Beef is the Worst – Why Put Oil on Your BBQ?
It’s a glorious summer weekend, and folks all over are firing up their grills. But before you shop – today is World Environment Day, so maybe you should think twice about what you’re putting on the BBQ, especially after the devastation of the BP Gulf oil disaster.
Beef is, simply, the worst thing you can eat – especially mainstream store-bought beef that comes straight off a factory farm feedlot. Read on to learn why…
In honor of World Environment Day, the UN has issued a new report (PDF Download) that says the best thing we can do to deal with environmental problems, climate change, and fossil fuel dependency is cut back on meat and dairy in our diets. And beef is the worst.
We’re not suggesting that everyone has to go Vegan tomorrow. But cutting back even a few days a week can have a big impact.
“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products…
Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
Where’s the beef?
It’s not down on the farm these days, alas. The healthy, natural beef of years gone by is almost extinct. It has been driven out by cheap beef, raised on gigantic feedlots, fattened on corn. The problem is: corn isn’t healthy for cows, and raising beef this way ultimately isn’t healthy for us either. Here are some things to watch out for and ways to be more healthy when it comes to your beef-related choices.
If you ask children, “What do cows eat?”, they’ll tell you: “Cows eat grass!” Not corn – grass. Kids are smart; smarter, it seems, than the barons of agribusiness, who haven’t figured that part out yet.
Why do farmers feed cows on corn? First, because it’s cheap, thanks to massive federal subsidies. Second, because starchy corn forces cows to fatten up faster. Cattle evolved a complex digestive system to derive nutrition from rangeland grasses; feed them on corn and their digestion goes haywire, causing flatulence, acid stomach, and massive weight gain.
This isn’t healthy for cows: with their immune systems damaged, the cows get sick – an amazing array of illnesses, ranging from liver abscesses and infections to dust-inspired respiratory disease. So agribusiness loads them up with antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to get them to the slaughterhouse – and your plates.
This also isn’t healthy for people: this beef ends up lower in nutrients (everything from vitamin A to vitamin E) and higher in fat – the bad kind, cholesterol-boosting fat. And the rampant use of antibiotics in crowded conditions has led to the rise of a new breed of super-bugs that are sickening thousands and possibly millions.
You heard about the spinach that was infected with E. coli 157? There’s no way to prove anything, but it’s likely the infection came from animal waste from a factory farm. Agribusiness likes to say “It could come from over-flying birds or foxes running through the fields,” but you don’t find exotic bugs lie E. coli 157 in the guts of wildlife. The most probable source is the vast lakes of animal waste on nearby cattle farms. Remember the acid indigestion the cows get from corn? E. coli 157 doesn’t do well in the guts of normal, grass-fed cattle, but it thrives in the acid environment of corn-fed cows.
This is a growing problem – 199 people got sick during the spinach outbreak and three died, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 20,000 people a year who are infected with E. coli 157 ,and 200 who die. It’s mostly the very young and the very old who are vulnerable; infection from E. coli 157 is the biggest cause of kidney failure in children.
Making Beef out of Oil
The biggest irony: none of this makes any economic sense at all! Nobody would bother feeding corn to cattle if US taxpayers weren’t paying billions of dollars in subsidies to make corn cheap. And consider this: Cornell’s David Pimentel points out that growing all of that corn takes vast amounts of petroleum-based chemical fertilizer.
Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
Giant agriculture distorts everything. In real agriculture, poop is fertilizer. But we use petroleum products to fertilize the corn, send the corn to giant cattle operations, which churn out massive lagoons of dammed-up poop. It should go back to fertilizer, but it’s such an antibiotic and chemical-laced concoction that it ends up as just another toxic waste-product.
Make a difference
So now you know more of the facts, but what can you do to improve your diet and make a global difference as well? Vegetarians would like you to cut out beef completely, but that’s not totally necessary.
- Cut back on beef (and meat). One or two days a week without meat is the equivalent of switching from a gas-powered sedan to a hybrid. (It’ll also save you money, and is good for your heart).
- Go solar! When you do eat beef, go for free-range or grass-fed. Organic is best – it’s more expensive, true, but remember, you just cut out a day or two of beef, so you can afford to serve better-quality, more nutritious meals for yourself and your children. Better for you, and better the planet.
- Watch your dairy intake, too. Most big dairy producers are as bad as the beef feedlots. Cut back on dairy, or switch to organic for lower impact.
- Watch out for corn in your veggie products! Once you start reading ingredient labels, you’ll be shocked and appalled to see how American processed food is loaded up with corn and corn derivatives (loaded with dairy derivatives, too!). It is a good idea to cut back on processed foods anyway, as they are loaded with all kinds of weird chemicals and additives (many of which are manufactured in bulk in China with minimal safety standards).
UPDATE: Some commenters have referred to a report by UC Davis Prof. Frank Mitloehner that says the UN is wrong, that the numbers for the US (based on 2007 EPA estimates) are actually 3 percent emissions for agriculture vs 26 percent for transportation. I’m betting most folks haven’t read the full report – it’s incredibly technical and dense. I gave up on page 26.
His criticism was a technical one – that the earlier report did a full life-cycle analysis on beef, looking at things like how much oil was used to grow the corn to feed the cattle (as we talked about in this article), and how much oil was used in transportation of all that feed. Whereas that “well-to wheel analysis” was not done for the transportation industry, so in fact agriculture may NOT have more of a climate impact than transportation (at least in the US).
In other words… the heart of his argument is that the report underestimated the number for transportation.
What he DIDN’T say was that beef had no impact, as some commenters and newspapers are asserting, like The Washington Times under the headlines “Meat, dairy not tied to global warming” and “Forget all that indecorous talk of animal flatulence, cow burps, vegetarianism and global warming. Welcome to Cowgate.” (Ironically, Mitloehner was the guy who discovered the issue of cow-belches, in a study for the California dairy industry and the EPA.)
Mitloenher himself has stated, “I didn’t say that there is no reduction in greenhouse gases associated with animal protein consumption, but that it is a relatively small contribution and that consumers can do other things that have greater impact on this.” And that last point is simply his value judgement, not based on his research.
He added, “I think it’s time that we work across the globe really on transferring knowledge and help particularly those areas like India and China to produce in a way that is as environmentally benign as possible. I think we have that responsibility. So it would be nice if we would take some of the politics out of the discussion and really focus on getting things done and resolved and addressed.”
(Portions of this article originally appeared at Ecoble.com)
(Photo from D Sharon Pruitt under a Creative Commons License)