Whenever I see a headline that says, “New Study Suggests…”, I cringe. I love science and cherish the results of quality peer-reviewed studies to shape my decision making process as a veterinarian. But unfortunately, many fields from medicine to physics are lamenting the demise of quality science. Worse yet, these crumby studies typically get rock star treatment in mass media.
The most recent “groundbreaking” study (as many times as we’ve heard that term I’d think we’d all have fallen through the earth by now) claims beef causes more pollution and takes 28 times more land mass than pork or chicken. Consequently, we need to all stop eating beef for the sake of the earth!
Right away, it is apparent this doesn’t pass the smell test. Contrary to the erroneous reports often circulated, grasses are the foundation of all cattle production. Because grass is less energy efficient than grain, it takes more land to produce cattle than species raised exclusively in confinement, like pigs and poultry. The report also makes other ridiculous claims, like stating it takes 30 lbs. of corn to make one pound of beef. It takes more like a fifth to a sixth of that amount. If it took that much, we’d all have gone broke by now. I could go on and on, but other articles and blog posts have already addressed the issues.
The biggest problem isn’t that these studies are done; it’s when these studies are used to form public policy. Those who try to use these studies to influence public policy and consumer eating habits fail to understand the consequences of massive, short-sighted shifts in our nation’s agriculture system.
For example, let’s say we took this study as gospel and moved away from grain-fed beef production towards pork and chicken. Mind you, grain-fed beef relies entirely on momma cows that eat nearly 100% forage. Landowners that had originally used their ground as pasture would find that beef is no longer profitable. Consequently, they would be forced to change how they use their ground in order to earn a living.
In the eastern Great Plains, this would mean the pasture would be torn up, planted, and have a hog confinement slapped up. It would be a “better” use of the land, according to this study. Of course, it would also be the end of the last bits of native Tallgrass Prairie flora and fauna that live in our pastures. Any wildlife expert (I’m talking state level Game, Fish and Parks experts, not armchair experts in animal rights groups) will tell you that a field of corn will not support wildlife the way a pasture will, and certainly not the native plant life. Cattle grazing is the only way to ensure prairie habitat survival; without it, we will condemn many species to extinction.
In areas father west, the land would have no use. The climate in Wyoming is not like New York or Georgia—without extensive irrigation it will not grow crops. Now millions of acres that used to contribute to the food supply would no longer be of use to agriculture. This also eliminates the critical “herd grazing” that is beneficial to native plant life.
Studies like the one previously mentioned might catch some headlines, but when it comes to actually making a positive difference in the world they fall flat. Some researchers assume the whole world looks exactly like their backyard and are oblivious to the effects of their study’s “results”. In this case, the idea that beef needs to be avoided stinks worse than the garbage truck that will haul this “study” to the landfill.