Dan Murphy: People, Not Cattle, are Killing Us

Semi trucks preparing to load stocker cattle in the the Kansas Flint Hills.
( Wyatt Bechtel )

At this point in the lengthy history of animal agriculture in America, an online article that begins like this is hardly breaking news:

“It's already widely known that meat production creates far more pollution than bringing vegetables, fruits, and grains to market. It is difficult to envisage how the world could supply a population of 10 billion or more people with the quantity of meat currently consumed in most high-income countries without substantial negative effects on the environment.”

This particular excerpt is from Newsweek online in a piece titled, “Global Meat Production Is Growing at an Unsustainable Pace.” I was curious: What was the genesis of such a summary?

Well, it turns out that the information was based on a recent report published in the journal Science that detailed the eco-impact of livestock production, and which, by the way, included these statements buried in the text of the report:

  • “Careful management of grassland systems can contribute to carbon storage.”
  • “Meat is a good source of energy and some essential nutrients — including protein and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.”
  • “Livestock also provide employment for large numbers of people, and the trade in livestock and related food products is a core component of the economies of many countries.”

Interestingly, Newsweek didn’t include any reference to those statements in its article.

What its article did include were statistics on the carbon footprint of meat production taken from a 2014 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author of that article was Gideon Eschel, a professor of Geophysics at Bard College in New York and one of the most vocal advocates of vegetarianism as the solution to all the world’s ills.

Eschel has made a name for himself by constantly claiming that if everyone simply stopped eating meat, the planetary environment would suddenly become bright green and healthy.

His PNAS study noted that “beef production requires 28 times more land and 11 times the irrigation water than the average of the other livestock categories.”

Interestingly, the much-touted Science report noted that, “[Meat] consumption in high-income countries [is] static or declining and … there has been a particularly marked increase in the global consumption of chicken and pork.”

So despite the dire warnings from Eschel, et al, it appears we’re headed in the right direction.

On that note, here’s an interesting factoid: 60 years ago in 1958, long before anyone was pointing a finger at livestock as climate change culprits, the U.S. cattle herd numbered about 90 million head. Current size: about 90 million head. Per-capita consumption of beef in 1958 was 56 pounds per year. Current beef consumption: 54 pounds a year.

Alternative Strategies
Granted, many of the ongoing and pending eco-crises are real and problematic. Climate change isn’t a hoax, resource limitations are real and food security is very likely to be the world’s biggest crisis by mid-century.

But is going veggie the only way consumers can positively impact these eco-challenges? How about:

  • Transportation. Drive less, walk more. Maybe even take public transit to work on trips that don’t involve schlepping a dozen grocery bags back home.
  • Plastics. Speaking of bags, how about avoiding the use and disposal of plastic bags (and other unnecessary plastic packaging), thus mitigating the growth of those Texas-sized trash islands of discarded plastics currently floating in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
  • Energy. How about turning down the thermostat in winter and setting it a little higher in summer? A little sweat and/or donning a sweater never killed anyone.

And as for livestock, activists’ insistence that production efficiencies are forever static and that the carbon footprint of meat — albeit one that veggie advocates are always eager to inflate — is set in stone forever is, simply stated, pure BS.

Take just one aspect of the production/processing cycle.

I hate to date myself, but I’m old enough that I was alive and eating hamburgers back in the mid-20th century, when it was standard industry practice to ship cattle, pigs and sheep by railroad to stockyards adjacent to urban packinghouses. From those massive plants, dressed carcasses were loaded into refrigerated rail cars and sent to numerous “breakers,” processing plants in most major cities where the carcasses were trimmed and cut into what we now call subprimals. Those were then shipped to supermarkets and restaurant purveyors, where skilled butchers portioned them into retail and/or food service cuts.

By modern just-in-time standards, the system was ridiculously inefficient, and with the advent of boxed beef and pork production at rural plants located closer to feedlots and auctions yards, the once pervasive and multi-layered system simply disappeared.

Likewise, to presume that nothing can ever be done to improve livestock production, to find better ways to utilize land, energy and water resources and to minimize the carbon footprint of processing, packaging and distribution of animal foods flies in the face of history.

In the end, there is one reason, and one reason only, that global meat production has only lately become such an eco-villain, a reason that can be expressed in a single number: 7.5 billion, the number of people alive on Planet Earth in 2018.

By the way, back in 1958, when Americans were raising the same number of cattle and eating the same per capita amount of beef as today? The world’s population was only 2.9 billion.

Any questions?

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.