This is a very brief version of all this, cutting out lots of detail.
Done this way, cattle farming does emit greenhouse gases, it also makes for miserable cows, diseased cows, and lower quality meat.
But people like me have spent the last seven years arguing that grass-fed cattle, pasture-raised, do not contribute to global warming. Again, in over simplified terms:
- No clearing of forests.
- Cows range on grasslands. (Crops are grown on arable lands, but cattle can range on grasslands. There is twice as much grassland available worldwide as arable lands. Cows will happily graze on lands that are not suitable for growing crops and vegetables, so it makes sense to keep the “veggie growing land” for growing veggies, and use the “great for grassy meadows” land for grassy meadows, full of cows and sheep!)
- No ploughing, sowing, harvesting and trucking - so none of the emissions from those tractors, harvesters and trucks.
- Also, ploughing soil destroys the mineral content of that soil, reducing it’s ability to hold water and carbon. Ploughing releases stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. No ploughing = leave the carbon in the soil, and help the land to hold more water.
- Cows graze the grass, no trucking food around required - cows have legs, they walk to find the food!
- Happier, healthier cows. More nutritious meat and dairy.
I have been saying for years, it’s Mother Nature’s way, it’s a win:win. Healthier animals, healthier land, healthier humans, everyone wins.
Now, that press release
Quantis, an environmental research firm, have conducted a lengthy and detailed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of grass-fed beef and shown that raising meat this way produces a net carbon win - the cows poop helps build topsoil, sequestering more greenhouse gases in their lifetime than they emit when they burp and fart.
This is massively important.
This is what me, and super farmers like Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, and Allan Savory, and the Soil Association, and the Sustainable Food Trust, and my friend Christine Page at Smiling Tree Farm, my mate Chris Jones at Woodland Valley Farm, and a thousand others have been arguing for years - sustainable, regenerative agriculture is an environmental fix, a part of the solution, where factory farming is an environmental disaster, part of the problem. Nuance. The devil is in the detail.
This LCA, this is critical. For years, farmers like Joel Salatin have argued that pastured livestock help to build topsoil, where ploughing depletes it. For years these guys have argued that healthy topsoil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, locking it underground for decades, even centuries, where ploughing erodes topsoil and diminishes it’s carbon-holding capacity.
But they lacked the hard science. An LCA is an important piece of work. An LCA looks at every facet and factor and measures every possible input and output. An LCA is the gold standard, it’s how we really understand what’s going on.
As the press release explains, now that LCA has been completed, the science is in, and it shows that grass-fed, pastured livestock, sequesters more carbon in its lifetime that it emits.
Want to “save the planet”? Eat MORE meat - just be sure it’s 100% grass-fed.
Rising oceans…or loss of topsoil?
Additionally, it bares repeating (I have been banging on about this for soooo long now) that we are depleting topsoil, worldwide, at an alarming rate. Since the industrialisation, automation and mechanisation of agriculture, we have already lost one third or more of the world’s topsoil, and we have between 40 and 100 harvests left in various parts of the world, before we lack enough fertile topsoil to grow crops for human food.
Think about that for a moment. In 70 years, what will your children and grandchildren eat, if there is no topsoil left? Seriously, think that through. We’ve already depleted ocean fish stocks terribly. If we all go “plant based” now, we’ll only accelerate topsoil loss. In 60 or 70 years, if there is no fish, and we can’t grow crops any more, what will your children eat?
The great fear of climate change seems to be rising sea levels, but I suspect that a human population of 10 billion, lacking the fish stocks or topsoil that enables us to feed ourselves, will find the collapse of agriculture will be our undoing sooner than rising seas. (That’s not to belittle the half-a-billion people who live in places that will quickly be affected by even small rises in sea levels, such as Bangladesh, The Netherlands, many Pacific islands and Asian coastal regions.) You had better start that vegetable plot in your back garden now, and show your kids and grandchildren, they are going to need to learn how to feed themselves.
As I said at the start, climate change is complex. If it were dead simple, we would have fixed this mess by now. It’s not simple, it involves politics, science, economics, emotions, international cooperation, it’s complex, it’s nuanced, it’s going to be expensive and it’s going to take time, and it’s likely to get pretty ugly along the way.
But this press release is a turning point, because it provides concrete scientific proof that animal agriculture is not the problem, but can in fact be part of the solution.
- The message “eat less meat” is wrong.
- The message should be, as I have argued since 2011, “shop for sustainably-farmed food, plants and animals”.
- Grass-fed beef and lamb, woodland ranged pork, free-ranged chicken, can be a benefit to the environment.
- Factory farmed meat is harmful to the environment.
- All industrialised factory farming, of plants and animals, is harmful. Raping the land for profit is wrong. Working with the land, working in harmony with natural nutrient cycles, working with Nature, can sustain us while nurturing the hand that feeds.
The rather brilliant Diana Rodgers is working hard to make a film about just this. To counter these one-sided, unscientific, vegan-propaganda Mock-u-mentaries we have seen in recent years, such as Cowspiracy and What the Health?, Diana is working closely with the also-totally-brilliant Robb Wolf (Paleo Diet fame) to make a movie that explains how pastured livestock can benefit our health and planetary health, how farming can be kind and nurturing, and how we can build a sustainable food future that is good for all of us.
PLEASE support Diana and her project. Please donate a few pounds, Euros or Dollars here to help make this movie happen and to extend it’s reach - we need, for the sake of our futures, as many people as possible to understand this message, this is hugely important.
Nuance is everything.
“Eat less factory-farmed meat, but eat more 100% grass-fed meat.”
The UK government has become the first in the world to officially declare an environment and climate emergency. As the world finally seems to be paying more attention to these problems, it is more important than ever that we make sure we are giving people the right information to help them make the right lifestyle choices and changes.
As you have seen in this post - with plastic bags, drinking straws, palm oil, and beef - nuance is everything. We must ensure that our governments and the public understand the correct actions to take to help create the massive shifts in consumer behaviour that are required.
“Eat less meat” is not the right message. “Eat less factory-farmed meat, but eat more 100% grass-fed meat.” is the right message. Nuance is everything.
To address all of these points, and many more, you can follow the complete Mother Nature’s Diet lifestyle. Less palm oil, less plastic, less manufactured and processed food, and only sustainably-farmed meat and vegetables. It’s all in my book -
For further reading:
Learn more about Mother Nature’s Diet - buy the book, take the online course, join the movement.