Jane Says: There's An Environmental Case to Be Made for Eating Grass-Fed Beef

Keeping cows on rangeland doesn't degrade that ecology—their grazing improves it.

(Photo: David Palmer/Getty Images)

Oct 22, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Stories of California's drought are making me reconsider my relationship with grass-fed beef. In light of the water shortages, is it still an environmentally friendly choice?

Bill Wilson

While drought may improve in some areas of the United States this winter, California won’t be so lucky, according to the U.S. Winter Outlook, issued on Oct. 16 by the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “While drought may improve in some portions of the U.S. this winter, California's record-setting drought will likely persist or intensify in large parts of the state,” NOAA’s online statement read.

“Nearly 60 percent of California is suffering from exceptional drought—the worst category—with 2013 being the driest year on record. Also, 2012 and 2013 rank in the top 10 of California’s warmest years on record, and 2014 is shaping up to be California’s warmest year on record,” it continues. “Winter is the wet season in California, so mountainous snowfall will prove crucial for drought recovery. Drought is expected to improve in California’s southern and northwestern regions, but improvement is not expected until December or January. Complete drought recovery in California this winter is highly unlikely.”

One of the most important words in the paragraph above, by the way, is “snowfall”; the Western U.S. gets as much as 75 percent of its water supply from melting snow and ice. And what’s also critical is the amount of water that’s kept in an ecosystem by way of the hydrologic cycle, which is the vast, natural, continuous movement of water on, above, or below the surface of the Earth. Recyclable but not renewable, those water resources support every living thing on the planet.

And all agriculture—large or small, conventional or otherwise—has an impact on those water resources. Beef production, in particular, is typically seen as a colossal drain: Numbers vary widely, but the one I come across most often in the mainstream media is that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Go to VegSource, and it skyrockets to 12,009 gallons per pound of beef.

Neither figure is correct, says Nicolette Hahn Niman, the (vegetarian) author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, the newest must-read in sustainable-food circles that comes out on Oct. 24. Her thoroughly researched, nuanced analysis of many egregious aspects of modern agriculture—and of well-raised beef’s rightful place in a sustainable ecosystem—stems from her work as an environmental lawyer who specialized in water quality (years ago, when we first met, she was up to her earlobes in combating pollution from industrial hog operations). She also has a decade of hands-on experience on a Bolinas, California, cattle ranch with her husband, Bill Niman, a pioneer in the humanely raised “good meat” business.

In Defending Beef, you’ll find chapters on topics ranging from climate change, grass, and water to health concerns, ethical considerations, and more—including meticulous footnotes and index. In “Water,” one of the book’s most granular chapters, Hahn Niman explains that water usage is generally calculated with simple arithmetic, “adding together three numbers—a volume of water a steer is said to drink in his lifetime, a volume of water said to be used to grow feeds a steer eats in his lifetime, and water used in slaughter and processing.” The sticking point for me, personally, is that I’ve never seen a hayfield or cattle range that’s been irrigated, and I felt vindicated when I read that “Depending on where feeds are grown, and the type of feeds used, the water usage numbers vary dramatically.” Gallons-per-pound figures, she writes, “make no sense when applied to cattle raised on non-irrigated feeds, let alone cattle raised on forages, without feeds.”

Hahn Niman finds far more credible data in a UC Davis study published in the Journal of Animal Science. “It goes, in excruciating detail, through every step of an animal’s life, taking every variable into account. Among the factors considered are where cattle are located, average temperatures, the number of days on feed and feed types, typical grain types, how many acres of each type of grain would have had to be irrigated, and so on. At the end of it all, the UC Davis researchers concluded that a kilogram of boneless beef requires 3,682 liters of water to produce.” That’s 441 gallons per pound, she clarifies (two math whizzes checked all her conversions), or about the same amount of water it takes to produce a kilogram of rice. Especially when you factor in the nutritional density of beef (it contains all the essential amino acids as well as B vitamins, iron, zinc, and, in the liver, vitamin D), it seems pretty clear that beef isn’t the gas-guzzling Hummer of the food system.

Another generally accepted belief (among nonfarmers) that Hahn Niman challenges is that cattle degrade the land. “Herbivores are nourished by grass, and in turn their grazing and trampling maintains grasslands,” encouraging more growth, she writes. “Grazing and trampling also keep down the emergence of woody plants that transform grasslands into environments less hospitable to grass. When grazing animals are extirpated or otherwise disappear from a terrain, the ecosystem, including all life depending on it, is radically altered.”

“Beyond the lawn mower effect, grazing animals assist soils and grasses in other ways,” she adds. “Their hooves push seeds into the ground, preventing them from getting blown or washed away, or gobbled up by hungry birds. Cycles of decay, too, benefit from hooves pressing plant parts into soils. Down in the dirt, vegetation becomes enveloped by the decomposing microbes that power carbon and nutrient cycling. The presence of cattle also ensures that moist, nutrient-rich organic matter, long regarded by farmers as agricultural gold—and known to non-farmers as cow patties—is continually added to the soil.”

As far as California rangelands go, housing developments and vineyards pose a greater threat than cattle. “Lately, almond groves, which are an especially thirsty crop, seem to be preferred,” Hahn Niman notes. “A recent land deal by Trinitas Partners, a Silicon Valley-based private equity firm, will plow 6,500 acres of ‘rugged eastern Stanislaus County land from grazing to almonds,’ according to the San Jose Mercury News.”

The proper management of natural grasslands during a drought requires diligent resource conservation on the part of ranchers. Some grass-fed beef producers graze their animals in the stubble of cornfields during the fall and winter. Others ship their herds to wetter, greener grasslands in another region, or supplement grass and hay with grain—and duly label the end result. Hahn Niman disabuses readers of the notion that feeding cattle grain is a new, and unhealthy, idea. “Neither ancient European nor early American cattle husbandry was strictly grass-based,” she writes. “According to A Short History of Farming in Britain, at least as early as the Middle Ages domesticated cattle were fed exclusively ‘hay and corn’ (corn in the British sense meaning ‘grain’) during the winter.”

Those beef producers I mention above, by the way, are working their asses off so consumers can enjoy humanely raised, nutrient-dense, delicious meat. When you buy local beef from a quality producer, you’re doing your bit to help what is likely a family business survive during a brutal time. You’re keeping them at home on the range.