by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
In this most recent Future of Food article, Robert Kunzig—senior environmental editor for National Geographic—explores the Carnivore’s Dilemma (or, as I would comically rephrase it: How I Decided to Embrace the Feedlot System and Love Industrial Beef). Kunzig’s guiding question is one that asks whether it’s ok for Americans to eat beef, given what we know about expected population growth, rising global demand for meat, the associated and/or potential environmental and health implications of industrial meat production and livestock’s contributions to global warming. In attempting to arrive at a deeper understanding of this question, Kunzig spent one week in Texas amongst the cowboys, the nutritionists, the veterinarians and the higher-up executives of Cactus Feeders and its subsidiary, Wrangler Feedyard.
In Texas, the number of calves born each year outnumbers babies by a ratio of 10:1, while feedlots the size of Wrangler tend to ship, on average, one million head of cattle to slaughter. The existence of such industrial operations has secured the United States’ place as the world’s leader in both meat production and consumption. Last year, each American consumed an average of 54 pounds of beef, while only allocating 11 percent of their income towards food purchases (though I’ve come across numerous sources—notably, The Economist—that put this number closer to 6 percent). This is to say that we’re able to eat a lot of meat, for not a lot of money. Indeed, that appears to have been the point. Paul Engler, CEO of Cactus Feeders, recounts how his father, who founded the business in 1975, envisioned a world where beef was cheap enough for all. Considering that in 2013, the U.S. produced the same amount of beef as in 1976 but did so by slaughtering 10 million fewer cattle, the elder Engler appears to have gotten his wish.
Efficiency is the commonly held goal amongst the Wranglers and the Cactus Feeders of the world. Cactus’ creed says it all: “Conversion of Feed Energy Into the Maximum Production of Beef at the Lowest Possible Cost.” Indeed, the consensus amongst those that Kunzig cites throughout the article confirms that this level of efficiency is paramount if the U.S. is to meet the rising demand for meat across the globe—a responsibility that Kunzig adopts from the article’s onset. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a place for anything but industrial production in this most humble of quests. Other types of systems appear unable to keep up with the amount of beef needed to satiate demand. Jason Clay, a food expert with World Wildlife Fund, confirms this suspicion, stating: “Feedlots are better than grass fed, no question.” Clay insists that what we really need to do is intensify—to produce more with less.
When it comes to the question of emissions, industrial production systems come out on top again. Pointing to data collected by scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kunzig explains that cows allowed to graze on pasture produce twice as much methane as their commercially raised counterparts. With more time to belch, expel waste and gain weight, these cows appear to do little more than contribute to global warming. In terms of livestock-related emissions in general, however, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that we needn’t be very worried. At present, beef production accounts for 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to abstain from beef entirely, we’d see a reduction in emissions of less than 6 percent. This is because the fertilizer and fossil fuels used in producing and shipping grain would continue to contribute to emissions, since farmers would keep growing grain. But what if Americans in particular ate less beef? Would there then be more grain with which to “feed the world?” The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) used an economic model of the world food system to ask this question and found that, apart from minor benefits, the impact on global food security would be minimal at best. Basically, if Americans were to eat less beef, American farmers would be less likely to export wheat and rice—two staples in the global food chain—to Asia and Africa.
At this point, it appears that Kunzig’s question—can Americans keep eating beef?—has a favorable answer. However, we’ve now reached the topic of sustainability. If feedlots are the model through which we’re to feed ourselves as well as the rest of the world, we must ask how sustainable they are. Kunzig states that this question is too complex to really address in this space, which I think speaks to the major limitations of this piece in general. He does take the time to mention concerns about antibiotic use in feedlots and their possible connection to the development of antibiotic resistance in humans. The environment gets a few sentences, mainly relating to the unclear effects the excretion of antibiotics might have on the environment, and the very real possibility that grain production might succeed in exhausting the Ogallala aquifer by the end of the 21st century.
When all is said and done, however, Kunzig’s conclusion is basically this: “Here’s the inconvenient truth: Feedlots, with their troubling use of pharmaceuticals, save land and lower greenhouse gas emissions.” What Kunzig doesn’t say in this space says quite a lot. He breezes over the issue of ethics and animal welfare when it comes to beef production, and his discussion of the local environmental impacts of feedlots is virtually non-existent. What strikes me most, however, is that despite discussing in detail the various cocktails of hormones, steroids and antibiotics required to keep feedlot cows healthy and able to digest a diet that they’re unable to process naturally, Kunzig doesn’t discuss the superficiality that has become inherent in this type of system. If feedlots are, as this article suggests, the way to ensure that the world gets its meat, then these questions cannot be so quickly overlooked. Kunzig expresses his wish that Americans would stop “reducing complex social problems…to morality tales populated by heroes and villains.” While I agree that too often food system discussions devolve into this “easy way out” conclusion, Kunzig seems to paint a picture that, to people who are concerned with and widely read on this issue, does not give equal weight to all of the major concerns.
I encourage you to sit down with this article and consider your own reactions, but for now, I’ll leave you with mine. In their current state, feedlot systems strike me as far from sustainable. In order to keep pace with global demand, production would need to be scaled way up, which, to put it mildly, concerns me. Alternative production systems are only mentioned in detail towards the end of the article—and briefly, at that—and yet there is great potential in smaller scale grass-based systems, like what we at Harmony Valley are committed to, and in management intensive grazing systems. These models are almost certainly accompanied by an ecological component, in which the environment and the animals themselves are afforded a considerable degree of consideration. While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of Black Earth Meats, a nearby slaughterhouse that is humane-handling certified and that works with farmers committed to such alternative systems. The contrast between their creed and Cactus Feeders’, which I stated earlier, could not be more stark: “We Honor These Animals, for By Their Death, We Gain Life.” Efficiency is still a concern—after all, everyone needs to make a living. The difference here is that it’s obviously not the be-all end-all goal. I think it is a mistake to conclude that industrial feedlot systems are the only way in which to meet global demand for meat, and I would go as far as to say that attempting to do so would be a deeply regrettable and environmentally costly mistake. You can read the full article online at www.food.nationalgeographic.com.