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What is it with The Food Movement and beef?


In an era marked by climate change, intensifying drought and floods, exponential population growth, and scarce arable land, consumers are expected to make responsible food choices—choices that minimize agriculture’s impact on fragile ecosystems. Critical to this task is access to information that’s generally free of ideological bias or conflict of interest. Unfortunately, despite the food movement’s success in raising awareness about agriculture’s environmental footprint, the movement’s leaders have systematically refused to confront the ecological implications of one cause that represents everything that’s wrong with contemporary agriculture: the cow.

On April 2, NYU held a panel discussion entitled “What Exactly is Sustainable? Thinking Smart for the Future.” Despite the title’s promise, the panelists avoided the subject of sustainability altogether. This evasion was surprising given that the event’s first speaker was Nicolette Hahn Niman—the environmental lawyer turned eco-rancher whose book, “Defending Beef” was prominently displayed for sale. Niman, a long-time advocate of sustainable agriculture, has spent the last decade arguing for agricultural reform in op-ed pages ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

The NYU event was open to the public and sponsored by NYU’s Fales Library; Steinhardt School of Culture; Education and Human Development; and the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health.

The moderator, Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant from California, began by mentioning his state’s newly approved water restrictions. Niman took over from there, spending the next several minutes promoting beef as an essential agro-ecological element of our food system. It sounded like a defense; but it wasn’t. A proper defense would have acknowledged documented problems concerning the kind of beef she produces. But Niman didn’t. Not a word.

Instead, she lauded cattle’s “miraculous digestive systems,” praising their ability to “take grass and turn it into meat and milk” on “land that’s not good for anything else.” She waxed poetic about how cattle restored and improved grassland ecosystems, including soil and water, adding that cattle helped “protect habitat for countless wild animals.” Her recommendation, in a nutshell, was that all cattle confined to CAFOs and feedlots be turned out on grass.

You would have expected someone in the room to object. What about beef’s contribution to global warming, its high water footprint, destruction of native grasslands, reduction of predator species and biodiversity, and cruel treatment of sentient beings?

But nobody did. Nobody discussed these issues—not Wolf, not the other panelists, and certainly not the audience, which included Marion Nestle, the renowned NYU Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. Nestle stayed mum.

Maybe she was just following the rules. The audience, after all, was effectively gagged. No direct questioning of panelists was allowed. Instead, questions could be written on index cards, which Wolf then sorted through. Most of the questions were benign, until Wolf got to Daily Pitchfork executive editor Vickery Eckhoff’s question, which was addressed to Niman: “why had she avoided discussion of the methane issue and climate change?”

Wolf scanned the card and said: “the methane issue. We can’t discuss that. It would be rude.”

After the panel, Eckhoff addressed Niman herself, then asked one of the other panelists, Gustavo Sentrini, an associate professor in NYU’s food studies program, about this lapse. Why did no one discuss it? Sentrini’s observation: it’s too politically contentious.

This excuse is all too common. Another example would be Tom Philpott’s coverage of the drought in California. As James McWilliams reported in the New York Times in March 2014, the single most water-hogging crop in California is alfalfa. Alfalfa is used exclusively to feed cows, mostly dairy cows. Over a period of many months, Philpott, in light of this fact, dedicated no less than six columns in Mother Jones magazine to the impact of almonds on California’s water crisis.

What accounts for this disparity in coverage? It is difficult to say for sure. But, given Philpott’s history as a practitioner of small-scale animal agriculture, it seems safe to suggest that he was avoiding a well-documented fact that would complicate his—and many others’—ideological commitment to alternative forms of animal domestication. To his credit, he, unlike Niman, has at least shown an eventual awareness of alfalfa’s water footprint, which he addressed in a recent column.

The tendency to skirt the bad news about alfalfa—and, by extension, the role of cattle in exacerbating California’s water crisis—was blatantly evident in a tweet that Michael Pollan sent to his gazillion followers on April 8, 2015. In an illuminating LA Times infographic listing the amount of water required to produce a variety of foods, Pollan ignored beef, which uses 106 gallons of water per ounce, but singled out lentils as an offender—writing “time to bail on CA lentils, clearly”—even though lentils use 71 gallons per ounce.

This is what’s passing as intelligent discourse on the connection between agriculture and California’s drought. Nobody, it seems, wants to take on the beef industry in California—an industry that claims to be sustainable, when it clearly isn’t. What a shame.

If consumers can’t trust the biggest voices in the sustainable food movement to face difficult realities, can they trust anyone at all? If consumers aren’t shown precise ways to act in order to ameliorate the problem, aren’t we doing little more than driving home the ecologically disastrous message that we can, as we contemplate the drought in California, have our cake and eat it too?



12 Comments on What is it with The Food Movement and beef?

  1. Rita Reik // May 8, 2015 at 9:25 pm // Reply

    I and many others have given up listening to those with vested interests. We are the growing group of vegans.

  2. Watch the documentary, Cowspiracy.

  3. vickysecho // May 9, 2015 at 6:48 am // Reply

    Most likely didn’t want to lose any grants…..

  4. Excellent article and scary. There is something eery about it for me. My subdivision has been infiltrated by a “sustainability” group, as they call themselves. I am certain they are connected with the livestock industry. They tried to force poultry/livestock into our homeowners’ association, which our Covenants of course don’t allow and a majority of members don’t want. Their underhanded efforts were discovered and thwarted, for now. We own our own water and have a 100 year supply. We are also a very large subdivision with 2777 homes on 1-3 acre lots. They don’t make them like us anymore. I have been fighting them for four years. People here feel overwhelmed and scared but, don’t talk about it.>I believe the “industry” has infiltrated the “sustainability” movement and is using these people as their mouthpieces to promote their industry. Money talks. Even Obama is pushing selling our beef to Japan and is pushing it in the Free Trade bill. There is no good sense in that plan.

  5. John T. Maher // May 9, 2015 at 11:28 am // Reply

    I commend you and Vickery on being outsiders and dissenting from what was essentially a corporate enabling platform. That is rare in or out of the academy. NYU’s animal studies run far and deep and this is a classic example of the cliche about not seeing the forest for the trees. Methane is obviously the issue at our throats (400 ppm and skyrocketing thanks to animal agriculture and its fuel uses) and the moderator thought it was impolite to mention it? Why not just hold the event at a Chipotle? NYU might have been a comfy landing pad if Pitchfork ever packs up and leaves the heartland but by refusing to be coopted, Pitchfork forces the foodie movement enablers to (re)define themselves against dissent. I could not make the event because I was not well but would have been apoplectic had I attended.

  6. You can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.
    The word “sustainability” has lost its meaning. It is becoming a euphemism for “environmentally disastrous agricultural methods.”

    Thank you for working against the tide of propaganda that is bombarding the public.

  7. Lisa LeBlanc // May 9, 2015 at 12:45 pm // Reply

    I did some research a few years ago to refute a claim by a Wyoming representative who was lobbying hard to inlude Horse as another source of meat. The benefits to horse slaughter were the high profitability achieved because Horse could be had cheap, or absolutely free.
    The portion of the research regarding alternative protein sources – plant based sources – also included some long range benefits: a bag of lentils, rice or beans can sit on a shelf in a protective container, and last for many, many months.
    Not many meat products can make that claim.
    And when you consider a bag of lentils can be had for less than a dollar in many instances, I think they’ve bought themselves a little grace where ‘drought’ is concerned.
    Sustainability should extend beyond simply a food’s production.
    Whether it’s meat production on a massive scale or an “Eco” one, the bottom line is the same:
    ” I make meat. Meat makes me money. End of discussion.”

  8. As an NYU alum and an academic, I’m disappointed with almost everything about this Panel, but mostly with the suggestion that it would be “rude” to challenge or question the panelists. Since when is reasoned discussion not allowed in an academic panel? This is alarming.

    • Thanks, Dario. We quite agree! And without the ability to directly question the panel, those putting the event together would have no way of knowing that the audience wasn’t buying the sustainability claims some of the panelists — and apparently, the moderator — were selling.

  9. This industry brings in little comparatively to other industries but somehow manages to run my state, NM as well as the nation. For example, Tourism brings in 11 Billion/yr with almost 80,000 jobs at a growth rate of 1,700 per yr, while the Livestock Industry brings in less than 2 Billion.

  10. Mary Ann Ficek // May 9, 2015 at 9:46 pm // Reply

    As long as the cattle owners keep their animals on the land they own, I think that would control the water usege they should not be allowed on Federal Lands for grazing their animals, this allows them to make profits on taxpayer lands & unfair advantage to other farmers. The big ranchers have to take responsibility for their part in saving water & grass lands.

  11. coltswesternshop // May 11, 2015 at 2:38 pm // Reply

    So wheres the comment on cattle producing deadly Methane Gas and manure and hooves breaking plants root systems? Cattle and their digestive tract allow them . To consume more than any other grass eater. The Literal hayburner are cattle. Beef cattle eing sold year after year bringing larger number of herds for more profit damages the lush grasses. It also depletes fresh oxygen and reduces plant growth which requires oxygen. Cattle also contaminate water. Soil erosion is increased as well as top soils being packed tighter from their sheer weight prohibiting plants from rapid regrowth especially in drought.

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