Herbivore’s Dilemma? Is There One?

Herbivore’s Dilemma? Is There One?

In a widely-chewed over oped that ran in the New York Times recently, environmental lawyer and rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman (wife of grass-fed beef entrepreneur Bill) offered a defense of “free range” meat in the service of slowing climate change. She does condemn factory farming and she’s not advocating consuming meat (or dairy) three times a day or in vast quantities, akin to the standard American diet. Still, in my view she grazed (sic) over some important issues’and made it seem like the herbivores are running the world, or will be soon. Meat eaters, be on the alert?! Here’s the letter I wrote to the Times in response:

Dear Editor:

Nicolette Hahn Niman (Carnivore’s Dilemma, Oct 31, 2009) leaves out a few key numbers in her defense of non factory farmed meat. One is recent research (published in World Watch) that indicates that production of animal foods contributes 51% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a huge sum and considerably more than previous estimates. Another is the scale at which meat and dairy products are brought to market. Nearly 10 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food in the U.S. each year, more than 30 for every person, Globally, the number is about 60 billion. (Animal foods consumption is rising fastest in the developing world as agribusiness and fast food outlets seek new markets and an increasingly affluent urban middle class seeks more meat and dairy.) There simply isn’t enough land, water, forest or climate “space” to continue producing, and consuming, this many animals, even if they aren’t confined in factory farms.

By my quick calculation, to raise the nine billion chickens eaten in the U.S. each year in a true free range, pasture system (where the birds get plenty of space each) would require about the same amount of land that’s devoted to growing corn in the U.S.: 86 million acres. Corn, of course, is a prime animal feed — and many “pasture-raised” animals are in fact “finished” on a diet of corn. Moreover, even free range animals’ manure produces methane and nitrous oxide, both much more potent GHGs than carbon dioxide; both beef and dairy cows fed on grass produce methane, too, and in considerable quantities. Surely, there’s also an ethical dimension to eating animals on such a mass scale, a point Ms. Niman doesn’t address. So, yes, eat locally and organically, avoid excessive food packaging and don’t waste. But, if you care about the climate, eat like you do, and that means reducing meat and dairy significantly — or simply eliminating them altogether.

To see the letters the Times printed, click here