Posted by: Cailyn | April 22, 2009

Can you be low-carb and pro-environment?

The media is full of people, telling us that meat is destroying the environment.  Cows produce too much methane, transporting meat uses too much fuel, fertilizer for their feed is running off into our water supply.  Giving up beef in particular is the new way to protest the destruction of the Earth.  This is bad news for people like us who are trying to live off a more traditional diet, which includes lots of beef for many good reasons.  Is it possible to be on a high-meat diet without being a hypocrite towards the environment?

Yes, it is.

Let’s take a quick look at the way industrial beef is handled.  Their primary feed is grain, sometimes supplemented with parts of other animals (which can lead to mad cow disease).  This fattens the cow quickly and leads to attractive marbling in the muscles.  Cows have evolved to eat grass with the occasional rare grain supplement.  An entirely grain-based diet changes the acidity in their stomachs, making them more vulnerable to E. Coli, salmonella and other illnesses.  Industrial cows get sick often and have to be treated with antibiotics.  Kept in a crowded pen with other cows, their waste essentially gets gathered up and dumped or maybe sold as fertilizer.  When they’re fat enough, the cows are slaughtered, packed, and shipped anywhere in the country to be sold.

There’s more going on there, but my goal here is not to disgust you with the details of industrial “farming.”  You can find that information anywhere you’d like.  But even in that brief description, you can already see the amount of waste in the process, can’t you?  The amount of land used to grow grain for livestock feed, the fuel to ship it, the cows eating grain that short circuits their natural defense against illness, etc.  It takes about 35 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of industrial beef nowadays. (And about twice that much for pork.) (Source: Real Food, Nina Planck)

In contrast, the ideal natural farm is different in many ways.  The natural farm uses, on average, 1 calorie of fossil fuels to make 2.3 calories of beef.  First and foremost, the best farms have multiple types of livestock, as opposed to an industrial complex which specializes in one type.  Livestock can be divided into two broad categories, grazers and omnivores.  Pigs are the typical example of an omnivore, but chickens are too.  Chickens should have some bugs in their diets to produce the best eggs.  Grazers are animals like sheep and cows.  Grazers can even be happy on marginal land that’s rocky or hard to grow things in; they don’t need a huge lush pasture.  Cows will graze on a field, dropping cow pies that are rich in nutrients for the soil.  The field is thus fertilized and trimmed without the need for chemicals or a gas-guzzling mower.  Then the cows move on to the next field, while the chickens are let out into the depleted field.  The chickens happily scratch at the cow pies, spreading them around and eating the fly larvae in them.  The chickens are well fed without the need for much extra feed, although they’ll be happy to eat kitchen scraps, and the field now has its nitrogen restored without any harmful chemical run off.  Because pigs and chickens will, and should, eat anything, they reduce the amount of waste that a farm produces by eating byproducts like buttermilk and and eggshells.

Pastured animals are far healthier than their industrial companions, needing far fewer vet visits and even fewer antibiotics.  They are in virtually no danger of mad cow disease, which is contracted through eating another infected animal.  And because they rarely get sick or need antibiotics, they don’t contribute or succumb to the increasingly antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases. 

So, you’re convinced, I hope, that farmed livestock is healthier and better for the environment than industrial livestock.  I obviously have only scratched the surface of this topic.  I haven’t even touched on why grass-fed beef is nutritionally better than industrial beef.  That’s later.

But this isn’t the end of the “anti-meat” movement.  People also argue that small farms or natural farms cannot support the growing population of the Earth.  Depending on who you’re talking to, the answer to this problem is either more industrialization of the food industry, including GM seeds, or an elimination of meat which takes valuable land and grain away from feeding people.

As we’ve seen, grazers can live on land that can’t be farmed, making them very economical.  Think about mountain goats, hopping happily and terrifyingly on steep cliffs.  They can produce milk, meat, and cheese from the plants growing on those cliffs.  Without them, that land is useless, foodwise.  Grazers will also increase soil fertility and plant diversity when allowed to do their thing.  Cows, pigs, and chickens don’t need grain.  When they’re not raised on grain, these animals are leaner, more flavorful, and contain more omega-3s.

We all know that people are starving in Africa.  The governments there and advocates here call for more industrialized food production, saying that this is the only way to make enough food for everyone.  However, the problem in much of Africa is not the amount of food but the lack of money with which to buy food.  There is significant evidence from Africa that organic, sustainable farming is far more effective than industrial methods. 

“The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.

An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought. And the research highlighted the role that learning organic practices could have in improving local education. Backers of GM foods insist that a technological fix is needed to feed the world. But this form of agriculture requires cash to buy the patented seeds and herbicides – both at record high prices currently – needed to grow GM crops.”

Organic Farming ‘Could Feed Africa’

So, organic and sustainable farming techniques lead to great benefits for the land as well as the people.

Now, there aren’t many purely traditional farms left in this country.  And those that are around still use a good amount of fossil fuel, we have to acknowledge that.  But the cost-benefit analysis clearly shows that natural, sustainable, and preferably local farming is the answer to our problems.  Farmers trying to make it like this need our help.  To survive, they need us to buy their higher quality, higher priced meats and vegetables.  To cut down on their fuel costs further, they need a change in the country’s infrastructure, which would benefit us all anyway.  They need a government that doesn’t treat industrial production preferentially.  Like most small businesses, they can be swamped with taxes, certification fees geared towards high-profit companies, transport costs, and selling their products can range from simple to nigh on impossible.

Beef or meat in general is not an environmental issue.  Farming techniques are and they’re an important one.  Stick by your love of grass-fed beef!  It could save the world from more than just obesity.

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