Book Review: The Global Climate and a Defense of Beef

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | June 28, 2016, 12:35 pm EDT
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Now for the other side of the argument. In this second of my series of three reviews of books and movies, I’ll consider a book that presents a spirited defense of beef. In fact, that’s its title: Defending Beef, by Nicolette Hahn Niman.

The book paints a picture of a better beef system, less damaging to the climate and the environment generally than the current system is. This is a vision I applaud, and one that my colleagues in the UCS Food and Environment program are researching. However, the book also raises scientific issues that I feel are worth exploring, since the dominant beef production system we have in place today, both globally and domestically, has some real problems.

As in the previous review, my focus will be on beef’s effect on the climate, which is the part of the subject that I know best. But I should mention that Hahn Niman’s book covers several other aspects—e.g. water, biodiversity, overgrazing, and especially health and nutrition. These are certainly concerns of mine and also aspects on which several of my UCS colleagues are working.

Chapter 1 of the book is titled “The Climate Change Case against Cattle: Sorting Fact from Fiction,” and it responds to a pattern that scientists have repeatedly found—that the climate footprint of beef is much larger than for nearly every other food, including other kinds of meat. This is not only the case globally, but for the United States as well. Thus, cattle are by far the largest source of U.S. emissions from agriculture, as shown by the graph below:

Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture, in percent; average from 1990 to 2012. Categories of global warming pollution that come almost entirely from cattle are “Enteric Fermentation” and “Manure Left on Pasture;” categories for which a significant proportion is from cattle production include “Manure Management,”, “Manure Applied to Soils,” and “Synthetic Fertilizers”. Source: FAO-FAOSTATS database. Online at: http://faostat3.fao.org/browse/area/231/E

Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture, in percent; average from 1990 to 2012. Categories of global warming pollution that come almost entirely from cattle are “Enteric Fermentation” and “Manure Left on Pasture;” categories for which a significant proportion is from cattle production include “Manure Management,”, “Manure Applied to Soils,” and “Synthetic Fertilizers”. Source: FAO-FAOSTATS database.

How significant are beef emissions?

Hahn Niman doesn’t defend the current agricultural system that is producing these levels of emissions. However she focuses her critique on the 2006 FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow and its estimate that 18% of global emissions are due to livestock, a large majority of which is due to beef. This is despite the more recent scientific studies that have confirmed and reinforced its basic conclusions, with only small changes in the percentage. These changes have come about because newer data became available and, importantly, because fossil fuel emissions—the major component of the denominator of the percentage—have grown. Thus, a decade later, the overall story of Livestock’s Long Shadow has been confirmed and extended by more evidence.

U.S. beef production, consumption and deforestation

Two of Hahn Niman’s most important points concern the relevance of deforestation caused by livestock to Americans, and failing to consider the “offsetting” of beef’s emissions by the sequestration of soil carbon. So let’s consider those in turn.

Hahn Niman says that when considering the climate impact of beef, “including deforestation from developing countries … is unfair and unreasonable” (page 45). She claims that “I’ve shown that American beef has virtually no connection to deforestation emissions” (page 23). Thus, the issue with U.S. beef seems to be whether deforestation, an important source of global warming pollution (about 10% of the global total, by recent estimates) has anything to do with the U.S. While this is true of US beef production, it misses the important point that American beef is part of a global market and US beef consumption does play a role in deforestation:

Four relevant points:

1)     While the majority of beef consumption in the U.S. is produced domestically, we most definitely import appreciable quantities from tropical forest countries.

2)     That is because the beef market is now clearly a global one, in which increased consumption in any country, including the U.S., raises total demand and thus drives up world prices. And higher beef prices have been shown to lead to more deforestation. The U.S. is the world’s leading consumer of beef—24.1 billion pounds in 2014, according to the USDA.

3)     U.S. companies are an important part of the global beef trade, as explained in UCS’ recently updated web pages on the drivers of deforestation today. This gives Americans an opportunity as well as a responsibility. We can let our corporations know that we want them to act to eliminate beef-driven deforestation from their supply chains—not just those in the U.S. but everywhere in the world—just as we have done with deforestation driven by palm oil.

4)     Finally—and this is a criticism of our political leaders, not of Hahn Niman’s argument—we already have a long and sad experience of refusal to act on climate change, using the excuse that other countries are equally or more guilty than we are and therefore have to act first. This applies to all the causes of global warming—including deforestation.

Can U.S. beef be climate neutral?

A substantial part of Hahn Niman’s argument on the potential for carbon sequestration in pastures—11 pages—is based on the theories of Alan Savory, the former Zimbabwean rancher now famous for his TED talk. There have been detailed and extensive critiques of Savory’s arguments, both on the web and in scientific journals, so I won’t repeat all their points here. But just add one that to me is quite telling: after many years of controversy, Savory still has not published his studies on carbon sequestration in peer-reviewed scientific journals or made his data available publicly so that other researchers can assess it. This is particularly important since he is claiming to have made such a striking discovery. This omission alone weakens his case—and thus Hahn Niman’s use of his theories—very significantly.

What about carbon sequestration more broadly? Hahn Niman argues that it “may be more than enough to completely offset the emissions from grazing animals.” (page 45). How much evidence is there for this?

Zhongmin Hu and colleagues, in a 2016 article in Global Change Biology, reviewed experiments excluding grazing animals from grasslands at 51 different sites in China. They found that grazing exclusion led to an increase in carbon, both in the soil and in the vegetation, at most of the sites. In other words, they found that the carbon stock was higher without the grazers. This is in the opposite direction of the kind of effect that Hahn Niman’s “offsetting” argument assumes.

The same result—an effect on ecosystem carbon, but in the wrong direction for the hypothesis, comes from a large review of biomass and carbon recovery at 45 sites, with about 1500 total plots, in the New World tropics. In this study by Lourens Poorter and colleagues, both pastures from which cattle had been removed and abandoned agricultural fields showed substantial increases in biomass and carbon stock, with the annual rate of increase in carbon averaging 3.05 tons per hectare (1.23 tons per acre). There was no significant difference between former fields and former pastures in the rate of recovery of carbon.

So, the existing evidence doesn’t show that the difference in sequestration with and without cattle leads to a net carbon sink. Also, it remains unclear to what degree the total direct emissions from animals (ruminant methane, manure, etc.) and indirect ones (e.g. deforestation, fertilizer used to produce feed grains, etc.) could be offset through best management practices (e.g., by soil carbon sequestration in grasslands, avoided conversion to rangelands, avoiding chemical fertilizers, etc.)

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be working hard to increase soil sequestration in pastures, as well as under agricultural fields. And indeed, there have been some promising results in this kind of research. For example, Teague et al. recently proposed a set of scenarios for North American beef production, involving reduced soil erosion through conservation cropping and “adaptive multipaddock grazing” (AMP), under which net emissions could be decreased significantly Likewise, I have colleagues at UCS modeling various agricultural scenarios that will add to our knowledge on this question. But for now, whether or not beef production could ever become carbon neutral is far from settled science.

The reality of beef today

While I state at the outset that Hahn Niman does not defend current beef production practices, it is instructive to look at the current situation. Beef’s much higher emissions are associated with much more use of water and much more need for land. The figure below, from a recent review by Raganathan et al. published in a chapter in IFPRI’s annual report and also as a separate report from the World Resources Institute, shows the size of these differences.

Raganathan 2016 IFRPI report graphic

The land use, freshwater and greenhouse gas emissions footprints of different sources of food, per million calories consumed. From J. Raganthan et al. 2016. “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.” Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute; Figure ES-2.

How do we solve the problem?

Changing what we eat is one of the steps that we can take to confront this challenge, but it is not “the solution.” This is not only because emissions related to beef, although significant, are still considerably less than those from fossil fuels. It’s also because the necessary transformation of diets needs to recognize that the consumption of foods from high-emissions, ecologically inefficient production systems varies enormously between countries. It’s in the Americas—both North and South—and to a lesser extent in Russia and Europe that beef consumption rates are highest, and thus where emissions could be cut the most by diet changes.

Beef consumption rates in the major countries and regions of the world. Source: Data from OECD-FAO. 2014. Agricultural Outlook. Paris: OECD. Figure 7-8.

Beef consumption rates in the major countries and regions of the world. Source: Data from OECD-FAO. 2014. Agricultural Outlook. Paris: OECD. Figure 7-8.

A final point, is that this is a matter of reducing emissions, not an all-or-nothing question of morality. Personally, I have tried to reduce my emissions over the past decade by making changes such as driving a hybrid car, using public transport whenever possible, and changing our home’s electricity supplier to one that provides 100% renewable energy. These reduce my carbon footprint, but they don’t make it zero. Similarly, I now eat beef less frequently and in smaller amounts, but I haven’t eliminated it from my diet entirely.

There’s a real irony in this, because Nicolette Hahn Niman doesn’t eat beef—in fact, she doesn’t eat meat at all. She explains (page 184) that having given up meat in earlier years when she became a vegetarian, “to date I simply have not had the urge to eat it. If I ever regain the desire to eat meat, I will.”

So, a defender of beef doesn’t eat it, while this critic of it does. I don’t see this as making either of us more ethical than the other. But I do admit that it very likely means that my emissions from what I eat are probably larger than hers.

In my final review of this series on the book Cowed, I’ll consider how we can move towards reducing such emissions, but will also argue that beef consumption should continue, although at a lower level in many countries, including the U.S. Here I have looked at data showing the impact of removing grazing, because it’s a key test of the offsetting hypothesis, not because that’s my policy recommendation. Testing a hypothesis is one thing, and science gives us some a basic method for how to do it. But using that method—comparing “with” and “without”—is quite different from considering how to change beef production and consumption systems in the future.

What’s most important, though, is not just changing our individual carbon footprints, but doing things to change the overall emissions and sequestration of the whole planet. For example, if we could get American companies to insist that the beef and other products that they source from the tropics are deforestation-free, it would have much more impact than simply reducing our own consumption. These kinds of changes will help move our global society towards ways of eating, ways of farming and ranching, and ways of living, that will create a better future for those with whom we share the Earth.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , , ,

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  • Marianne

    I have to add to the comments from L.A. CHEFs Column… The research provided here was cherry picked. The only countries that import beef into the US are Canada and Mexico in any significant matter, and it has been for at least 15 years. (Find that information here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/livestock-meat-international-trade-data.aspx ), Therefore, the argument regarding the rain forest is bizarre.
    The author references Chinese and neotropical data, but does not mention the data currently being collected in other areas that will eventually export its beef to the United States. Dr. Ed Bork is currently using 114 different grassland sites that have very different results from those noted here. (Find his preliminary data summarized in a presentation found here: http://www.wbdc.sk.ca/pdfs/field_days/2016_summer/2016_WBDC_FieldDay_Bork.pdf )
    In addition to that, there’s also research underway that could decrease GHG emissions through the use of feed additives. (Find one example of that ongoing research here: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/34/10663.short )
    I agree that there is a need to ensure that our beef is raised sustainable and ethically. That’s why there’s the Canadian Round table for Sustainable Beef, which has worked with large food companies to help producers and provide to consumers. There’s a number of other initiatives in Canada and the United States that is working towards similar goals.
    It’s important for consumers to keep asking questions, but please know, the beef industry is responding as quickly as it can.

  • SocratesNV

    I appreciate the focus on the environmental impacts of dietary choices and in fact, it is one of the reasons I have been a vegan for many years. There are two other aspects to animal consumption that I feel are equally important: one’s personal health and the cruelty of the animal-as-food industry. There is ample information on both for those who are interested. I believe that looking at issues from every perspective is the best way to make informed decisions.

    • L.A. CHEFs Column

      Have you read either of Nicolette Hahn Niman’s books? She’s an environmental attorney who has worked against factory farms on environmental problems. She’s a huge advocate not only for environmentally responsible ways to raise livestock, but also ones that afford livestock a cruelty free life while alive with a quick death (I know for vegans it’s still death but there’s a huge difference between the quality of life for pastured versus CAFO livestock) . Here’s a video where she explains her point of view: https://youtu.be/41h4kIYbgfc

      The second half of here book deal with the health issues. While admitting not her forte like the first half of the book, she does point out how all of the nutritional science is epidemiological science. Epidemiology has a lot of short comings (see attachment) and even the much ballyhooed IARC WHO report showed absolute risk at less than 1% for the most prevailing form of cancer colorectal cancer. But most people, especially vegans, don’t understand the difference between relative and absolute risk. I assume you don’t either so no there isn’t any “ample information” based on clinical science in regards to health. There is a also of ample misinformation emanating from vegan websites largely because as this article notes, vegans suck at science: https://www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/vegans-suck-at-science-heres-the-proof

      ###

  • L.A. CHEFs Column

    Regarding water use and water footprints, after numerous correspondences with waterfootrprint.org I did analysis here in this article: understanding water footprint #’s http://www.examiner.com/article/la-chef-editorial-understanding-numbers
    I’ve grown accustomed to journalists and advocate mindlessly citing numbers, but for a scientist to do so is a bit disconcerting… Regardless, for beef 98% of the water footprint number is the number needed to grow feed, forage or grasses. With grass finished cattle 98% of that 98% is “green” water. Green water is RAIN. The rain falls regardless, so the issue really is what’s the best use of land that the rain fall falls upon. Land isn’t interchangeable. More often than not, the best use of land where the rain falls is grazing not crops. Crops often require more blue water to be diverted than many grasses that are drought resistant and, if perennials, long rooted.. Cattle by building healthy soils can also improve water infiltration making more effective the use of rain……..and do this on land that has no other suitable use for food production.

  • L.A. CHEFs Column

    To begin with, let’s look at some numbers. Brazil has 214 mill head of cattle. According to Mongabay.com approx 60 mil of that 214 mill is in the Amazon region. Total world inventory of cattle according to the FAO is 1.468 bill head. So cattle in the Amazon is approx. 4.1% of global inventory. Until this past June, Brazilian beef wasn’t even allowed to be imported into the US due to concerns over foot and mouth disease. Now look at US beef consumption (see attached graph), 85% of the beef the US consumes is domestically produced. The vast majority of the rest comes from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. Australia and New Zealand are helping to fill the growing demand for grass finished beef. Brazil, on the other hand, supplies 1/2% of US demand…Whether that’s from the 60 mill in the Amazon or not, don’t know, but for the most part the presumption that beef is a global commodity like oil for US production is simply a false one. Maybe for Russia and Egypt, Brazil’s beef largest importers, the global argument holds weight. But for the US, the vast majority of beef is a domestic commodity, so eating a burger in the US doesn’t have much of an impact on deforestation as say eating processed food with palm oil in it.

    Matter of fact, most ranchers following HM or AMP management practices oppose cattle being produced in the Amazon. If pasture outside of the Amazon region hadn’t been replaced by soy (for CAFO pigs and chicken as well as biofuel and cooking oil) and sugarcane (55% for ethanol) ranchers most likely wouldn’t need new pasture land for cattle in Brazil. Though even UCS’s own analysis acknowledges that one of the main real drivers for deforestation is land speculation. The cattle are the best way to maintain land claims.This is a study that UCS’s report referenced: “Persistence of cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon: a spatial analysis of the rationale for beef production” https://www.academia.edu/2762503/Persistance_of_cattle_ranching_in_the_Brazilian_Amazon_a_spatial_analysis_of_the_rationale_for_beef_production Another good report is this one by Amazon Watch: “How to Stop Deforestation in the Amazon? Empower Indigenous Peoples” http://amazonwatch.org/news/2015/0505-how-to-stop-deforestation-in-the-amazon-empower-indigenous-peoples Finally a huge concern regarding deforestation in Brazil that should concern everyone is just how corrupt the government is and how many of Brazil’s leaders think climate change is a hoax. Now these officials are trying to fast track large construction projects: “With Brazil in political crisis, science and the environment are on the chopping block.” http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/brazil-political-crisis-science-and-environment-are-chopping-block So needles to say, blaming cattle as the culprit driving deforestation is a gross over simplification.

    Now regarding the 2013 downward revision to 2006 Long Shadow, which generates what’s considered the “consensus” of 14.5% attributed to the Animal Ag sector, I’ve already done some analysis of that number here- https://www.quora.com/How-accurate-is-the-movie-Cowspiracy/answer/Stephen-Zwick – looking at the math particulary noting exacting what 2006/2013 Long Shadow was comparing: Life Cycle Assessment numbers for livestock versus solely borrowed IPCC tail pipe emissions for the transportation sector (see second graphic showing the only portion of the transportation accounted for in this sector) as well as the math behind land use change and the fallacy of attributing so much of it solely to animal Ag, For example, when land is converted for growing corn or sugar cane crops for ethanol which replaces grassland or pasture, is this land use change being attributed to the transportation, energy or animal Ag sector? Not to mention that land use change from grassland to tilled mono-crop land releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere – see Grasslands a carbon-capture colossus http://www.albertafarmexpress.ca/2016/05/09/grasslands-a-carbon-capture-colossus/#.VzEhYCAnB-s.facebook (Also see attached graphic noting carbon levels of different ecosystems from the IPCC- we need to preserves and restore grasslands too).

    Moreover it’s amusing you discount Savory yet mentioned Teague. Here’s a secret for you HM (holistic management) and AMP (adaptive multi-paddock) management are the same EXACT thing. Teague couldn’t use the term holistic management and get his articles peer reviewed due to biases against Savory. Teague’s most recent paper http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/2/156.full.pdf which you cited demonstrates that enteric mitigation is offset by carbon sequestration which is improved by grazing practices. Teague also published this paper last year: http://www.ridgeshinn.com/wpSD/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Teague-on-climate-benefit-of-rotational-grazing.pdf Here’s additional research from 2014 Univ of Georgia showing offsets : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275667488_Emerging_land_use_practices_rapidly_increase_soil_organic_matter Niman is championing these methods while also noting that they should be used on cow/calf and stocker operations (where most of the US inventory is 66 mil out of 80 mill head of beef cattle) ) even if cattle are finished to a limited degree on supplemental feed including grains.

    Now these above papers all came out after Hahn Niman wrote here book, with two done after publication of Defending Beef, but they’re all pointing to mitigation of GHG’s via soil. Other soil science research is showing the impact of methanotrophs to offset rumen methanogenesis as I note in my article here regarding ruminants and methane http://www.examiner.com/article/la-chefs-editorial-methane-and-global-warming?cid=db_articles In this article I cite several references from research done in India noting how tilled systems and ones that get N inputs don’t function effectively as methane sinks like grasslands do. Here’s another interesting blog entry along the same lines citing research that methanotrophic activity increases with grazers. http://www.theconsciousfarmer.com/ruminants-methane-pest-carbon-sequesterer/ The thing is a lot of the soil science is new and is also land specific, so universal conditions can’t be broadly used in equations done in ivory towers. The same piece of land may be an emitter or sink depending upon how it’s managed.

    Though when looking at Long Shadow as well as DEFRA numbers, one too has to understand the biases of the authors. Long Shadows authors were and still are proponents of “mitigation through intensification.” Meaning they’re proponents of factory farms, and their math reflects a bias against extensive systems. Hahn Niman doesn’t advocate for intensification. She’s an opponent. So now finally in this more recent article- http://www.examiner.com/article/la-chef-review-ucla-science-and-food-discussion-on-restaurant-ghg-emissions?cid=db_articles – I explore the math behind the carbon foot prints assigned to meat and beef in particular….again the emissions are extrapolated and the mitigation isn’t accounted for in the math. So stats are pretty meaningless unless you know how and why they’re generated. And scientists, like most consumers, are so divorced from where their food comes from that their reliance on easily contrived stats only really reflects how disconnected they are from the real world, where yes, cattle may be raised in a carbon neutral fashion and yes ruminants when well managed are an essential component of a sustainable food system. https://youtu.be/UK7vXwIOlGk

    • sabelmouse

      thanks.