Here’s a story about my drive to work and how it may change my eating habits.
I live in Northwest Florida, a pretty rural place. It is flat, as you might imagine, and cloaked in millions of acres of rod-straight pine trees used for paper production and lumber.
From my house, a couple of two-lane black-top roads take me to state road 22, which leads to town. Most of the drive was through pine forest. Was, until a couple years ago, when the ranchers came.
In 2014, a timber and ranching company bought more than 380,000 acres of pine trees in my area, including the land on either side of my morning drive. They promptly stripped the land of its timber and planted grass.
It is cow pasture now.
I’ve always loved driving by pastures. Something about the fences and the grazing animals and the grass and ponds and out buildings struck me as an emblem of uniquely human achievement.
Agriculture is what let us organize into cities and civilizations. No longer foraging our days away, we could turn to art, architecture, and science. For goodness sake, if it weren’t for farms there would be no Parthenon, no Leshan Buddha, no Hubble Space Telescope!
But I saw how this pasture was made and it doesn’t inspire me.
The pincing timber machines snipped and stacked the countless pines onto trucks with impressive, disorienting speed. Then other, equally massive yet nimble vehicles piled the remaining debris, which was burned. A third division of metal beasts churned the stumps into the mucky sand. Finally, fill dirt was spread over the lower spots and the whole thing was graded smooth.
In just days, a wooded expanse was made a steppe. A slash pine forest was slashed and nascent cow pasture was born.
At first, I was surprised by my feelings about all this. It felt violent and jarring, not exciting and fascinating like I would have expected. Most of all, I couldn’t escape a sense of utter waste.
I had the same feeling when Hurricane Michael prostrated most of the mature trees in our area. In a way, though, the pasturing was worse. It was elective.
The whole thing got me thinking – just how many natural resources are needed to grow beef cattle?
What I’ve found so far has made me question whether it is worthwhile to raise bovines for meat. I’m rethinking beef.
A quick Google search returned a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that detailed the resources required to raise our favorite foods from livestock – beef, dairy, poultry, eggs, and pork. Those were then compared to the raw material needed for growing our staple plants – potatoes, wheat, and rice.
You can read the study for details, but the essential point is that beef production, by any measure, is embarrassingly profligate.
Raising cows for meat takes 10 times more resources than our other food livestock. Beef production uses 88% of the land set aside for livestock, more than 75% of the water, and nearly 65% of the reactive nitrogen (from fertilizer).
This might make sense if beef were a significant part of our diet or we couldn’t get similar calories or nutrition elsewhere, but it isn’t and we can.
In fact, beef’s role in the average U.S. diet is paltry when compared to other sources. The typical American gets 30% of his daily calories from animals. Of that, beef comprises only 7%.
In other words, we use nearly 90% of our livestock-related resources to fill 7% of our diet. If we eliminated beef consumption, or even drastically reduced it, our bodies would not miss it. Our land and water, however, would see a crushing burden lifted.
What About the West?
But what about the arid parts of our country, the upper-Midwest and West? The soil is poor out there and can’t be used for crops. Cattle are actually beneficial in those areas; their munching, clomping, and pooping are crucial links in the natural cycle that made the Great Plains possible in the first place.
Michael Pollan quotes a South Dakota cattle rancher in The Omnivore’s Dilemma who said it best: “If you didn’t have ruminant animals, all this [gesturing to his ranch land] would be the great American desert.”
Fair enough (buffaloes were the first and founding ruminants on those plains, but nevertheless). The study addresses this objection.
“It [the western lands argument] ignores the ≈0.16 million km² of high-quality cropland used for grazing and the ≈0.46 million km² of grazing land east of longitude 100°W that enjoy ample precipitation and that can thus be diverted to food production.”
Or, at least in my neighborhood, left as forest.
In other words, put the West aside and cattle still take up disproportionate space and resources on land that could be used for other things.
Beef is needlessly wasteful. Granted, it tastes amazing. A grilling steak is one of humanity’s oldest and dearest experiences. But we should eat it knowing what it costs, and not just in money.
According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, beef cows had a nearly $67.5 billion impact on the U.S. economy in 2016. That is a lot of livelihoods and an industry that is rooted in our national mythos. There are cattle ranchers in my extended family.
I wouldn’t say that the government should crack down on beef production (though Pollan makes the case that government intervention was the catalyst for exploding the modern beef industry in the 1950s. The colossal role of beef in our culture and on our land is not as ancient as we may think). Maybe just think about this next time you’re planning a cook out.
Trees For Burgers
They say all politics is local. I’m ashamed to say that apparently, so are my food choices. It took the elimination of my local forest for me to even think about this.
I miss the woods. I’d give up hamburgers to have them back.