Investigating the “Myth of Sustainable Meat”

James McWilliams recently argued in a New York Times (1) blog post that sustainable farming of meat is a myth. McWillismd firmly believed that the environmental impact of sustainably farmed animals is the same as, if not worse than, their confined, corn fed counterparts living in CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). In particular, the article bashed one of the pioneers in the movement of sustainable, eco-centric farming: Joel Salatin of PolyFace farm (VA). Though I could probably rant for hours about this article, I am instead going to draw on a few key points, referencing both the original article and the rebuttal that was recently published by Joel Salatin himself (2).

The NYT article starts out with an agreeable summary about how the production of animal products is the “epitome of a broken food system” and that, in recent years, people have turned to local, more sustainably and ethically oriented farms to get meat, eggs, and dairy.

That sounds great, right? It makes sense for people to be supporting local farmers if they wish to stand up against all the horrors of factory farm meat.

But apparently, there is a lot wrong with local farms as well. Here are some points made in opposition to the small-scale, sustainable farms like Joel Salatin’s:

  1. Grass grazing cows release more methane than corn fed cows.
  2. Pastured chicken has a 20% greater impact on global warming.
  3. Nutrient cycling is a crock because you end up killing a “perfectly healthy, manure-generating animal”. Thus the nutrient loop of animal to land is open because nutrients leave the farm and enter sewers (from human waste after consuming the animal) and in landfills and plant wastes (from animal carcasses).

Luckily, Joel Salatin has a fair share of rebuttals to the above points:

  1. Methane generated is the same, whether from a cow or the ground. (Fun fact from Joel: 95% of methane emissions come from wetlands!) McWilliams’ “fact” is simply untrue.
  2. “Says who?” writes Joel. The fact of this matter is you have to look at everything that goes into the factory farm: this includes factoring in all the water and land used to farm the feed, the fossil fuel used to truck in that grain and truck out waste, the electricity used in the buildings, etc. Additionally, I had thought about the amount of fossil fuel used to send the meat to slaughtering facilities, processing factories, and to grocery stores (compared with purchasing meat at say, a farmer’s market near your house, the difference must be huge).
  3. Joel argues that this is an all-around faulty argument because local farms do a much better job of closing the nutrient loop than any factory farm ever will (he cites toxic dead zones in the Gulf of New Mexico as the result of growing huge amounts of feed in the Midwest and the waste runoff from animal production facilities).

The NYT article closes with,  “After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.” Though I am vegan and am hugely opposed to animal abuse and the environmental destruction that comes with producing animals for meat, dairy, etc., I highly doubt the world will become entirely vegan any time soon.

I think the author’s “all or nothing” sort of attitude is what annoyed me the most about the article. Though the author was definitely against the current system of producing animals, he simultaneously went out of his way to put down the alternatives (like Polyface farm) by pointing out their faults (many of which were false accusations).

I believe these small farmers, like Joel, are the only ones fighting to actually change the current system. If we don’t support them, how is anything supposed to change? Joel points out in his article just how much he has to fight the current regulations: for example it is against the law to slaughter animals on-site, and it is “logistically impossible” to get waste food scraps from local restaurants, etc., in order to feed to livestock.

Farmers like Joel Salatin are the absolute minority in the current system of agriculture. And that, my friends, is the exact reason why they need our support.


From: Lauren Jeschke ’14
Published: May 6, 2012