Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meat Eaters, Misguided

Vegans are reaching out to the public with a softer message: “Just skip meat and dairy once a week. You can do it!”

As a result, “Meatless Mondays” has gained attention as a food trend. Let’s take a look at the Meat Eaters Guide To Climate Change + Health.

Previously, I have spoken out my concerns for the environment, but I am definitely concerned for my health. My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was twelve. She survived, thankfully! I learned what an antioxidant was before I could even spell it. Every starch our family ate at the table (to my younger brother’s chagrin) was whole grain and unprocessed. Fiber here, fiber there, fiber everywhere! I spoke of my high cholesterol and potential inheritance of Alzheimer’s (3 of 4 grandparents had it) in previous posts. My fascination for nutrition and its mitigation of genetic risk factors took root in middle school. You bet I’m personally invested in this.

It is correct to say that the energy efficiency of eating vegetables is greater than eating meat.
It is incorrect to conclude that overall, eating a vegetarian diet is better for the environment. We'll see why.

Anything along the food chain that respires and does not photosynthesize costs energy to maintain, and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere along the way. This phenomenon is called the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR).

Feed conversion ratios are as follows:

                 Pounds of feed : Pounds of food produced
                                    1.2:1 Fish
                                    1.9:1 Chicken
                                    5.9:1 Pork
                                    8.7:1 Beef

This mostly has to do with how quickly or slowly the animal grows. Slower-growing animals require more maintenance energy (See “Going Hormonal Over Beef” post). A quick glance at these FCRs might make you think, oh man, beef is so inefficient! While these animals are consuming non-food grade diets (industrial co-products like soybean meal or distiller’s grains that would end up trashed), cattle have a special ability to turn cellulosic fibers into energy for meat and milk production. No mammal produces cellulase, the enzyme that releases glucose from cellulose (long chains of glucose) for utilization. Cattle and other ruminants operate symbiotically with microbes in the rumen to ferment straw, wood shavings, grasses, hulls, and other inedible materials into energy for tissue growth. The 8.7:1 ratio is efficient in its own right.

Question: For organic crop production, what are the two most important sources of fertilizer?
Answer: Manure and Compost.
            Manure, being richer in nitrogen than compost, is most important, and where, pray tell, will manure for fertilizer come from if animal agriculture is eliminated? Because manure is far less rich in nitrogen then synthetic fertilizer, even a 15% reduction in manure production (Meatless Mondays) would amount to serious consequences for the organic produce industry. Manure is a highly valuable resource that is not wasted in the animal agriculture industry.
            To create compost, biomass has to rot down. If well-aerated, it emits more carbon dioxide than methane. Those carbons, however, are not ending up in the form of amino acids and fats in animal tissues to be reused as food for humans. Vegetarian biomass waste is a large component of agricultural animal diets.

Question: What is the main culprit for the destruction of 96% of America’s Tallgrass Prairie?
Answer: Cropland

I love that all beef cattle spend part of their lives on wild, open range. The beef industry keeps wildlife habitat profitable. We all know that economic incentives help guarantee environmental protection. Cattlemen know that overgrazing, overwatering, erosion, destruction of wildlife habitat and water resources will put them out of business as cattle raisers and hunting leasers. If there weren’t a strong demand for beef, ranchers would be selling their open lands for development. I'd rather see ranched lands than plowed lands, and so would wildlife.


While the Guide acknowledged that the environmental impact of feedyard beef vs. grassfed beef is debatable, it needs an update on grassfed’s nutritional profile (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).

Also, save a few known carcinogens, there are no known CAUSES of cancer. It is irresponsible to assert that red meat causes cancer if, at best, studies are only showing correlations. I am still going to eat the recommended serving, about 6-9 oz. of lean meat a day, for highly bioavailable nutrients, protein, and MUFA:SFA ratios that are greater than 1 (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).  

If anyone has more questions, I encourage you to browse the older posts and post a comment. Many people are searching for a silver bullet to solve health and environmental problems. Accepting the “Meateater’s Guide To Climate Change + Health” is naïve.

The reality is, life is a costly and complicated thing. Trade-offs are everywhere. What do you Think?


  1. Correlations are everywhere in the world. I would imagine that the record of a sports team directly correlates to divorce rates in America some how. But it would be completely unwise to say that "If the Aggies go 6-7 in football this year your marriage is going to tank and you will be divorced in 3 months. Just because there is a correlation doesn't mean there is a relation. Compost for gardening is great, however it is very inefficient on a large scale (I think I have mentioned phosphorus run off before). I would rather see manure be burned to produce steam which could be turned into electricity to charge batteries for electric tractors, but that is just me :)

  2. Good point about biomass as an energy source for generating electricity. Composting is a nice way to reduce household waste, but you're right, on a large scale there are plenty of more prime destinations for vegetative waste and manure.

  3. Cassie- There are many things that we can do as we grow beef to improve feed efficiency and reduce the number of pounds of feed that are necessary for a pound of animal gain. Animal comfort and high quality care increase the efficiency of the animal. As a result, cattle in my feed yard have a dry matter feed conversion significantly below the statistic that you listed above. By consistently offering good feed, paying attention to detail on feed delivery, exercising and acclimating calves, and ensuring good lifetime vaccination practices we are able to have feed conversions that are consistently below 6#.

    Thank you for pointing out the importance of manure as a co-product. We farm in addition to finishing cattle, and the "natural fertilizer" that my animals make plays an important role in maintaining the nutrient health of our crop soil. Our crops feed animals, and our cattle make fertilizer to continually replenish the nutrient needs of our soil--it makes a sustainable cycle while at the same time producing a high quality and great tasting protein for human consumption. Beef!

    The growth of food is a complex and variable practice that depends on the natural resources available in a particular geographic location--it is like putting together the pieces of a jig saw puzzle.