Global Warming, Eating Meat and the Importance of the Local Farm Movement — Directly from a Farmer

In my quest to green my life, I have been on a mission to eat more sustainably. I’ve tried to buy only locally grown and organic produce and have searched for grass-fed meats. Well, during my quest I have befriended Shannon Hayes, a sustainable farmer in Upstate New York. This journey to find better, healthier and more environmentally friendly meat can be read in one of my older post entitled “Grass-Fed Meat.”

Shannon has a wealth of information on today’s food issues and I thought Eco Chick readers might enjoy what she has to say about global warming, eating meat and the importance of the local farm movement. I hope you find it has informative and timely as I did.

Compare Apples to Apples When You’re Talking About Rib Eyes
By Shannon Hayes, farmer and host of grassfedcooking.com

After decades of hunching over in shame around environmentalist vegetarians, small grass-based meat farmers were finally given a chance hold our heads high by investigative journalists and nutritional advocates like Jo Robinson, Michael Pollan and Sally Fallon. In the last 10 years, Grass-fed meats have been lauded for their health benefits, their contributions to local economies and animal welfare, and most especially, for their environmental benefits.

…Until recently. A study released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization started a buzz in November of 2006 suggesting that livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. According to a story in the New York Times, in 2007, PETA commissioned a Hummer and outfitted it with a driver wearing a chicken suit to travel around to environmental rallies, proclaiming meat as the number one cause of global warming. And this month, a story in Environmental Science and Technology reports on a new study which suggests that, rather than eating locally, we should just remove red meat and dairy from our diet once per week and replace it with chicken, fish or eggs, and have at least one day per week entirely meat-free. The result? Customers ordinarily seeking beef are suddenly asking for turkey burgers and chicken sausage; or they are dropping meat from their diets all together.

That’s pretty grim news for my family. Three generations of us garner a living from our small grass-based farm tucked up in the northern foothills of the Appalachian mountain chain. We’ve managed to build an exclusively local market for our products, making us an integral part of our rural economy. We’ve also managed to bring three additional farms back into viable agricultural production with the help of folks dedicated to buying locally.

…Which leads to the next piece of news being circulated: that these “small dietary shifts” of giving up meat can accomplish the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally. The subtext here seriously stings: “Forget about those looney meat farmers in the hills, don’t fret about canning local tomatoes, and return your faith to the conventional supermarket. Just buy less red meat and go vegetarian once per week..” As a grass-based meat farmer, I’ve got a beef with that — not to mention a serious steak in the matter (in this case, a rib eye, which I plan to lay across my grill later today).

Truth be told, these studies aren’t wrong. They aren’t exactly right, either, but I’ll get to that in a second.

When we are looking at the industrial model of factory farming, of pumping grains into animals, there are serious ecological reasons to forego the red meats. “The main issue,” explains animal scientist Dr. James Hayes “is the conversion factor. When you feed grain to fish, you have a conversion factor of about 1.25 to 1.” That means that for every 1 ¼ pounds of grain product you feed to a fish, you’ll have a pound of weight gain. “The conversion for chicken is 2 pounds of feed per pound of gain on the bird. Pork is 4 pounds per pound of gain. And when you get to the ruminants, it skyrockets. Lamb requires 8 pounds of feed for a pound of weight gain, and beef requires 9 pounds of feed per pound of gain.” Grain production is extremely taxing on the environment, particularly in light of the chemical fertilizers, the nitrous oxide emissions, and the fossil fuel-intensive farming practices.

But here’s where there are gaps in the analysis: Ruminants are not designed to eat grain. Beef and lamb from grassfed farms do not eat grain. Grassfed dairy products are not fed grain. Ruminants can live off what our fields naturally produce – they harvest perennial grasses which do not need to be seeded every year, and they return nutrients to the soil. In a pinch, they can also eat things like straw and corn stalks – which means they have the magical capacity to convert crop production waste into food. Conventional factory-farmed red meats are bad for the environment. Grass-fed red meats are not. Most grass farms use no chemical inputs; and since the animals harvest the feed themselves by grazing, very few fossil fuels are required to produce the meat. In fact, grass-fed meats play an integral role in our carbon solution.

In 2005, the USDA released a report showing that properly managed pastures store 2 to 3 times more carbon in their soils than fields that were left unmanaged, used for hay, or left un-harvested. Another study released by the University of Iowa in 2002 showed that grazed pastures were the ideal land use for storing carbon. This means that properly grazing animals helps to reverse the greenhouse effect. Allan Savory, founder of the Center for Holistic management, has done calculations suggesting that we could actually reverse global warming by grazing cattle and using them to build soil organic matter. His work emphasizes, however, that this is only done through good grazing practices. Poor grazing practices have long been the culprits of desertification and environmental degradation. There is a difference; and the only way to identify sound practices is know your local farmer.

But in the crunching of their carbon calculations, the anti-red-meat advocates overlook another huge element in the push to buy locally. Food security is a big one. As we hit peak oil, it will get harder and harder to transport those non-local food products to the folks that need them. Isn’t it wiser to have a secure local food system in place? And then, of course, there are the issues of viable local economies, made vibrant by independent businesses, beautified by open farmland, and hopeful by families whose children can find a livelihood near home, rather than far away. And then, finally, there are the simple principles of non-exploitation and social justice that are embodied by the local food movement. This means paying us farmers honest wages for our work, which in turn enables us to steward the land responsibly, and create great tasting food…especially that rib eye, which I’ll be grilling up for lunch.

About Shannon Hayes
Shannon is the host of grassfedcooking.com, and the author of The Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet. She holds a Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University. Her family farm is Sap Bush Hollow, it is located in Upstate New York.