January 29th, 2015


Director, Soil Centric

Author, Defending Beef

Professor of Environmental Science, UC Berkeley


“Hamburgers in a hot world,” is how host Greg Dalton summarized a recent Climate One discussion on cattle and their carbon hoofprint.  The negative effects of the meat industry on our climate have been food for debate ever since the publication of the 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association.  But could there be a “grass-is-greener” side to this environmental fence?

“Agriculture also has a chance to be part of the solution,” says ecology professor Whendee Silver, who studies climate and land-use relationships at UC Berkeley. The FAO’s report, she says, was one sided.  “It gave very little space and consideration to good management practices, how widespread those are, what the potential sustainability questions are with regard to management.”

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a vegetarian who raises cattle. In her book, “Defending Beef,” she explores sustainable animal agriculture practices, advocating for a holistic, humane approach to meat production.  She also finds the report fell short, especially in calculating the environmental impact of the industry.  “It treated very specific problematic, ecological behaviors to the entire sector,” says Niman.  “There are certain parts of the world that are really hotspots for deforestation.  Those were attributed to the entire meat sector, and it’s really inappropriate…it has no connection to what ranchers in the United States are doing or the beef that Americans are eating.”

In telling their own food stories, all three guests said they had turned to vegetarianism as teens, for various reasons.  But Diana Donlon, of the Center for Food Safety, admitted that as a young mother of two, she found herself exhausted.  She was “really shocked,” she said, when a nutritionist recommended she add red meat to her diet. “I still only eat it on occasion,” she says. “But I do find that I have better health, and just always know who raised the meat, and where it came from, and seek out 100% pasture-raised.”

Donlon runs the CFS’ Cool Foods Campaign.  She says there’s a world of difference between factory and pasture-raised beef. “In the confinement model, that’s when you get the heavy dosage of antibiotics that leads to antibiotic resistance, to antibiotic residue in the meat, to the manure lagoons, to the loss of biodiversity to the ground water contamination, to a whole suite of issues that are not associated with the correct pasture management.”  

It was the post-war switch to industrialized farming, adds Donlon, that signaled a change in attitude towards animal agriculture.  “We went from thinking about…shepherding animals and taking care of them, to thinking of them as a commodity, the way we would a widget, a car, a refrigerator or what have you,” she says. “And I think that that’s partially what got us into this mess.”

Donlon recommends that consumers who do choose to eat meat “absolutely stay away from the factory stuff, to the extent that you can.  Just draw a line in the sand and say I’m not going to do it.  Because that’s the system that needs changing.”

Some might still refuse to eat meat altogether, for a myriad of reasons.  But “boycotting an industry does not change it,” says Niman.  Rather, consumer awareness will dictate the direction the industry takes, as it has in other food sectors.  “You’ve seen transitions towards organic from conventional.  And I think that’s exactly what will begin to happen in the meat industry.  It’s already happening, because the grass-fed beef sector is the fastest growing sector in the beef industry.”

For an audience member who wondered about how to make better informed decisions about meat consumption, Silver recommended the Meat Eater’s Guide, published by the Environmental Working Group, to which she had contributed.

What about the claims that cows contribute heavily to climate change through methane gas emissions? While that is true, says Silver, there is another cattle-produced emission that can help to mitigate its effects – manure.  “And so the poop, that we don’t really like to think about, but the bottom line is it’s a huge emission source and also a huge potential offset, if we can convert that to things like fertilizer, organic fertilizer.”  

While some might see cow manure as a nuisance, it’s cause for celebration on her farms says Niman.  That’s because it’s part of a necessary regenerative cycle, which plays out when cattle spend their lives grazing in pastures. “You have the capture of the solar energy in the vegetation that’s coming up out of the ground,” she explains.  “And then the animals are using that…they’re converting it, miraculously really, to meat and milk, and then humans are using that food.  

“And as those animals are growing and living on that space, they’re not only returning the manure but they’re also returning their urine…you’re actually utilizing the resources in that ecosystem in a much more sensible way than animals that are being separated from land.”

Recognizing the relationship between sun, soil and sustenance, then, may be the key to managing the meat industry’s carbon footprint.  And the time is now: as Donlon points out, the FAO has declared 2015 International Year of the Soils.  “Our atmospheres are overwhelmed because there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere,” she tells the audience.  “Our oceans are acidifying because there’s too much CO2 in our oceans.  But our soils are actually starving for carbon. And so we have this world of opportunity to rebuild carbon around the world by using all these different methods, including composting.  

“I mean, there’s this law of return, we come from the earth and we go back to the earth,” continues Donlon, “And when we take all our waste and we put it in a landfill instead of putting it back into the ground, it comes back to haunt us as methane.”


Related Links:

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman (Chelsea Green, 2014)

The Center for Food Safety Cool Foods Campaign

The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations: Livestock’s Long Shadow

The Meat Eater’s Guide

The International Year of the Soils

Allan Savory TED Talk: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change


- Anny Celsi
January 29, 2015
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California