Industrial Agriculture is.
Meat is, of course, produced by industrial agriculture (IA), and the meat thus produced – IA meat – is absolutely bad for the planet and for the health of those consuming it. IA meat makes up almost all of the meat that is produced today, and thus it is very understandable that meat in general seems terrible for the environment – most people don’t realize that there is meat that isn’t produced by IA.
It is very important to recognize, however, that plant-based IA is also terrible for the planet. This often goes unacknowledged by those advocating for vegan and vegetarian diets.
Before going into the details of these distinctions, I want to acknowledge the truth – to the extent that they are true – of the many articles and studies that claim that meat is terrible for the planet. The meat available in grocery stores (IA meat) is terrible for the planet, period. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) are hell-holes of animal cruelty and disease, as are IA slaughterhouses. IA beef, as an example, takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. IA figured out that chickens would eat their own shit if it was mixed with enough molasses and salt. IA meat is absolutely worse for the planet than IA plant-based foods. In South America they are cutting/burning down the Amazon to make room for more pasture for cattle. These things acknowledged, let’s now examine how these facts don’t tell the whole story.
The primary misleading assumption is that IA is taken as a given. Given the choice between IA meat and IA plant-based foods, the choice is clear: IA plant-based foods are more humane and better for the planet. But this is a false dichotomy. IA plant-based foods are still inhumane, terrible for the planet, and terrible for people’s health. IA plant-based foods are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and IA plant agriculture is unsustainable.
So it is not meat production and consumption in and of itself that is harmful but instead the constellation of bad practices that comprise industrial agriculture. Let’s now dig into how exactly IA plant-based foods are problematic:
IA is highly reliant on fossil fuels across the entirety of its supply chain. In the US, 15-20 Calories of energy are spent to produce one Calorie of food.
Large amounts of fossil fuel are required to power heavy farming machinery, to process foods, to refrigerate foods during transportation, to produce packaging materials, and to manufacture and transport chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers containing nitrogen are particularly fossil-fuel-intensive; production and transport of 1 lb of nitrogen releases an average of 3.7 lbs of CO 2 into the atmosphere.
A tremendous amount of energy is also used to transport our food. As a result of the development of centralized industrial agricultural operations and the corresponding disappearance of local family farms, food is now shipped extraordinarily long distances before it reaches your dinner plate. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, food and agricultural products (not including imported or exported foods) are transported 566 billion ton-miles within U.S. borders each year, constituting more than 20% of total U.S. commodity transport. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that, on average, food traveled 1,346 miles. Another study conducted in 1980 determined that fresh produce traveled 1,500 miles!
Furthermore, an increasing quantity of food is now being transported internationally; in 1998, a total of 172 million tons of food were shipped into and out of the U.S.10 In 2001, the U.S. imported 39% of all fruits, 12% of vegetables, 40% of lamb, and 78% of fish and shellfish. This excessive and unnecessary food transportation requires the consumption of large quantities of fossil fuel, thus polluting the environment and damaging human health. Lengthy food transport also generates additional energy expenditures by creating the need for increased food packaging, processing, and refrigeration.Fossil Fuels and Agriculture
If we recognize that we have to cease all carbon emissions, relying on an agricultural system that depends on fossil fuels is insane.
Monoculture and artificial fertilizer
IA plant-based foods are essentially synonymous with monoculture. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. Think endless rows of corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is obviously not a natural state, and there are many problematic consequences of practicing it.
First, to create cropland one must destroy an ecosystem. Instead of a forest or a prairie, there is now a field. Instead of many birds, animals, and plants, there is now one. Monoculture is the exact opposite of diversity, and diversity is necessary for a healthy environment. There’s a lot of death and destruction that goes into creating cropland.
Monoculture breaks the cycle of life. Simplified: the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the animals, and the animals feed the soil. Growing for market entails taking from the soil – from the land – and not giving back to it (because it’s shipped far away). This is unsustainable. In order to grow, plants require nutrients. The big three are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. When plants are grown and harvested, the nutrients are taken from the soil, which then has fewer nutrients for the next crop. Continue this for too long and the soil becomes barren – it will no longer grow crops. To rejuvenate the soil, nutrients must be added back to it – this is what we call fertilizer. Non-monocultured soil is fertilized by dead plants and animals, and animal feces. Monocultured soil misses out on most of these inputs.
Back in the early twentieth century we were starting to run out of nutrients in our soils, which was resulting in diminishing crop yields. This problem was overcome (at least for the time), with the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed us to “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere, at the expense of immense heat and pressure fueled by natural gas. The Haber-Bosch process was discovered as the result of a multi-year, focused, competitive effort responding to the widespread fear of food scarcity.
The Haber-Bosch process has dramatically changed the face of agriculture and with it the face of our planet. The introduction of nitrogenous fertilizers and their increasing application had a dramatic impact on grain yields. Together with new high yielding, short-stalked varieties and chemical protection, yields of wheat and rice worldwide eventually tripled and quadrupled during the 20th century (Smil 2011). The availability of these fertilizers also opened the door for farms to move away from the proven and millennia-old system of cycling and re-cycling nutrients and organic matter in each farm. Diversified farms growing crops for humans, soil-building crops for livestock where the manure was applied back onto the land had been the norm. Now it suddenly became possible to look at a farm in a much more linear way, importing plant nutrients and exporting crops. Industrial monocultures began to take over. Farms moved away from being diversified and multi-dimensional and the `modern’ corn-soybean crop farm took over. Also the disconnecting of animal husbandry from the land and from crop growing set the stage for the so-called CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). What used to be the perfect “marriage” between cropping and livestock turned into two serious problems, the need to import expensive fertilizer into farms and the necessity to dispose of animal manure. A much-valued resource, `black gold’ has suddenly become a waste disposal problem (Pollan 2006, Montgomery 2007, Hager 2008). Haber-Bosch also made possible the `Green Revolution’, which transformed agriculture during the mid 1900’s in many so-called developing countries. This massive technology transfer of a more industrial style agriculture rested on the availability and application of nitrogen fertilizer.
The increased yields worldwide supported the rapidly expanding global population, which grew by 5 billion between 1900 and 2000. The number of humans supported per hectare of arable land has increased from 1.9 to 4.3 persons from 1908 to 2008 (Zmaczynski 2012). Today our world food supply has become very dependent on anthropogenic nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers supply just over half of the need of our world’s crops (Smil 2011).
Without this industrial nitrogen our soils today simply could not grow enough food to provide for our current dietary needs. While this fact might be a reason to celebrate, it does come at a higher and higher price. The increasing application of soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides into soils and environment brings with it serious ecological challenges in the form of emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as ground water contamination and surface water eutrophication (Smil 2001, Smil 2011, Charles 2013). The well-documented `dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea have gained infamous notoriety, among countless other examples. Additionally, industrial agriculture and the `Green Revolution’ have had other dramatic negative, unforeseen and unintended consequences. Socio-economically, with the advent of industrial agriculture came the disruption and weakening of traditional farming systems and the communities and local economies they were embedded in (Berry 1986, Shiva 1991). The significance of Haber-Bosch in our current world can hardly be overstated.The Haber-Bosch Process
The energy and hydrogen required to power the Haber-Bosch process are provided by fossil fuels, which are of course problematic and unsustainable.
The Haber process now produces 450 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. The Haber process consumed 3–5% of the world’s natural-gas production (around 1–2% of the world’s energy supply). The Haber–Bosch process is one of the largest contributors to a buildup of reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, causing an anthropogenic disruption to the nitrogen cycle. Since nitrogen use efficiency is typically less than 50%, farm runoff from heavy use of fixed industrial nitrogen disrupts biological habitats. Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber–Bosch process.Wikipedia
Monocultures are also vastly more susceptible to diseases and pests than polycultures are. Thus they require herbicides like Bayer’s RoundUp (glyphosate), fungicides, and pesticides. These are toxic, and end up in the soil and water harming humans and other life.
You might be thinking that you can avoid the above issues by buying non-GMO organic. You’d be partially correct, as non-GMO organic is less problematic. It’s still however quite problematic. Most of the issues with monoculture still pertain to organic plant-based foods. Large amounts of fossil fuels are still required to grow, preserve, and transport it.
Organic farming, as it is practiced now in the U.S, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits. The link in this reliance is animal manure and the key nutrient is [once again] nitrogen.http://csanr.wsu.edu/organic-ag-synthetic-nitrogen/
The exception to this is of course if you buy from local farmers whose methods you trust. But how many people buy exclusively from local farmers? And even then they are still using fossil fuels, as we all are. And as the above link points out, pretty much any farmer growing for market benefits from synthetic nitrogen fixing.
IA plant based agriculture also draws heavily on water resources. The reason California has droughts and water issues is the same reason as why the Ogallala aquifer that feeds America’s breadbasket is running out: IA agriculture uses more water than is sustainable. Addressing water scarcity would take an entire blog post on its own, but is a huge deal, and IA is a huge contributor to it.
In short, IA plant-based foods are neither healthy nor sustainable. When articles tell you to stop eating meat, this is what they want you to support instead.
And believe it or not, there are viable sources of healthy meat. In fact, when done properly animal husbandry is good for the planet. I’ll even take it one step further and say that responsible animal husbandry is actually crucial to the future of agriculture.
Let’s start by talking about cows. Cows and beef get a lot of bad press, for example, the statistic I quoted above that it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. The argument goes that this grain could instead go to feeding people directly. Ignoring the fact that no human would want to eat the grain that gets fed to cows, let’s instead talk about how cows shouldn’t be eating grain in the first place. They should only be eating what they evolved to eat, which is motherfuckin’ grass.
Cows are incredible. They are renewable solar energy sources. They turn sunlight into beef and dairy. Grass, unlike monocultures, requires very little management. Now you might say here, plants turn sunlight into food even more efficiently. You are of course correct, but you might not be aware that pasture is not the same as cropland.
Pasture =/= Cropland
Intact grasslands inhabited by herds of large herbivores have a tremendous capacity to sequester carbon in the soil. Data in terms of tons of carbon per hectare is hard to pinpoint because estimates obtained through measurement and modeling vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on geological conditions, rainfall, types of grasses and whether they are cut, and the presence or absence of herd animals (whether wild or domesticated livestock). Furthermore, sequestered carbon can remain in the soil for varying lengths of time. Some carbon-containing soil organic matter decomposes in a year or two, much of it remains in the soil for a few decades, and some isn’t recycled back into the atmosphere for thousands of years (if ever). The ten-foot-thick topsoil of the American Midwest (much eroded today) testifies to the ability of grasslands to store carbon underground.
The highest carbon storage comes from native grass mixes occupied by large, roaming herds of herbivores. Sadly, 97 percent of the original North American highgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, suburbs, and sown pasture. Originally covering 70 million hectares, its carbon-regulating capacity was enormous. Judging by the data, albeit sparse, coming from management-intensive grazing practices that seek to replicate natural herbivore grazing behavior, it is conceivable that highgrass prairie could sequester 8–20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Today, instead, most of this land is a carbon emitter, because it is cultivated for crops. Plow-based cultivation that exposes bare soil to the air, water, and wind makes its organic matter (carbon) available for oxidation. A similar story has transpired in the steppes of Asia, the veldts of Africa, the pampas of South America, and so on. According to the FAO, up to a third of global grassland has already been degraded. What could be a carbon sink is becoming an emissions source.Charles Eisenstein, Climate, A New Story
Furthermore, not all soil is the same, and there is plenty of soil that is unsuitable for growing crops yet grows grass well. Thus, done properly, cow pasture does not compete with cropland, and expands the amount of land that is able to contribute to human food.
As mentioned above, large ruminants (i.e. cows, bison, etc.) play a crucial role in healthy grasslands. Their main contribution is their heavy hoofprint which presses grasses down into the soil, thus sequestering carbon, but their poop also contributes. What makes a ruminant a ruminant is that they have four stomachs that allow them to ferment grass inside themselves, growing bacteria, which is what actually provides them nutrition and energy.
Rumens are meant to digest leafy plant matter. In the case of cows, mostly grass. Their stomachs are not meant to digest grain, nor do they handle it well. Thus, it makes little sense to be feeding cows grain. IA does it because it causes them to gain weight faster, with higher fat content, at the expense of their health.
As large ruminants, cows in particular have a huge roll to play in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is practicing agriculture in such a way that it is not only sustainable, but actually regenerates the land upon which it is practiced. An example would be reclaiming the land now used for cropland in the American high plains and restoring it to prairie. This would stop the carbon emissions that cropland causes, and start to once again sequester carbon. Since the American Bison was hunted close to extinction to remove it as a food source for Native Americans by colonizers, cows will be very helpful in restoring the prairie. Cows are also incredibly useful for building soil and soil health in any grassland setting when managed properly. Pastures sequester more carbon than do forests.
Carbon sequestration is important for more than just fighting climate change, it also makes for better, healthier soil. In the soil, carbon is commonly referred to as ‘organic matter content’ and is one of the primary things that determines how healthy soil is. This is because carbon enters the soil in the form of plant matter, which then becomes food for the bacteria and insects that make soil alive. Soil with high organic matter content can also absorb much more water during rainfall, making less runoff and therefore less soil erosion.
Pigs and Chickens
The main two other meats that we eat are pork and chicken. IA pork and chicken are way worse in pretty much every way than IA beef. Given the choice between IA pork and chicken and IA beef, I’d choose IA beef every time, both in terms of my own health and that of the planet.
Outside of IA, however, both pigs and chickens have valuable contributions to make to a holistically managed farm. Pigs turn compost into bacon and lard, and chickens remove insect pests and produce eggs and meat. Pigs also can provide value by working the land. Look up Joel Salatin for more information. They can be raised in a way that is beneficial for the land, and provide valuable nutrition.
Done properly, animal husbandry is much more labor efficient than plant-based agriculture in terms of calories and nutrition produced (Outside of IA. Of course it’s more labor efficient in terms of man-hours to have fossil fuels do all the work). I don’t know how many people have ever tried to completely feed themselves out of a garden, but gardening is long and hard work. Properly managed animals require a lot less time.
If you actually care about the planet, the thing to do is stop supporting the Industrial Agriculture system. This, however, is harder than it sounds. It pretty much means that you stop buying food in the grocery store. And since that’s where pretty much everyone gets their food, it’s a tall order.
However it’s easier and easier to support local, regenerative agriculture. There are CSA’s (community supported agriculture) all over the place, likely near you. Most metropolitan areas will also have access to a butcher that sources local, healthy meat.
One way or another, at some point we will no longer use natural gas to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. We might stop when we realize that burning fossil fuels is no longer tenable. At the very least we’ll stop when we run out of natural gas at some point in the future. By being dependent on a non-renewable resource, the Haber-Bosch process is by definition unsustainable. A sustainable agricultural system will need animals, especially cows, to maintain soil fertility.
Support holistic/regenerative local farmers!