13 Comments

  1. R Lee Smith August 25, 2019 @ 5:06 pm

    I give you admiring credit for your multi-faceted view of the world and it’s welfare. Your way of looking around at what is and seeing the effects of things on other things is staggering. Although not the same focus, your stream of thought is as insightful as that of Annie Dillard.

    Your review of my homeland (the Southwest) and the causes and changes brought about by our shameful dealings with Mexico brought to mind the debt we owe Mexico for la Batalla de Puebla on on May 5, 1862 for a ragtag Mexican army of 4,500 that crushed a supremely trained and equipped 8,000 man French army. The French were set to deliver arms and horses to the Confederate Army. (My how I have digressed)

    Big shock to me: Lower fat range fed beef (which tastes better to me and worse to city dwellers) must have a higher impact on carbon footprint than higher fat grain fed beef. Well, I can suffer that.
    Another big shock to me: My age. At 80 years of age I don’t eat 10% of the red meat I used to. Though I can’t take credit for not doing as much damage in my last decade as I have already irreparably accomplished in the first seven.

    I will have to hold the line on cattle concerning Dairy products such as Cheddar Cheese which out ranks (in my opinion) all others in taste and use for it’s variety of dishes. I say that as former owner, breeder and taster of products produced by a herd of Nubian Goats. Goat is also delicious and fat free but they will strip a patch of desert land bare to the very roots of creosote bushes.
    Oy vey! Such rambling produced by an aging mind.
    R Lee Smith

  2. Risa Aratyr August 26, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

    Annie Dillard – wow – high praise indeed! Thanks for reading, and many thanks for being the first to prod me to get blogging again. No lie, that’s what did the trick.
    Those charts were quite a shock to me too, on many counts. The wrong fish has a higher carbon footprint than the right cow? Pork chops are a better choice environmentally than (farmed) prawns? Who knew?
    My hubby and I are also not eating nearly as much red meat now as we did in our youth, but the incredibly low impact of all veggies and vegetable proteins prompted me to swap out the chicken for tofu in last week’s udon soup and replace the meat in one of my lunchtime sandwiches with grilled eggplant. I can’t ignore my own research, after all.
    You’re spot-on with your surmise about range-fed/corn-fed beef, btw. According to a Harvard study published last year, shifting the entire American cattle industry to grass-fed beef would require 30% more cattle and up methane emissions by 43%. Oy vey is meer.
    Yes, there are real environmental concerns regarding browsers as well. But they need less acreage than cattle. They can strip plants TO the roots, but don’t actually rip out root systems like grazers can and do. Goat IS delicious and non-fat/low-cholesterol, goat cheeses are delicious, goat milk is delicious (if the goats have been feeding on delicious fodder or forage) and highly nutritious. America is, once again, out of sync here, as 70% of the world’s red meat consumption is goat.
    Finally, your Cinco de Mayo reminder is hardly a digression when you’re responding to a piece that’s 90% history. Brilliant commentary, keep it coming!

  3. Roy Jimenez August 26, 2019 @ 9:06 am

    Wonderfully informative, well-researched, your account of the history in America of meat-eating and the rise of beef through the takeover of Mexican territory was all brand-new to me and fascinating.

    Can’t say I won’t miss my burgers, but I’m sticking with cheese!

  4. Risa Aratyr August 26, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

    Thanks, thanks, thanks!!
    Burgers, yeah . . . but hang on, and I’ll try a goat pot roast, see if that hits the spot ;)

  5. Janet Guastavino August 26, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    All of this has been in the back of my mind for some time, albeit in a nascent form. Being a child of the west, I have been taught from my youth about the presence and impact of the Spanish empire and Mexican and Bear Flag republics, especially (but not exclusively) the rise of the ranchos and their impact on the economies of the Spanish-speaking territories. (LKF: In 1493, Columbus brought cattle to Santo Domingo that proved to be the ancestors of the Texas Longhorn breed.) In other words, “cattle is king” harkens back over 500 years in what is now the U.S.A. and finally became entrenched nationally in the mid-1800s. Its footprint on the land is disputed by no one sane, so why do we eat it in such vast quantities? Well, it tastes good, it’s price is kept in check, there are myriad ways of preparing it, and the expectation that we should eat it has been handed down from generation to generation for a couple of hundred years. But what to do from here on out? Know better. Eat less, and then eat none. Make your own revolution. Share what you know. Share your non-red meat dishes with others (and impress them with your culinary skills.) My pledge: I will do it for the challenge. I will do it for my loved ones. I will do it for the creativity of it. And lastly, I will do it for my mother, Earth.

  6. JANET GUASTAVINO August 26, 2019 @ 10:49 am

    Oh, and I forgot to say: “Thank you, Risa!”

  7. Risa Aratyr August 26, 2019 @ 3:09 pm

    I totes hear you on the “child of the west” thing, especially regarding your awareness of the influence of the Spanish Empire. That bit passed me by in Chicago, but frankly, I don’t think there is any part of ‘Murica that didn’t get the corn-fed beef/cattle is king message. A NY Times article from 1994 “For Red Meat and a Sense of History” begins, “If you are a native New Yorker, steak is in your blood.” Wasn’t it the ’80s when “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” was the ubiquitous TV ad? Being a child of the Midwest, omg girl, I’m telling you, meat (meaning beef) and potatoes was THE meal (pot roast, stew, rib roast), unless you were having spaghetti and meatballs (beef), going out for ribs (big, long beef ribs), splurging on prime rib (and shrimp cocktail) at a fine dining establishment, grabbing a burger and fries, or grilling T-bones steaks outdoors in the summer.
    You are so right. When you look at those graphics I posted, it’s pretty clear that beef is THE problem.
    If we get that solved (hahaha), I’ll blog about how farming shrimp is destroying marine coastal ecosystems. (Apparently the bivalves — mussels, clams, scallops — are way, way easier on Mother Ocean.) Meanwhile read my diatribe on goats (above, in my reply to R Lee Smith).
    Oh, and You’re welcome, Jan! Thanks for the read :)

  8. Fionna August 27, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

    Fascinating article Risa. With New Zealand being an agricultural nation, our primary produce and exports are the source of our funds. The distance we need to send our exports to our customers is huge. So what do we do? An ongoing dilemma.

  9. Risa Aratyr August 27, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

    Thanks, Fionna – and thanks for the read. Since I have dear ones there (<3), my mind kept wandering to NZ as I was blogging, actually. Couldn't help wondering if lamb's exalted place on the GHG emissions lists and NZ's rather remote location might shake the foundations of the NZ economy. So of course, I had to check it out.
    I don't have anything close to a comprehensive understanding of the situation, but on first glance things don't appear as bleak as might be expected. As a nation you don't deny climate change, you recognize humans as the cause, and you are fully committed to the Paris Agreement (unlike some other nations I might mention). Beef + Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ, and other farmer/rancher orgs are digging in their heels about the landmark Zero Carbon Bill your government just announced, but just a bit and on a "tweak the expectations" level. Even B+LNZ and their ilk fully cop to the science and the urgent need to get GHGs under control.
    More good news, seems the actions NZ has already taken to address climate change (raising livestock on areas that have no other uses, using green production methods, the ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme), and preserving/planting forests) already have NZ exports at a remarkably low emissions level; so much so that long-distance exports often emit less GHGs than the same item produced locally in the US or UK. Sometimes it’s a question of less fertilizer, sometimes less energy needed due to amenable weather, sometimes (as with some African exports) there is little or no mechanization involved in production. A Lincoln U (NZ) study found that lamb raised in Kiwiland releases 688 kg of CO2 per tonne, while lamb raised in England emits 2,849 kg per tonne — and these figures include the 11,000 mi trip to Britain.
    While that study is not standing uncontested, I think the answer to your query is clear. If NZ can lead the way on green production, NZ products will always be a viable, climate-conscious choice.

  10. Declan Kenny August 28, 2019 @ 4:16 am

    Always a pleasure to read. It should be on the New York Times site, or similar. :-)
    Poor old Kerry Cows… but then, we’ve been exporting ourselves all over the world for generations.
    Irish farming is currently in a crisis. Beef prices have all but collapsed and beef farmers can’t make a living. Lift the lid a little, and you can see the big meat industries and supermarket chains are heavily controlling prices. Scratch deeper and you find that the ‘green’ grass-fed cattle industry is a bit of a lie too, as this grass must be artificially fertilised, and cattle fed during winter on imported soy-based feeds. So all is not rosy. The current estimates suggest Ireland should cut its beef herd by over 50%.
    But on the other hand, dairy is getting huge subsidies from the EU, so it’s a mass of contradictions. And there is the giant threat of Mercusor hanging over everything.
    For the cynics, it’s bascially f**k the Irish beef industry; we want to sell lots of Mercs and BMWs into Brazil.
    Always more complex than that, but when you see the amount of rainforest loss, you have to wonder what the hell are we thinking, and doing, in terms of agriculture. Sure, grass sequesters carbon, but grass is a fairly horrific monoculture, if you are looking at biodiversity.
    For me, eating local is where it has to start. Even if you do occasionally eat some free-range chicken or pork; if it comes from the local sustainable farm, then it beats buying it from a supermarket. Plus, we need to weaned off this ridiculous idea that we can have strawberried all year round. That’s just bollocks. Overall, it would be fair to say we pay too little for food in the developed world, and too much for other things, like mortgages, insurance, health, etc.

  11. Risa Aratyr August 28, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

    Always a pleasure to hear from you, Dec. And thanks for the pat on the back (NYT … I’ll take it!).
    The Irish meat & dairy stereotypes on this side of the pond are black-faced sheep for the former, shaggy cows for the latter — and it’s the dairy we covet and admire.
    My brief scan of global cattle politics reflects your point about EU subsidies and deals. Govs give lip service to herd reduction and offer incentives for increasing production. That the EU is on the brink of ratifying a slimy deal with a trade block headed by right-wing presidents in Argentina and Brazil and fractured by suspensions of Paraguay and Venezuela just sucks. I suspect they’re only holding off until this pesky business about the Amazon gets sorted. Hard to shake hands with Bolinaro when just last Thursday, more than 9,000 new forest fires were spotted in the Amazon basin.
    Which makes your points about grass v rainforest all the more valid. Trees are way better than grasses at the whole carbon processing thing, and NorCal isn’t the only part of the world where native grasses are few and short-lived and non-native grasses require continual nutritional supplementation and irrigation to survive.
    I totes agree. Shop locally, eat seasonally, and stop believing we are somehow entitled to continually forage from every foodstuff the world has to offer.

  12. R Lee Smith August 28, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    After eating out last night it occurred to me that I am part of the problem in another way. We (my wife and I) eat in restaurants too often. Having traveled around the world a bit (a situation which requires that one does not eat at home) the difference in the size of meat servings has been obvious to me since we began travelling. The 4 to 6 oz. portion of beef in Europe and the (bigger is better) 8 to 24 oz. American serving is staggering. Last night (as a direct result of your post) I ordered un tamal de Puerco, un chile relleno y frijoles refritos. Because it is a true Mexican restaurant the refried beans were cooked with lard. Ummm! As far as beef I came off clean. A drastic change from always ordering beef everything. I won’t eat chicken in any form but roasted or baked so will have to give up tacos con carne de res. Eating out in the savage big cities I should be able to figure out similar choices. Anyway it is one small step for mankind. The discussion you have sparked has tickled my conscience. I have no control over the conscience of others but can deal with this using either the hard path (teeth gritting stoicism) or the easier path of padaparama.
    My lovely mate is always reminding me that being aware makes one responsible. Now, being aware of the options and choosing to make this decision means I have a better chance of not finding myself at some future time in the ninth circle of hell pleading for someone to turn down the furnace.
    Another avenue this brings up is the above mentioned small amount we pay for food in the developed world. I have a firm conviction that some equalization of wealth would uncover a plethora of avenues leading to more protection of the environment but let’s leave that for another time.

  13. Risa Aratyr August 28, 2019 @ 6:21 pm

    It’s not just meat. American portions of all foods are giant compared to food portions in the rest of the world, a fact that cements our warranted reputation as gluttons and adds to our national issues with obesity. But I’m doing a virtual face-palm here. How did I manage to write an entire essay on beef consumption without mentioning restaurants?
    I can’t stand behind these statistics (no time to verify), but it’s possible the average restaurant patron consumes about 60% more calories dining out than eating in. Likely 2/3 of executive chefs have copped to serving a steak that was 12 oz or larger (the recommended red-meat serving per meal is 3 oz). And way back in 2006, the American National Heart Lung and Blood Institute claimed most restaurant portions had doubled in calories in the past 20 years.
    You and Dec both neatly filled in another obvious gap I’d left in my diatribe; the (over)developed free world’s free ride in regards to the cost of our food.
    No guilt, no blame for past actions, that’s my motto. But from the responses I’ve received here and elsewhere I am delighted to report that this post has inspired several readers to pay more attention to their food choices and even, in some cases, to take beef right off the menu.

Vegging Out

Write-Minded Comments (13)

Can’t swear to it, but I believe I woke to the connection between meat and climate change about ten years ago, via the “Meat Free Monday” group on Facebook.

While I have hardly been religious about the Monday thing and can’t truly say I’ve been doing my part, no-meat salads are my count-on-it contribution to all potlucks and family dinners.  My breakfasts are meat-free 99.9% of the time.  I periodically throw a meatless dish from my vegetarian days into the dinnertime mix.  I can cater to my vegan friends in style.  And it’s been ages since red meat — among the worst of the climate food-culprits — has been a regular part of my diet.

Though changing the (affluent) world’s carnivorous habits is an uphill battle, those trying to get through to us about the environmental impact of our food choices are not calling it quits.  On the contrary, their warnings are increasingly dire, they’re finding ways to make their messaging more impactful, and — huzzah — their message is finally getting decent exposure.  Barely a day goes by without some major media outlet or other publishing a story on how the meat we eat is killing the planet.

“American as apple pie” the saying goes, but that’s as misleading as it is inaccurate. In ‘Murica, it’s all about the beef.

Cattle, like apples, are not native to this land.  Bison, yes.  Longhorn, Hereford, American Devon, Brahman, any other breed you can think of, no.

Trusting in their God to provide, I suppose, the Pilgrims brought no livestock with them on the Mayflower.  In fact, it was the Wapanoag who provided, but be that as it may, it was 1623, three years after the Mayflower struck Plymouth Rock (metaphorically), that a trio of black cows arrived on the Anne, with more following on the Jacob in 1624.  Almost certainly, these animals were Bó Chiarraí — Kerry Cattle — an ancient and now rare breed of dairy cow.

Long before those ships or beasts reached these shores, Spanish and Portuguese vessels were making regular voyages across the Atlantic.  Starting with Chris Columbus’ 1492 Caribbean landfall, Spanish conquistadores laid claim to and Spanish colonizadores exploited vast areas of the New World (by decimating and oppressing its native peoples) for nearly three-and-a-half centuries.  A whopping 1.86 million Spaniards made the move to the Americas between 1492 and 1832.  And they brought their cattle with them.

The First Mexican Empire, or Virreinato de Nueva España (The Viceroyalty of New Spain) as the Spanish crown liked to call it, was gosh-darn big.

New Spain at its peak

Many of its intendencias (districts, provinces) — like the wide open spaces of Tejas and California’s Sacramento Valley — were prime grazing land.  Perfect for cattle ranching, because cattle are grazers.  As opposed to browsers.

Browsers forage, plucking leaves, bark, soft shoots, fruits, and stems from plants.  Giraffes are browsers.  Moose are browsers, except when they’re grazing water-plants.  Goats are browsers. Some deer are full-time browsers, others split their time between browsing and grazing.

Grazers eat by clipping vegetation — grass, forbs (herbacious flowering plants), leafy weeds — at or near ground level.  Land grazers, that is.  Aquatic grazers, like reef fish and sea urchins, nibble algae from rocks, coral, and the sea bed.

Cattle are gramnivores; grazers that feed primarily on grass.  So are bison, horses, sheep, geese, hippopotamuses, and grasshoppers.  Oh, and giant pandas, with their all-bamboo/all-the-time diet.  Capybaras and rabbits are coprophragous gramnivores . . . it’s a gastrointestinal thing, kinda weird and another story.

Foraging is easier on the environment than grazing, mainly (but not wholly) because grazers tend to need more acreage to sustain them.  How much for an average herd of cattle?  I tried to do the math, but my mind boggled.  Too many variables  What kind of cattle?  Do they graze year-round, or are they fed hay during the winter?  Are they free range cows or prisoners of a corporate cattle farm?

What I can tell you is that cattle have a dietary schedule that would do a hobbit proud.  They eat multiple large meals daily and smaller meals in-between, grazing 6-11 hours a day at a rate of 30-60 bites per minute.  They are selective, and will re-graze areas to keep the grass forever young on a particular patch of pasture.  They avoid areas where they’ve defecated, even when it boasts new plant growth.  They usually ruminate at night, but if they’re eating a lot of mature plants, they’ll ruminate between daytime meals as well.

As for that acreage, best I can determine, a small-time cattle owner — your local, organic neighbor with a few head of grass-fed beef — needs about 20 acres of pasture to feed 11 animals for a year.  That’s 80,937 square meters or 96,800 square yards, the equivalent of 15+ (American) football fields.

Meanwhile, back in old Mexico . . .

From the mid-1700s till about 1820, New Spain’s cattle production boomed in the Southwest and the Big Valley, but there wasn’t much market for the goods.  Mule trains carried the meat, hides, and tallow to Mexico City, returned with supplies, and that was about it.

In the early 1800s, American ships started making it to California ports on a regular basis, American colonists started pouring into Texas en masse, and cattle ranching ceased to be an exclusively Mexican profession.  What really kick-started the meat-on-the-hoof American cattle industry, though, was the Texas Revolution.

In October 1835, after a decade of clashes between Antonio López de Santa Anna’s government and Texans (US settlers craving independence and Tejanos (Texas-Mexicans) craving a return to the more people-friendly Mexican Constitution of 1824), the Texans rebelled.  Catching Santa Anna unprepared, they briefly gained the upper hand.  Vowing revenge, Santa Anna promptly re-captured all he had lost, including the Alamo.

Unwisely relapsing into complacency, Santa Anna failed to notice Sam Houston on the move, training an army — fer reals this time.  His troops were routed and Santa Anna was captured at the Battle of San Jacinto.  In return for his life, he had to order his armies to retreat south of the Rio Grande.

Thing is, the US-settler half of the new Republic of Texas wasn’t just hostile toward the Mexican military.  Betraying all bonds, breaking all promises, they grew suddenly hostile to all Mexicans — even the Tejanos who had been their brothers-in-arms and heroes of the Revolution.  All non-whites had to flee for their lives leaving everything,  including their cattle, behind. 

Ranchos turned into ranches. Vaqueros became buckeroos. Texas cattle kept grazing under new ownership.

Prior to the Texas Revolution, beef wasn’t a big part of the American diet.  Early Americans (the European invaders, not the First Peoples) were notoriously lazy about animal husbandry and agriculture, thanks to a super-abundance of wild game and grain.  Meat-wise, they had turkey, duck, grouse, pheasant, bear, hare, deer, and squirrel, as well as a tasty curlew, now extinct, nicknamed the “doughbird.” This bird was so well-endowed with fat, when shot from the air, it would explode on impact, covering the ground in a greasy meat-paste. 

Eskimo curlew, aka the doughbird

White hunters rarely killed elk, moose, or bison for food. There were so many other options, the labor involved in hauling and skinning big game wasn’t deemed worth it.

Once those US Texans became cattlemen, and especially after the Republic of Texas was annexed to become the 28th State, America started consuming more beef.  His visits to the States left Charles Dickens singularly unimpressed, but he was impressed enough by the American diet to write, “We have had for breakfast, toasts, cakes, a yorkshire pie, a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham and eggs . . .”  When Anthony Trollope was here in 1861, he observed that Americans ate twice as much beef as the Brits.  A 2014 article in The Atlantic entitled “How Americans Got Red Meat Wrong” (wrong about the health risks, not the environment) claims that 150 years ago, American babies were fed beef before they had teeth to chew it.

The size of the American appetite for meat has always been staggering. Citing a 1909 survey of 8,000 city dwellers, food historian Roger Horowitz says the poorest of them devoured 136 lbs. of meat yearly, while the richest put away in excess of 200 lbs.  Averaging it out, I come up with about 175 lbs. of meat per person per year.

Some statistical evidence attests we’re eating less meat these days, and half of it is poultry.  That “half” bit is right, but in their impressive “Per Capita Consumption of Poultry and Livestock, 1960 to Forecast 2020, in Pounds” chart (see it HERE), the National Chicken Council (and who would know better?) projects that we’ll be eating 221 lbs. of meat per person this year, and expects 58 of those pounds will be beef.

What’s the beef with beef?

Cow hooves leave a massive carbon footprint.

Eating a half-pound burger is equivalent to taking your car out for an 81-89 km/50-55 mi spin (320 km/200 mi if we include deforestation and methane in our calculations).  This news was the proverbial last straw for my husband, inspiring him to proclaim he’d eaten his last hamburger.  “Bravo!” I commended him, then got curious about the environmental impact of the other meats he and I love to eat.

The Guardian, 31 May 2018

Beef was a given.  Lamb was no surprise.  But CHEESE?

Made perfect sense once we thought about it.  Whether they are beef cattle or dairy cows, they need to eat, they need to fart, and they need heated barns during the winter months. And whether it’s milk or steak, cattle products come to market on fossil-fuel burning vehicles.

While the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association insists cows make no significant contribution to greenhouse gases, “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” by J. Poore and T. Nemecek — the original source of the graphic above and the most comprehensive analysis to-date of how food production is damaging our planet (read it HERE) — states clearly that the best way to reduce our environmental impact is to cut out meat and dairy.

Meat and dairy account for most of the world’s farmland (83%).  While meat and dairy products provide just 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein, their production is responsible for 60% of global agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  The very recent Climate Change and Land Report (find it HERE) from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns, “Expansion of areas under agriculture and forestry, including commercial production, and enhanced agriculture and forestry productivity . . . have contributed to increasing net GHG emissions . . . loss of natural ecosystems (e.g. forests, savannahs, natural grasslands and wetlands) and declining biodiversity.”

In other words, the mass extinction event we’re currently experiencing — the “biological annihilation” of species, half the world’s wildlife gone in the last 40 years — is in large part a consequence of the loss of wilderness habitats to create pasturage.

If we ditched the meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% (an area the size of China, Australia, the US, and the EU combined), we’d still have the agricultural capacity to feed everyone on the planet, and we wouldn’t be stoking the global-warming furnace with reckless and unceasing abandon.

Still, going cold turkey on meat, bidding a final farewell to butterfat . . . realistically, what are the chances of 7,725,714,250+ people all embracing a vegan lifestyle starting, like, NOW?  It’s more than I can manage, certainly.

But I can — surely we all can — make a few dietary changes.

This food calculator (from an article by Nassos Stylianou, Clara Guibourg, and Helen Briggs – read it HERE) is a brilliant tool for helping well-meaning humans make wise choices to reduce their carbon foodprint.

So whadda ya say we buy local when we can, we give up meat at least once a week, we order the chicken salad instead of the double-hamburger, we eschew farm-raised shrimp, and we serve our guests a yummy, gouda-style goat cheese instead of a cow’s milk cheddar for dessert?

I say, it’s the least we can do.

Risa Aratyr @ August 25, 2019

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