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Paleo, Meat, and the Environment

Chicken drumsticks

“Sure, it might be healthy – but it’s unsustainable.”

“Well, you might be losing weight, but you’re wrecking the planet.”

“Paleo is selfish – it’s not sustainable to eat that much meat.”

Sound familiar? It’s not something anyone likes to hear, but it’s an important issue to take on, because if Paleo really is wrecking the planet, we need to do something about it. But as usual, it’s a little bit more nuanced than “meat is unsustainable.” As it turns out, it really depends on what you mean by “meat,” and specifically where you’re getting it from. When it comes to factory farming, the PETA people got it right: it’s a disaster. But PETA activists like to ignore the inconvenient fact that industrial crop production is almost as bad: if we’re looking at environmental villains, tofu should be getting the side-eye just as much as steak.

When you look at grass-fed and pasture-raised animals, the major reasons that meat is “unsustainable” disappear. If we want to stop destroying the planet, we don’t need to all go vegan; we need to ditch industrial ag from the ground up and find a different way of producing enough food.

Meat and Sustainability

Let’s tackle this one right off the bat. Factory-farmed meat is absolutely unsustainable – it is destroying the planet, and we’re fast approaching the day when we won’t be able to ignore it any more. But truly pasture-raised meat is not like factory-farmed meat.

Since beef is regularly at the top of the “meat is unsustainable” hit list, here’s a table comparing factory-farmed and grass-fed beef (most of it is applicable to other animals, too):

  Factory-farmed meat is unsustainable because… Grass-fed meat is different because…
Food for the animals The corn and soy for the animals come from industrial grain farms that destroy local ecosystems, leak pesticides into the air and water, and require mass quantities of ecologically dangerous fertilizers. Grass on a pasture doesn’t require anything like the environmental destruction needed for a corn field.
Land that grows the food The resources put into food for factory-farmed cows could have been used to grow food for humans. Instead, they’re being used very inefficiently to grow food for cows – the animals are a kind of middleman. Most pasture land isn’t arable in the first place, so you couldn’t grow crops on it anyway. Pasturing cows on this land is adding to the net food supply, because it’s using land that otherwise couldn’t be used to produce food.
Effects on soil Industrial agriculture strips land of nutrients and degrades the soil. Since 1960, the US has lost half of its topsoil, and 90% of our agricultural land is losing topsoil at an unsustainable rate. Grazing cows on pasture improves soil quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Water use 85% of water use in the United States goes to agriculture. Animal protein requires 100 times more water, per calorie, than plant protein. This is mostly used to grow feed for the animals; only a very tiny percentage is water for the animals to drink. With no water used to grow corn and soy to feed the animals, pasture-raised meat takes a much smaller toll on fresh water supplies.
Transportation and fossil fuel use Factory farming uses a lot of fossil fuels just in transportation. After being grown, corn or soy destined for feed has to be trucked out to a feed manufacturer. Then it’s processed and put on a truck again to the feedlots. Rather obviously, this is not exactly the best thing we could be doing for the planet. Pastured cows do eat some forage, but for the most part, the grass is already in the pasture and doesn’t need to be trucked anywhere. This dramatically cuts down on fossil fuel use.
Feedlots and biohazardous waste Feedlots produce massive amounts of manure and other waste, which often carries dangerous pathogens thanks to the crowded and unsanitary conditions that the cows live in. If there’s a flood or a storm, this can leak out into nearby rivers (killing all the fish and potentially making humans sick as well). There’s currently a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to pollution from toxic manure from factory farms. The manure from the cows fertilizes the grass that they eat, eliminating (a) the need for dangerous industrial fertilizers, and (b) the risk of a flood of feces-borne E. Coli suddenly being dumped into the environment.
Antibiotic resistance Use of low-dose antibiotics as growth promoters provides perfect conditions for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow (and then make humans sick). Antibiotic resistance is a much smaller issue, as antibiotics are used only if an animal gets sick, not as growth promoters.

 The Methane Questionbeef cuts

One more issue deserves a special mention: the question of methane.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, so environmentally-friendly food should produce as little methane as possible. It’s true that grass-fed cows produce more methane – it’s a by-product of fermenting the fiber in their diet, so the more fibrous plant material they eat, the more methane they’ll produce. If you just stop there, it looks almost like grass-fed meat is worse for the planet. But consider that…

Raising beef on pasture isn’t totally perfect, but overall, grass-fed cows still come out on top.

Meat is Not Unsustainable. Grains are Unsustainable.

If you look down all those reasons why factory-farmed meat is unsustainable, you’ll notice that a lot of them have at least something to do with:

Neither one of these objections applies to meat raised on pasture.

Factory-farmed meat just magnifies the problems with industrially-grown grains. In the United States, livestock consumes about 7 times more grains than humans do. 1 pound of beef requires several pounds of grains to produce – and the pound of beef is ecological problem partly because those several pounds of grains are unsustainable. The root problem is the grains. Factory-farmed meat just magnifies all the problems of industrial grain and soy monoculture.

You could set up a slightly less unsustainable system by feeding those monoculture crops directly to humans – from the perspective of calorie production, it’s more efficient to eat grains directly than to feed them to cows and then eat the cows. But even without getting into the human health problems that would cause, from an environmental perspective it’s still only less-bad. To get anything close to “good,” we’d have to ditch the giant monoculture farms completely, and go for a radically different model of agriculture that looks a lot closer to the “grass-fed” side of the column.

That’s where the vegan argument breaks down. Sure, factory-farmed meat is environmentally indefensible. Nobody’s seriously arguing with that. But it’s indefensible partly because it requires growing mass quantities of corn and soy, not because there’s anything inherently unsustainable about raising animals for food.

Summing it Up

Meat isn’t unsustainable; factory farming is unsustainable.

The typical critiques of meat just don’t apply  if you’re eating truly grass-fed meat from farms that don’t use the industrial-agriculture blueprint. As long as “vegan” means “I eat primarily wheat and soy products from giant industrial farms,” going vegan is not going to save the planet. What we really need is to get out of the industrial model completely, and find ways to raise animals and plants together, the way animals and plants naturally live in real ecosystems. This would eliminate the problems of growing mass quantities of feed crops, and also the ecological damage of the factory farms themselves (the manure runoff, for example). The poster child for this is Polyface Farms, but there are plenty of other small farmers out there working on a similar model.

You can argue whether or not it’s politically possible to get rid of corn and soy subsidies and replace all those amber waves of grain with real food, but the point stands that the knee-jerk environmentalist critique of meat just doesn’t apply well to a model outside the industrial system – and that includes Paleo. So if we’re talking Paleo and sustainability, it’s time to let go of arguments that aren’t relevant, and start focusing on the more useful questions: what kind of changes would it take to feed the world pasture-raised meat? What can we actually do about it? Those are the questions we need to be thinking about, and we’ll never get there if we’re all just stuck in the “meat is bad” rut.