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Hybrid cows


It's inarguable that the livestock industry is a tremendous contributor to global warming. Estimates place it above the global transportation sector. To put it simply, cows are worse than cars. Add in that demand for meat is expected to skyrocket as China and India continue to develop and you're looking at a really serious problem.

This is not particularly welcome news to meat producers. But few people care for the protestations of mega-corporations like Cargill. The issue becomes a bit trickier, however, when it's progressive, self-consciously sustainable companies like Niman Ranch making the argument. After all, these are the good guys!

Smartly, they admit the problem but posit themselves as the solution. Cows emit less methane if they're fed a more natural diet, they claim, and manure is less of a problem if it's not left to pile in the grossly-named "manure lagoons" that the huge producers create. The problem, in other words, is not the meat itself but the production of that meat. Small is beautiful, and big corporations are bad.

To some degree, that's true. Cows do emit somewhat less methane -- I've heard estimates of around a third -- when fed more natural diets. Manure really can be disposed of in more environmentally friendly ways. But for the reasons Helene York points out, these are partial solutions at best. It's the difference between driving a truck and driving a hybrid truck. The hybrid might be better, but what would really be better is biking, at least when you don't need to haul anything

It's also true that the protestations of the Niman folks pretty much put you in the same place as the hardcore environmentalists. They're arguing that the answer is a new production system that makes meat much more expensive in order to produce it in a somewhat-more environmentally friendly way. Making meat much more expensive will sharply reduce global demand, which would help solve the problem.

But that won't happen. Major meat producers are not going to convert to the practices of boutique, sustainable producers. That's even more true in the developing world than it is here. The best hope, if there is indeed any hope, is to include agriculture in whatever carbon pricing scheme we eventually agree to implement, so that the precedent is to admit the greenhouse gases emitted by meat production and price them into the basic product. That will require, however, being honest about the basic truth of food production: The higher you go in the food chain, the more energy your food takes to produce. You can do a lot to make one cow more environmentally sustainable than another, but it's impossible to make it more environmentally sustainable than a carrot.

Photo credit: By Kevin Lee/Bloomberg

By Ezra Klein  |  November 2, 2009; 11:56 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change , Food  
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This entire train of thought, very well delineated by Ezra here, shows why we're going to find out what happens on planet Earth when 600-700ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere looks like, much to our horror.

I suspect over time people will be willing to drive more fuel efficient cars, and even many of the other changes which we hope will reduce the level of carbons emitted by over 7 billion people and rising, but food production costing more to save the planet. No way in hades. We're f#cked.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 2, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I find your claims to be going way too far. I know the pig in Egypt are kept by the cyptic rag pickers and trash removers. They feed almost exclusively on trash and resturant scraps. I don't see how pig feed nearly on only trash that would have been thrown out anyway is could be less enviromentally freindly than even farming. Similarly I think cattle raise in the west like it was during the 1850, purely free range animals given no feed living nearly indintical to wild bison. That is unlikely to happen but I think it is better for the enviroment to have a montinize way of keeping large parts of the paire grasslands instead of wheat that must be irrigated.

Posted by: JonWa | November 2, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I would say the solution is vat-grown meat, but I've always been a fan of unholy cloning science.

Posted by: StevenAttewell | November 2, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you in spirit on this post, but....

"You can do a lot to make one cow more environmentally sustainable than another, but it's impossible to make it more environmentally sustainable than a carrot."

Cattle has been domesticated for thousands of years. That may not be *more* sustainable than a carrot, but the difference isn't particularly relevant.

Our current practices are unsustainable, but cows wouldn't have made it this far if they were inherently unsustainable.

Posted by: JEinATL | November 2, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your critique of Niman's stance is too shallow. You mention an estimate that grassfed cattle emit about 1/3 less methane than feedlot cattle, and so conclude that the grassfed cow is equivalent to a hybrid car that burns "only" 2/3 as much gasoline as the regular kind. But you are missing a key dimension to the system here. Properly managed cattle (and other animals) on pasture do emit methane, but they also contribute to carbon sequestration through the formation of new topsoil. A hybrid car has no such compensating feature. You ignore the second page of Niman's op-ed, where she says, "Additionally, several recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock reduce global warming by acting as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture, which reduces erosion, effectively sequesters significant amounts of carbon. One analysis published in the journal Global Change Biology showed a 19 percent increase in soil carbon after land changed from cropland to pasture. What’s more, animal grazing reduces the need for the fertilizers and fuel used by farm machinery in crop cultivation, things that aggravate climate change." The deep soils of the US prairies weren't created because bison were rare, they were created because bison were abundant, grazing and farting their way all around. And those soils contained absurdly massive amounts of carbon, much of which has now been un-sequestered because of oxidation following tillage and through other results of modern agricultural malpractice.

What's possible is that--if ag is included in some kind of carbon trading scheme that includes offset sales (something that isn't necessarily a good idea for other reasons, but anyhow...)--these carbon sinking cattle operations could receive new revenues from their offsets. In principle, that would allow them to maintain their current profit levels even as they reduce their price of meat, so that this "eco-friendly" meat doesn't necessarily have to be priced beyond the reach of some fraction of the middling consumer.

Posted by: JonathanTE | November 2, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Just one, not entirely contradictory point is that countries with a chance to construct or reconstruct their agricultural systems can end up with more environmentally friendly practices. New Zealand eliminated agricultural subsidies which meant that rather than overproducing subsidized wool they were instead producing market priced, pasture raised lamb and wine. Of course that's predicated on a pretty low population density and desirable pasturelands.

I think it might be true that if we re-evaluated what we could crudely describe as the comparative advantage of land we would find something interesting. But it's thrown pretty far out of whack by subsidies and much more effort has been put into getting the soil all the same than matching the form of agriculture to the land over the past 100 years.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | November 2, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Folks have to think of scale here. What a few pigs feeding on trash do, or a few perfectly managed cows do, or wild cows once did, is not relevant. We're talking about the rapid production of billions of animals for meat -- production on a level that we've never seen -- that can be sold for profit. The question is whether that can be sustainable.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | November 2, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, yay, I finally got your goat enough on one of these meat posts that you replied!

Pigs in trash I don't know about. But in regard to large scale cattle production, I think you don't realize the scale that is possible with "perfectly managed cows." Now I realize I'm talking about changes that are more drastic than we are likely to see, given political (and other) inertias. But numerically speaking, this is only "small scale" because of distorted economics and politics, not because of anything intrinsic about pasturing animals. As it is, roughly 54 million acres of land in the US is given over to producing animal feed (40% of all corn and sorghum; 30% of barley; more than 100% equivalent of all oats [so imports are mucking up the numbers there]; and 5% of soy). (Source: ERS/USDA "Agricultural Outlook: Statistical Indicators" Table 17 part 1 at If that land were to be converted to pasture, you would be able to raise quite a few animals and all without the negative effects of feedlot management. As many animals as are raised under the feedlot method? I don't know, but whatever the exact proportion, it wouldn't consign the masses to vegetarianism. And while it doesn't affect cost and strict availability particularly, it's nothing to sneeze at that the resulting meat would be a lot healthier to boot.

Posted by: JonathanTE | November 2, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

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