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Grass-Fraud Beef

Photo by Jennifer MaHarry

Rated: D

Article Review:

"Actually, Raising Beef Is Good For The Planet"

Wall Street Journal  -  Dec 19, 2014


In her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Actually, Raising Beef Is Good For The Planet,” Nicolette Hahn Niman, a self-described vegetarian rancher, argues that raising cattle has environmental consequences that have been exaggerated by mainstream science and the media. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which is that beef production is ecologically unsound, she insists that raising cattle can lead to “an environmental gain for the planet.”

Op-ed writers such as Niman are not obligated to objectively report facts the way that standard news reporters are. Instead, their task is to curate their own evidence powerfully enough to cause doubt among believers—to shake things up a bit—in the service of making a point.

Niman’s point concerns the virtues of grass-fed beef. As such, she has her work cut out for her. We’ve known since the 1960’s, empirically speaking, that beef production wreaks substantial ecological havoc on already limited natural resources; and we know that, since that time—when the human population has doubled—that it’s not only factory farms that cause ecological trouble, but small grass-fed operations run by environmentally conscious “stewards of the land.”

Very serious research has shown that not only is grass-fed beef ecologically damaging but that it can be more so than the factory-farmed variety.

Given the depth of this scientific consensus, Niman’s piece falls flat.

She begins by mocking the science that confirms a direct relationship between cow burps and farts and methane emissions (livestock are the world’s leading cause of methane output), drawing our attention to critics who fret over “bovine burps, flatulence and even breath for climate change.” (emphasis added)

Note the subtle meaning lent to that sentence by the sneaky little word, “even.” The idea behind it is that such a proposition—cows breathing and belching and tooting—is a little bit ridiculous. But it’s not. Two decades of research shows that, silly as the idea sounds, it’s true.

Live animals are resource-intensive beings. At some point, Niman, if her piece is to have any standing, must demonstrate how breeding and populating the earth with resource-intensive bodies could possibly qualify as an environmental benefit. Recall, they breath and burp and pass gas and, in so doing, generate methane.

Niman assures us that there are ways to mitigate methane’s impact and that, rest assured, how to do so is “now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world.” Needless to say, readers need more than the promise of future research to be convinced by such an astounding claim.

Niman spends the rest of the article asking the public to trust the scant science she has selected to support her piece. She highlights “Australian research” evidently showing how “certain nutritional supplements” can help reduce methane output.

The claim seems vague, even in a cursory op-ed piece (which typically must be kept to 750 words or so). Reduce by how much? What are the supplements? Who funded the Australians?

She also claims that ruminant hoof action and manure can help sequester carbon, citing as evidence an “estimate” by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that frequently comes under fire for exaggerating research claims. Perhaps most critically, she adds the qualifier that carbon sequestration only works when “good farming practices are followed.” That’s the most important claim in the piece. But when are good farming practices followed? Niman won’t say, probably because it happens in isolation and in ways that cannot be scaled up.

If you study the way Niman arranges her evidence, and examine the way she dresses it up rhetorically, it may ring a bell. You may discern a familiar pattern at work: one that has been brilliantly honed by none other than global-warming deniers.

This is a most disturbing implication of Niman’s op-ed.

In her rejection of science (such as that summarized here and reified by thousands of other studies) and her plea for our conversion to her point of view, Niman engages in the populist politics of distrust. Yes, we would all love to have an environmental justification for eating beef, but it will take more than a lazy appeal to do so from an economically self-interested rancher such as Niman.



6 Comments on Grass-Fraud Beef

  1. Objective Observer // January 6, 2015 at 6:01 pm // Reply

    McWilliams’ opinion piece reminds me of a person who is writing on behalf of GMO’s who is claiming that there is consensus, and that anyone who refutes that there is consensus is “anti-science.” Where in truth, there are a number of organizations of scientists like the Union of Concerned Scientists that aren’t part of that “consensus.”Though if you actually read Niman’s book, she doesn’t deny that livestock have an environmental impact, she argues that the impact depends on how the livestock is raised.

    Coincidentally the Union of Concerned Scientists agree with her in their 2011 report “Climate-friendly beef production practices reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions while increasing carbon sequestration.”

    Now abolitionists like yourself readily borrow from industrial studies to argue that pastured livestock are worse for the environment so much so that sometimes you almost come off as a shill for factory farms. The reality is that your assertion is a bunch of hogwash along with many of the inflated GHG numbers from sources like the World Watch report….and the pro-factory farm 2006 FAO long shadow report.

    Niman does provide more current data from sources like the recent UN International Climate change negotiation meetings in Peru that show in the US and the EU that emissions from all of agriculture are at 8% of GHG’s emissions where enteric emissions are 25% of that 8% or only a total of around 2% of emissions…which is significantly less the hyperbola that people such as yourself promulgate. (These latest numbers also coincide with the EPA’s numbers). So yes, better diets can further reduce these enteric emissions by another 30%. And carbon sequestration can offset these numbers completely in the developed world for cattle which is exactly what the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote.

    Now when you and others of your ilk blame all of the world’s ills on “cows” all your really doing is distracting from the larger sources and causes of global warming that need to be addressed specifically energy and transportation uses.

  2. Oh my….. The title of the article reviewed is absurd all by itself. Raising ‘beef’…. What is beef? Lol!

  3. Shane Destry // January 8, 2015 at 7:41 pm // Reply

    Thank you James McWilliams for an excellent article. How many ways have raising cattle been destructive and now are proving fatal to wildlife and the planet in accelerating climate change ? So many ! It does not matter how they are raised given the fact that to raise a thousand pound steer requires enough water to float a battleship while the world’s fresh water supplies are dwindling- that alone would prove that to sustain the beef industry is suicidally delusional. Ask the Irish . They were starved to death during the Great Famine because basically the wealthier class in England took most of their land to raise cattle while they were left with tiny plots where only the potato could be grown in abundance. The cattle industry throughout history has been nothing but destructive.

  4. Barbara Warner // January 9, 2015 at 7:13 am // Reply

    Cattle will stay in one place to graze and will over-graze it and cause erosion. They also will defecate in the water causing E.coli pollution as well as algae which depletes the oxygen that fish and other species need. My father had farms and raised cattle so I’m familiar with them. Also have been a vegetarian for 30 years because I know cattle and all livestock suffer when they are slaughtered.

  5. Besides all the other methods which humans have devised to poison the planet . . . we also generate methane ourselves, don’t we? Unfair to scapegoat cows.

  6. Daniel Penisten (aka: Dan 1, Scolos Narbarson) // May 14, 2015 at 8:56 pm // Reply

    If it ever came to a vote, I would vote to reduce all American meat production by 50%. We can and should eat, less meat.

    I would also vote to “gently” reduce the American Human Population by 30%. This percentage to be divided between the “bottom feeders” and the predatory top “10%” of Our Social and Economic Ladder.

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