(June 2016) Not all meat and dairy products are the same; not in nutritional quality nor in how they affect our planet. Quality and environmental impact vary greatly from the variety of agricultural practices employed, and how food is processed. I have spoken often about the health and nutrition benefits of organic, grass-fed animal-based foods. This blog, however, is about sustainability and environmental stewardship.
The multitude of methods used for meat and dairy production include organic, free range, intensive livestock, and subsistence farming. Beyond organic are sustainable practices like no-till and biodynamic farming. Some organic operations are far superior to others, while some conventional farms are quite a bit cleaner than others, or on the path to becoming organic. So, some of these distinctions are not clear cut. Yet, it’s always good to know from where your food comes. That’s one of the clear advantages to buying local.
When it comes to raising animals for food, there’s much to consider: Water consumption, methane gas emissions, the real cost of raising grain for feed, air and water quality, etc. Regardless, beef and milk production require tons of water, to the tune of 2000 gallons to produce just one pound of beef, or a gallon of milk. Much of that is used to grow grains for cow feed. That’s at least three times as much water as it takes to grow the same quantity of soy milk, and twice that needed for almond milk.
Indeed, most of our water use goes to what we eat. Eighty percent of the water used in California is consumed by agriculture, according to the Pacific Institute. Irrigation projects in the former Soviet Union to grow cotton dramatically emptied the Aral Sea, destroyed fisheries, depopulated large areas and caused disease epidemics. Generally speaking, agriculture uses approximately 70% of the world’s freshwater supply. Looming climate change is likely to alter both water availability and agricultural water demands, so it behooves us to conserve as much as possible, and to improve on the goods and services it produces.
There is potentially an enormous difference between conventional and alternative farming practices in the amount of water and land consumption, fossil fuel use, and pollution. Organic farming uses 30% less energy and less water than conventional farming to produce the same corn and soybean yields, while yielding healthier, pesticide-free produce and far less groundwater pollution. Organic farming does not contaminate soil, rivers and drinking water like industrial farming does (Gonzalez, 2008). Conventional farming and livestock production are major stressors on the planet. They are major sources of greenhouse gases and loss of biodiversity, and major water polluters [Steinfeld et al., 2006].
Industrial agriculture relies on pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other toxic chemicals that increase the use of machinery, which contributes to a larger carbon footprint and global warming. Conventional systems emit nearly 40% more greenhouse gases per unit of crop than organic systems, while organic farming systems use 45% less energy (Middleton & Smith, 2011).
Organic farming may be especially competitive during droughts. Berkeley researchers concluded that organic farming creates biodiversity in the soil and environment not seen with synthetic chemicals. Organic plots can even outperform conventional ones, regarding yield, when the going gets tough. Organic plots are especially resilient to droughts, and extremes of frost and flooding, according to the Rodale Institute. Microbes and other organisms in organic soil create intricate relationships with plants and affect soil architecture. Organic soil absorbs and stores water better, and needs less water than conventional soil (Ferris, 2014). Organic farming is a more sustainable way of doing agriculture, hands down.
The Environmental Working Group has concluded that grass fed beef is better for the environment. Benefits from well managed grass fed operations are multifaceted, whereas large-scale confined feedlots have tremendous negative impacts on air and water quality. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Michael Pollan points to the lighter carbon footprint in grass-fed operations, due to the fertilizer, pesticide and fossil fuel required for grain used in feed lots. More methane is produced by grass-fed cattle because it’s harder to digest grass than grain, but grasslands sequester enough carbon to more than make up the difference. A healthier soil and richer humus result from cows trampling their manure into the soil. The increased diversity maintains a healthy soil that keeps CO2 out of the atmosphere. Grazing cattle help stabilize soil, control weeds, and reduce the risk of wildfire (Profita, 2013).
The animals our ancestors ate roamed free and ate grass, whereas cattle and dairy cows today are force-fed grains. What we feed them has a major effect on the nutrient composition of the milk and beef. Numerous studies conclude that these nutrients vary significantly, depending on what the cows eat. For example, grass-fed, whole milk contains a third of the omega-3 fatty acids we need for brain, heart, skin and joint health, while conventional milk is virtually devoid of omega-3s. Grass-fed, full-fat dairy also contains 3-5 times as many antioxidants like beta-carotene, lutein and vitamin E (Chang, 2016). Grass-fed beef and milk also contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as grain-fed beef products. CLA is associated with reduced body fat and other benefits (Whigham et al., 2007). Plus, organic milk and meat do not contain the antibiotics, hormones and pesticides found in conventional animal-based foods. These drugs and chemicals contribute significantly to antibiotic resistance and the chronic diseases of modernity.
Some folks opt to cut their environmental impact by not eating meat, or cutting back on their purchases. Yet meat and dairy provide nutrients that are hard to find in other foods. If done right, these foods are not only more nutritious, but also much less harmful to the earth. We should pay attention to how our ancestors thrived, and abide by nature’s wisdom.
Chang K. 2016. Organic Meat and Milk Higher in Healthful Fatty Acids http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/15/more-omega-3-in-organic-meat-and-milk-review-of-studies-says/?_r=0
Dobson B. 2016. Ted Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp1i8_JFsao
Ferris R. 2014. Organic farming more drought resistant: Report. http://www.cnbc.com/2014/12/09/rought-resistant-report.html
George Mateljan Foundation. 2016. Cow’s milk, grass-fed. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=130
Gonzalez N. 2008. Reports Show Less Water Used In Organic Farming. https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/reports-show-less-water-used-organic-farming
Gunners K. 2015. Grass-Fed vs Grain-Fed Beef – What’s The Difference? https://authoritynutrition.com/grass-fed-vs-grain-fed-beef/
Jerew B. 2014. Is Milk a Problem for the Environment? http://www.greenoptimistic.com/milk-problem-environment-20140908/#.V1mhZFfLnFI
Middleton S, Smith A. 2011. Organic farming blows conventional farming out of the water. http://anhinternational.org/2011/10/10/organic-farming-blows-conventional-farming-out-of-the-water/
Profita C. 2013. Which Is Greener: Grass-Fed Or Grain-Fed Beef http://www.opb.org/news/blog/ecotrope/which-is-greener-grass-fed-or-grain-fed-beef/
Pacific Institute. 2016. Water, Food, and Agriculture. http://pacinst.org/issues/water-food-and-agriculture/
Science Daily. 2016. Consumers have huge environmental impact. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160224132923.htm
Steinfeld, Henning; Gerber, Pierre; Wassenaar, Tom; Castel, Vincent; Rosales, Mauricio; de Haan, Cees (2006), Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (PDF), Rome: FAO
Whigham LD, Watras AC, Schoeller DA. 2007. Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 85:1203-11.
Wikipedia. Environmental impact of meat production. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_meat_production