February 24th, 2014
Tim Koopman is a fourth-generation rancher; his family has been raising cattle on their ranch in Alameda County since 1918, and he now heads the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). David Robinson Simon is a born-again vegan and author of a book that lambasts industrialized meat production. What did these two advocates from “opposite sides of the steer” have to say to each other when they sat down at The Commonwealth Club?
Host Greg Dalton started things off with the hot-button topic of animal cruelty. Simon’s days as a burger-eating junk-food junkie ended at the age of 44, and it wasn’t mainly for health reasons. “I spent a day watching videos about factory farming and animal testing. It was like an epiphany. Suddenly, I simply had no way to eat animal foods anymore.” According to Simon, large factory farms have lobbied heavily in the last decades for relaxed oversight. “So…anti-cruelty protections that once protected farm animals from abusive behavior have simply been eliminated in virtually every state in this country.”
Koopman says the demonization of the livestock industry stems from common misperceptions. He was quick to point out that, on his ranch, his 200-some head of cattle are treated with respect, nurtured and allowed to roam freely, and that’s true for most of the 3,000 members of the CCA. “Our membership is very cognizant of and very aware of beef quality, beef treatment, animal treatment,” says Koopman. About well-publicized incidents of factory cattle abuse, he adds, “It’s a black eye for all of us that are doing things right. And we will fight against the mistreatment of animals just as much as David or anybody else would.”
Dalton next brought up the connection between livestock, methane emissions and climate change. According to the UN publication Livestock’s Long Shadow, nearly twenty percent of all greenhouse gases can be attributed to the livestock industry. Koopman challenged that figure, saying it was closer to three percent; Simon called the UN figures are conservative. Both men agree, however, that methane emission is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Ironically, as Simon pointed out, grass-fed cattle may be making things worse, not better: “The unfortunate result is that they produce four times as much methane as grain-fed animals. And so we get this very bizarre result that organically-fed cattle are not necessarily more eco-friendly than inorganically raised animals.”
One solution, says Koopman, is genetic improvement, which has led to an overall reduction in the number of cows nationwide. To put it delicately, “you’ve got fewer cows belching and passing gas, if you will. I think the efficiency of the cows that we’ve got has reduced that number. And when we’ve got fewer cows, probably less gas.”
But there are other reasons to believe ranching is straining our resources. One point on which the two emphatically disagree is whether we’re using our nation’s cropland effectively. “It takes on average, five times as much land to produce animal protein as it does plant protein,” says Simon. “It takes 11 times the fossil fuels and it takes 40 times or more water to produce animal protein than plant protein… that’s a major sustainability problem.”
He points to a study suggesting that the amount of feed given to animals could support a billion of the world’s malnourished people. From Koopman’s standpoint, two-thirds of the land in the U.S. isn’t farmable; he sees cattle ranching as a necessary route to producing a valuable, nutritious and safe protein source. “We’ve got an increasing world population with huge demand for protein as a part of their diet. And on the absence of grazing livestock and having that land available to produce food, I think we would be in a lot worse shape than we are.”
“We haven't even talked about health problems today,” Simon went on. “In 1950, only one in eight Americans was obese. But we've almost doubled our meat consumption since then and, today, one in three Americans is obese.” Clinical literature, he says, shows “a very, very close link to consumption of meat and dairy and overweight, obesity, cancer, heart disease and other diseases.”
A meat-eater himself, Koopman doesn’t promote having it for every meal. “But I think that meat in moderation can be part of anybody's healthy diet. Beef does provide a lot of amino acids and really does fit well into a healthy heart diet.” He instead blames the obesity epidemic on American’s sedentary lifestyle, giving the audience an example from his own family. “Years ago, when my grandfather and my dad were working in the ranch, they ate big meals, but they worked hard, they were active, and both of them were in top shape into their 90s.”
During the question and answer period, most of the audience participants identified themselves as vegetarian for health, ethical or other reasons. But whether you subscribe to the “Beef – it’s what’s for dinner!” mandate, enjoy the occasional steak, or are a committed vegetarian, it’s hard to ignore the impact our food choices have on the environment, our health and our economy.
– Anny Celsi
February 16, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California