Grass-fed Beef and Climate Change

by: Heather on 02/19/2009
Posted in: Food

It's widely recognized that North America's animal protein intake is responsible for an extremely significant portion of our greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, many deeply committed environmentalists still include meat (specifically beef, which is easily the worst offender) on the menu. What's up with this seeming inconsistency?

Generally, the argument runs along the lines of the specific beef that people choose to eat. Many environmentalists make a point of consuming (usually) locally raised, organic, pasture-fed beef, thus minimizing the carbon impact of their dietary decision. Hooray! Responsible consumption and support of local agriculture. What's not to like? Unless you're the cow, but that's an entirely separate issue from the environment (in my opinion).

But now this report (via Bitten) from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argues that grass-fed beef is actually worse than grain-fed beef for climate change, and it's a Thursday and I've nothing more pressing to do, so I thought I'd share it and see if I could stir up some controversy.

The crux of the argument is this:

Many environmentalists have argued that finishing up the fattening of beef cattle on corn is worse for the environment than cattle that are raised solely on pasture grass. Pelletier says his team's analysis finds that at least from a climate perspective, the opposite is true. "We do see significant differences in the GHG intensities [of grass vs grain finishing]. It's roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems."

When an audience member questioned whether he had heard that right, that grass-fed cattle have a higher carbon footprint, Pelletier reiterated, "higher. Yes." The reason: "It's related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions."

So go and read the whole report, and then come back and tell us what you think. Who's right and who's full of hot air? (Besides, unfortunately, the cows.) What's the solution to this meaty dilemma?

Full disclosure - I may be a vegetarian myself but this is not meant to be a greener-than-thou post - I dried my clothes in an electric clothes dryer this morning, and even worse, I own a beer fridge. Clearly I live in a flimsy glass house and I'm not about to start monkeying around with stones.

After digesting this, if you feel the need for a nice hearty veggie stew, go check out my favourite cookbook, Laura Matthias' ExtraVeganZa for some inspiration.



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