“Grass-fed beef is bad for the planet and causes climate change”

Back in 2012, Richard Oppenlander described a frightening situation in his book Comfortably Unaware. Global warming, he argued, is just one aspect of a global depletion crisis involving the loss of freshwater, rainforest destruction and deforestation, farmland desertification, the ruining of the oceans, loss of biodiversity, food scarcity, antibiotic resistance and the Western health crisis. The common factor behind all these symptoms, causing the breakdown of ecosystems and making a global catastrophe ever more likely in the near future, is animal agriculture – the farming and killing of 70 billion animals per year worldwide. Yet most people are not even aware of the true scale of the danger, yet alone its real origins.

In 2016, Kip Anderson's hit film Cowspiracy brought the issue to the public's attention and revealed how governments, major charities and environmental organisations are failing to address it for fear of upsetting the all-powerful meat and dairy industries. Unsurprisingly, Kip Anderson and Richard Oppenlander have come in for some very vocal criticism from these quarters, and most notably from proponents of the grass-fed beef movement. Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef, denounces both as amateurs meddling in an expert field: https://climateone.org/audio/cowspiracy. According to her, the evidence in Cowspiracy is laughably mishandled and based solely on research by Oppenlander, a mere dentist from Kalamazoo County, Michigan with no appropriate professional background or expertise. He and the film's presenter are hard-line vegan abolitionists pushing their anti-meat and dairy religion under the guise of an objective investigation. Several commentators also published lengthy articles making similar points shortly after the film's release (e.g. https://kellythekitchenkop.com/cowspiracy-farce/).

Many ordinary people following this story were by now no doubt thoroughly confused. So I for one was very interested to learn about a major study that found that "grass-fed beef is bad for the planet and causes climate change". (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2149220-grass-fed-beef-is-bad-for-the-planet-and-causes-climate-change/)

The study was produced by The Food and Climate Research Network, an independent group based at Oxford University. Their report, entitled "Grazed and Confused," concludes as follows:

The inescapable conclusion of this report is that while grazing livestock have their place in a sustainable food system, that place is limited. Whichever way one looks at it, and whatever the system in question the anticipated continuing rise in production and consumption of animal products is cause for concern. With their growth, it becomes harder by the day to tackle our climatic and other environmental challenges.

I disagree with the assertion that "grazing livestock have their place in a sustainable food system," because this is based on the false premise that meat is a key part of a healthy diet for a growing world population. It should also be noted that the study was of limited scope in that it only specifically addressed the question of what effect livestock farming has on global warming. Nevertheless, it significantly challenges the views of outspoken critics like Nicolette Hahn Niman, who took issue with Richard Oppenlander for being an unqualified amateur. Her own credentials are far from perfect: she works as a lawyer and is married to a cattle rancher. She and her fellow grass-fed beef advocates would do well to stick to the facts in this debate.

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Monday, 19 February 2018