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Is the Problem With Meat Simply Factory Farming?


Revered farmer Eliot Coleman has a blog post up at Grist debunking the "myth" that meat production increases carbon emissions. His argument is that meat production doesn't increase carbon. Industrial meat production does. And there's something to this. Using manure to fertilize a farm is a lot better than letting it sit in vast -- ugh -- lagoons. Feeding a cow the grass that it's evolved to eat results in fewer methane emissions than raising it on a diet of corn.

But Coleman doesn't debunk the claim, or come close to it. The fact that industrial livestock production is worse than other forms of livestock production does not mean that meat is not a major contributor to global warming. It means that there are ways to make it a somewhat smaller contributor to global warming. But even that would be tricky.

Cows are efficient at being cows. They are not very efficient at being food. When you grow an apple, the various inputs result in an apple tree and a lot of apples. But a cow has a lot of parts, and does a lot of things, that aren't particularly related to becoming hamburger. When you "grow" a steak, the various inputs first result in corn and grass and other types of food, and then they are made into feed, and then they go to a cow to help it develop bones and eyes and skin and to help it breathe and move and live. Raising food to feed to a less efficient form of food doesn't maximize available resources.

Coleman, of course, knows all this much better than I do. And it's certainly the case that if people are going to raise meat, they should do so in the most environmentally friendly way possible. But they shouldn't try and obscure the fact that eating meat is not a particularly environmentally friendly thing to do. And nor is that to say that nobody should ever eat meat. I eat meat! And sometimes drive! But the environmental toll should be priced into the activity.

Then there's a whole other question as to whether it's even possible to imagine an equilibrium wherein the world eats the amount of meat it currently does -- much less the amount of meat it's projected to eat -- but produces it all in accordance with Coleman's hopes. Looking at the prices in my farmer's market and in supermarkets, it doesn't seem like that world would produce meat cheap enough to support current consumption levels. But many people think I'm wrong on that.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 7, 2009; 4:05 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Next: More on Meat and Carbon


Which people think you're wrong on that? I would like to see their arguments.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | August 7, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

i hope that everyone reading these comments, will watch this:

part of a lecture by dr marc bekoff, professor emeritus at university of colorado, and author of the book, "wild justice," published by university of chicago.

Posted by: jkaren | August 7, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Drew, I think Ezra is referring to prices for grass fed range beef, or the equivalent in other forms of meat. If chicken cost $10.99/lb or more, and chuck was the same, (filet mignon at $60/lb)I believe consumption would drop through the floor... gas was thought to be relatively inelastic until prices increase by 400% + in a matter of years.

Friends recently went to India and stayed vegetarian the entire time, because what meat was generally available (chicken, lamb) was far lower quality than what they get here in the states.

Ezra, an interesting environmental paradox from your musings would be letting certain breeds of meat livestock go extinct because they weren't 'efficient' enough. Do we honor diversity that humans have bred, or consider all the various species of livestock as expendable in more ways than just for the dinner plate?

Posted by: Jaycal | August 7, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

"Cows are efficient at being cows. They are not very efficient at being food."

BZZZT! Cows exist to be food. They wouldn't look like they do if they weren't set up to be food, they'd be much smaller. And pretending that apples magically appear ignoring planting, watering, pollinating, insecticides and then shipping from Central America is a nice touch.

Posted by: endaround | August 7, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are just wrong about true free range meat. I'm referring to traditional sheep herding or truly free range bison (no corn or straw feeding). It is far more enviromentally friendly way to raise food than farming.

A real old fashion cattle or bision ranch would leave the great plains nearly unchanged from what they were for centuries. It is true that they produce less calories per acre compared to soy beans, but wheat requires massive irrigation, pesticides, fertilizer, and of course death to biodiversity.

Posted by: JonWa | August 7, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea about reducing meat consumption as a good way to reduce emissions.

Something that you touched upon but didn't really flesh out in your piece is those "other parts" of the cow that we don't typically eat.

They are actually all edible. Skin (although leather might be a better use), eyes, brains, intestines, etc can all be eaten.

Americans are ridiculously squeamish about this but a lot of the stuff is really tasty. Calf brains, cow bone marrow, and oxtails are some of my favorite things to eat when I can find them.

So reducing overall meat consumption in a great goal but eating the animal in a more efficient way could also help.

Posted by: PorkBelly | August 7, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I don't think you understand his point. Something like 90% of the energy consumed by the cow in the form of feed is lost in the form of heat and growth of parts of the cow that aren't meat. The old adage is: it takes 10 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of meat (I've seen estimates that vary from 7-16 pounds). In that sense, meat is a very inefficient way of obtaining your calories. That's what he means when he says that cows "are not very efficient at being food."

Also, according to this BBC piece, it takes about 1800 gallons of water to make 1 pound of beef (15 cubic meters per kg):

Posted by: y0ssar1an | August 7, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

"Cows are efficient at being cows."

This is the brilliance that I come here for. Next time I see a cow I am going to remind it how efficient it is at being a cow

Posted by: JohnSnider | August 7, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse


Apples don't grow in Central America - no winter there, they need cold to break dormancy. Chile and New Zealand in the winter, and, gasp, North America in the summer.

Also, note that chicken is far more efficient that beef, at about 2 lbs of feed per 1 lb of meat.

Posted by: mjtimber | August 9, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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