A recent CNN article made a splash when it suggested it would be better for the environment for Americans to switch out beef for more chicken or pork. The columnist reason for this was because cattle burp methane, a greenhouse gas, as part of their digestion process, as well as eat corn, which requires conventional farming techniques. While I commend the columnist for actually visiting cattle country before writing, I would like to offer a perspective on why this idea stinks.
Consider the state of South Dakota (also known as the “Motherland” to my wife). It covers just over 77,000 miles of land that produces a lot of corn and a lot of cattle. While there are a host of other agricultural products made here (sunflowers, alfalfa, turkey and oats to name a few) corn and cattle are the most prevalent.
The rationale for this is because these products make the most efficient use of the resources we have in our state. By most efficient, I don’t just mean economically, I mean environmentally as well. Why? Our climate dictates that only certain thing do well here. For example, vegetables are a poor crop choice for most of the state. Yes, my wife’s garden looks phenomenal, but only because she uses a few thousand gallons of water on it each year. If we tried to raise water-intensive crops out here like that on a statewide scale, we’d make California look damp in no time.
Our climate lends itself best to growing grasses. Corn happens to be the most efficient grass (yes, corn is a grass). It creates the most energy for the amount of inputs that go into creating it. However, corn is not the best use of all the land in the state. Although farmers are quickly moving towards no-till farming, soil erosion is still an issue on some land. In addition, parts of South Dakota are too dry to raise corn.
That’s where grazing comes in. By putting cattle on land that is unsuitable for crops, we can use it to make a nutrient-dense food source. And, if we want the best of both worlds (which we always do in agriculture), we can graze cattle for most of their lives and feed them corn for the last few months so they reach slaughter size more efficiently (meaning, same size but using fewer resources).
Now, here’s where the issue comes in with the CNN column. People in agriculture have been working diligently to allocate our resources to be the most efficient we can be. Blindly changing this balance will end up being WORSE for our environment, not better.
For example, let’s say we cut out beef production in favor of pork and chicken (Now mind you, I find the other two meats delicious and fully support raising them). We have now completely eliminated the value that grazing land has. Remember the landowner still has to earn a living and pay taxes on the land he or she owns. So if it is worthless as grazing land, that landowner will need to find a new way to use that land to create income. Since pigs and chickens subsist on almost entirely corn and soybeans, that means the land that used to be a biodiverse, carbon capturing, soil erosion proof pasture will have to be plowed up and converted to farm ground to create chicken food instead of cow food. How does this help the environment?
To counter this, a person may think “Can’t the farmer raise something else?”. Well, what else is there? We can’t grow vegetables because of water issues; we can’t grow fruits because of water and the fact it is winter here for four to six months each year. There is limited demand for small grains like barley and oats, and therefore no profit if all 77,000 square miles of South Dakota were converted to farm them. Other grazing animals such as sheep are ruminants like cattle, so the “advantage” is lost there too. And there isn’t enough people willing to pay to see the state as one giant wildlife park (which means it would be covered in bison, deer and elk, which are also all ruminants).
Basically, if you want grazing land that promotes native flora and fauna, as well as captures carbon, you have to graze cattle. And, since it creates less greenhouse gas emissions for cattle to spend the last few months of their lives being fed corn instead of grazing, you need the corn. Is this system perfect? Absolutely not, but that is why we are constantly looking for ways to use less resources to create the food that feeds your family.
Flashy headlines saying “beef is bad” sell newspapers and TV ads, but do nothing to solve problems. I hate to do too much finger pointing, but why does my ’97 Chevy get nearly the same gas milage a brand-new pickup of the same class? Maybe we should look at the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions to for answers before we mess with a system that works for farmers, native plant and wildlife, and the environment.