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Beef pollutes-new story is old news-but mainstream attention is a first

Cows called environmentally "inefficient" compared to pigs and chickens by AP research report.
Cows called environmentally "inefficient" compared to pigs and chickens by AP research report.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The fact that factory-style meat production has a big environmental footprint is nothing new. Mainstream coverage of the issue, however, is. The Denver Post recently published an Associated Press story that criticized the environmental footprint of commercial beef production. This issue has been discussed for decades by vegetarian and vegan activists in Colorado and nationwide, but it rarely reached the mainstream.

Animal activists have long criticized commercial meat production for animal cruelty, while environmental activists have often said plant-based divests would reduce greenhouse gases and other environmental impact. The AP story says eating a pound of beef produces the same greenhouse gases as burning a gallon of gasoline. The article doesn’t however, suggest that one could eat four quarter-pounders and take the train to work for a few days to even things out. By quantifying greenhouse gas production, such counter-arguments are likely to surface in the mainstream as meat production becomes a mainstream environmental issue.

Environmental activists criticize the impact of feedlot operations-namely that fact that animal waste must be disposed of in holding ponds that can affect the surrounding water supply. In the AP report, attention is also given to the amount of methane gas that cows produce simply through their own digestion for their food, and suggests, based on quoted research, that pigs and chickens produce less methane gas. This issue has been studied again and again by environmental scientists and has made headlines in the mainstream from time to time.

What the mainstream hasn’t heard is what hasn’t been studied nearly as often: the idea that there could be a tipping point for favorable meat production and at what production pace would meat production cease to have such a large footprint? Ironically, one of the few people to address this question is vegan author and activist Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “Eating Animals”. Foer’s book includes some juicy accounts of animal rights activists sneaking into fur farms, among other accounts.

Foer’s book also sheds light on the acts of conscientious farmers whose animals-per-acre of land ration is small enough that the land can absorb their waste. Such farm operations can produce sizable quantities of meat without the use of pollutive holding ponds that are filled with feces. In addition, the animals have room to roam and thus don’t face the cruel conditions that more and more Americans are finding to be objectionable once they become aware of them.

For those who seek to stay carnivorous, farms with a lower animals-per-acre ratio should be of interest. Less crowding of animals means better-quality meat, and for two key reasons. First, eliminating the crowded conditions means that the animals won’t be prone to excessive exposure to communicable diseases, and that makes it much easier for farmers to eliminate the use of antibiotics to keep the animals from getting chronically ill, and thus prevents powerful antibiotics from being consumed by humans.

Meat will also have a higher culinary value if the animals are less distressed-in short, the animal lives a better quality of life and this leads to better-quality meat. A special report produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations explains that a healthy animal’s flesh contains glycogen-sugars that get converted to energy. When the animal is slaughtered, the glycogen in the animal flesh converts to lactic acid, which helps give meat its tenderness and proper color.

Animals that live in stressful situations tend to have less glycogen o begin with. Slaughtering conditions that don’t kills the animal quickly and which allow animals coming up for slaughter to observe the slaughter of those ahead of them in line also contribute to stress and diminish meat quality, the report goes on to say.

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