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Animals Are Essential To Sustainable Food

As Senior Attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, Nicolette Hahn Niman sought to improve conditions at livestock operations. Today she and her husband Bill, founder of Niman Ranch, raise grass-based cattle, heirloom turkeys, and goats. She is the author of the book Righteous Porkchop.

A chorus of impassioned criticism has been rising against meat and dairy consumption. Many of the critics identify themselves as environmentalists. Their vehemence has been stoked by several reports, most notably one from the United Nations, documenting that animal farming is contributing to climate change, depleting and polluting groundwater, and poisoning rivers and streams. These reports are timely and necessary. But they cannot rightly be used to bolster arguments that farm animals should be scrubbed from our landscapes. The data indict only inappropriate practices in raising animals, not animal farming per se. The prevailing industrial methods differ radically from traditional land stewardship and animal husbandry. The most environmentally sustainable food production mimics nature in all its complexity – and animals are an essential component.

Today’s debate over livestock is characterized by oversimplified rhetoric. In one corner, agribusiness implacably (and ineffectively) defends the status quo; in the other, vegan activists urge total abolition of animal farming. Their fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century, some of whom attacked apple trees with axes because they were the source of hard cider.

Like the prohibitionists, activists against meat are fueled by the excesses of the day. The number of animals slaughtered in the United States has grown substantially over the past century: It’s doubled for cattle; increased seven-fold for swine; and skyrocketed fifty-fold for chickens.

From an environmental perspective, the concentration of animals is more problematic than the total number. America’s farm animals were once widely dispersed, living in moderate herds and flocks, their manure effectively recycling nutrients, an invaluable part of the farm’s economy and ecology. Today, they are densely concentrated in massive populations, often far from where their feed is grown. The average hog herd, for example, has gone from 15 in 1900 to 766 in 2002. Many modern chicken and hen flocks number over a million birds. In this setup animals are separated from the land and crops, creating soil infertility and erosion on the farm and air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system wildly out of balance.

This imbalance is what aggravates global warming. The UN report blames 18 percent of global warming on livestock. But very little of that has any connection to well-managed traditional, grass-based animal farming. For starters, 48 percent of it is from land-use changes, mostly clearing of forests (for grazing and growing feed crops) in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries. The United States, however, is not expanding croplands. In US farming, most CO2 releases come from fuel burned for vehicles, equipment, and machinery. Smaller, traditional American farms have low CO2 emissions because they keep their animals outdoors on pasture and use little machinery.

Livestock farming also plays a role in nitrous oxide emissions – about five percent of US greenhouse gases. But more than three-quarters of agriculture’s NO2 emissions are from manmade fertilizers. Thus, animal farming that doesn’t need fertilized crops creates little NO2. Using animal manure mitigates the need for commercial fertilizers.

As for methane, there are two types. Much methane caused by animal farming comes from manure lagoons at industrial facilities. Other methane (“enteric emissions”) is generated from animal digestive tracts, particularly of ruminants like cattle, and can be reduced by dietary supplementation and rotating grazing pastures.

It’s important to note that there were plenty of animal enteric emissions in this country long before the arrival of cattle. Prior to European colonization, enormous herds of large ruminants covered the continent, including an estimated 10 million elk and as many as 75 million bison. “The moving multitude…darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.

And we shouldn’t forget that all food has global warming impacts. Wetland rice fields account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. Researchers in Sweden discovered that the carbon footprint of a carrot varied by a factor of 10, depending on how and where it was produced. Singling out meat’s climate impact makes no sense.

Traditional animal farming also has environmental benefits. Recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock actually lessen global warming because their vegetation and soils effectively act as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture sequesters significant amounts of carbon. Perennial pastures can decrease soil erosion by up to 80 percent and improve water quality, according to the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project. Even the UN report notes, “There is growing evidence that both cattle ranching and pastoralism can have positive impacts on biodiversity.”

The Kansas-based Land Institute agrees. The institute has presented the Obama administration with a 50-Year Farm Bill that proposes increases in perennial crops and permanent pasture. “We see future herbaceous perennial grain producing polycultures being managed through fire and grazing, just as the native prairie was ‘managed,’” Institute President Wes Jackson told me. “The large grazer on grassland has always been an integral part of the system here in North America.”

Solving what ails agriculture must entail reducing the total number of animals raised and returning animals to the land, where they belong. A study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded that with moderate reductions in Western meat eating, we could easily feed the world in 2050 using grass-based, humane farming methods.

Environmentalists are rightly angry about the industrialized livestock sector. But eliminating all animal husbandry is like taking axes to apple trees – it wouldn’t work. Worse still, it would make the most environmentally appropriate farming impossible.


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How can we help these poor little animals from being extinct. Deers, wild cats, lions,pandas,bears,frogs,rabbits, and more other animals are dying out. People kill rabbits, wild cats, and other small animals to make these stupid fur coats, jackets, sweaters, and other things. Some animals eat trees and people are cutting it down to make furniture. So if the world keeps being like this in maybe10 years we will are be dead. Please help. How can we help all these animals from running out. They need our help, and if they run out then we will die slowly, suffering, and with lots of stress.

By jammydoug on Wed, October 13, 2010 at 8:42 pm

The average hog herd, for example, has gone from 15 in 1900 to 766 in 2002. Many modern chicken and hen flocks number over a million birds. In this setup animals are separated from the land and crops, creating soil infertility and erosion on the farm and air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system wildly out of balance.

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By Facebook apps on Thu, July 22, 2010 at 2:12 am

Michael, I can’t agree with you on that. I think that as Nicolette Niman, who was the lead attorney for the Robert F Kennedy’s environmental group, the Waterkeeper’s Alliance, on livestock issues,  pointed out in the above article, it is a huge mistake to conflate enteric emissions with the manure lagoon of factory farms.

This article on the subject by Elliott Coleman, who is perhaps the most renowned sustainable farmer in North America, cogently debunks the myth of enteric emissions:

I think your numbers are off. As Coleman points out, there were over 70 million buffalo alone in North America, as well as innumerable deer, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, and so on. And then there was Africa! (as well as the rest of the world).

In fact, sustainable pasturing can even result in a huge net gain because of carbon sequestration, by massively increasing biodiversity and the vitality of the soil. Whereas high yield crops such as soy and corn release about 1,000 pounds of CO2 per acre, before fuel and equipment is even factored in, sustainable pasturing actually sequesters carbon at roughly the same rate.

By g english on Wed, June 30, 2010 at 10:35 am

I’m an omnivore but I don’t buy the argument that because there were (allegedly - and I would like to see the reference) many more bison in North America than there are farmed ruminants today that US ruminant CH4 emissions are insignificant. Taking the world as a whole, there are now more than 3.5 billion domestic ruminants, while wild ones number around 75 million. Methane emissions have risen 150% since 18th century and the explosion in numbers of ruminants are no doubt a chief reason why.

Appealing to Lewis & Clarke is skating on thin ice; not because they were stupid or liars, but because they saw only a snapshot of the landscape and taking these sorts of accounts as gospel is just bad environmental history.

More importantly, I don’t where you got your figures from but the US Agriculture Census 2007 cites nearly 100 million head of cattle alone. Add to this methane emissions from sheep (less than 10 million), and manure emissions from poultry operations and piggeries (hog), and Houston… we have a problem.

That said, opposing meat-eating on environmental grounds is too simplistic. At the same time, industrialised production is, to put it mildly, problematic. You’re right on those scores. Americans, like Australians and Canadians daily consume ten or more times the meat eaten by those in the developing world, and far more than we need.

By Michael on Tue, June 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm

What needs to change is the expectation of lots of cheap meat, as is grown on industrial feedlots.  I haven’t eaten meat for 30+ years and I don’t miss it one bit.  But if we’re going to reduce the number of animals raised to sustainable numbers, I think there has to be a lot less meat eaten, and that meat will be much more expensive, being raised on grass-fed farms in smaller operations.

By Ryan R on Sat, June 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Many thanks to Nicolette Niman for this nuanced, insightful, and and exceptionally cogent article. To be plainly honest, I read Lindsay Rajt’s counterpoint argument as well, and found Niman’s arguments to be vastly more informed and compelling.

Rajt’s criticisms of Niman’s ranch were less than persuasive, and frankly, none of her environmental criticisms even applied to sustainable farming practices. She relied on reflexive rhetoric, but completely ignored the well-reasoned, knowledgeable arguments that Niman made for the important role that animals play in any sustainable model of food production.

As Niman said, “The most environmentally sustainable food production mimics nature in all its complexity—and animals are an essential component.”

By g english on Sat, March 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

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