bookcoverIntroduction

Sacred Cow:  The Case for (Better) Meat by Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf is a book (and forthcoming film) challenging what has become conventional wisdom:  that regardless of how it is raised, beef is bad for the planet.  It takes a holistic and science-based view of the issues associated with meat and forms them into a coherent argument that regeneratively-grazed animals are important for our diets and the planet.  As they put it: “It’s not the cow.  It’s the how”.   Disclosure:  Rodgers is a registered dietitian and nutritionist who owns an organic vegetable farm and raises some livestock.  Wolf is the best-selling author of  the book The Paleo Solution.

Sacred Cow examines the issue in three parts:  nutrition, environment, and ethics.  The book covers a lot of ground.  There is no way I can adequately summarize everything, so I will focus primarily on the environment section, which I think will be of most interest to Resilience readers.

Part I:  Nutrition

The debate around plant-based vs. omnivorous diets has raged for some time and will continue to do so, which is one reason I don’t want to get into a lot of detail about the book’s take on the subject.  Suffice it to say, the authors don’t discourage plant-based diets and feel that diet is a personal choice.  They agree that plants are an important component of the human diet, but feel strongly that plants alone cannot adequately meet the nutrition needs of most people.  Their argument rests on the higher risk and incidence of nutrient deficiencies in people on plant-based diets, and there is science to support their position.  My science background and naturally skeptical nature always leads me to check citations in books and do a little extra poking around in the academic literature.  My conclusion is that they make sound arguments.

One thing I was glad to see them discuss is the problems and challenges of nutrition research which lead to a lot of inaccuracies in the messages we get about what to eat.  Coincidentally, I have been looking into this area myself for the past couple of years, and it has been a very enlightening experience.  Much of what we are told about nutrition is based on observational studies, which the authors correctly note are a weak form of science.  The only thing that observational studies can do is show correlation and they are notoriously inaccurate (they are actually wrong 80% of the time1).  Only controlled trials can show causation, yet the studies behind the headlines suggesting we eat less red meat or adopt plant-based diets are dominated by observational studies.  Controlled dietary trials are difficult to do, but they have been done and they often tell a different story.

One controlled trial the book discusses is the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, which involved over 9,000 adults between 1969 and 1973.  The trial found no association between saturated fat and heart disease, and to the surprise of the researchers, found an increase in all-cause mortality in those who replaced saturated fat in their diets with mono- and polyunsaturated vegetable oils.  The story behind this study is both fascinating and frustrating.  Its findings were suppressed for years then misrepresented when it was first published.   This point is not mentioned by the authors of Sacred Cow,  but the study is part of a growing body of evidence forming an indictment against the U.S. dietary guidelines.  I encourage others to learn about it, and the book provides a good introduction to it.

Part II:  The Environment

This section of the book is sure to raise a lot of eyebrows and even create some anger, because much of what they say runs counter to the popular narratives about beef and climate change, water use, land use, and other environmental issues.  What they conclude is that the science behind what we’ve been told about the environmental impacts of beef is often inaccurate or incomplete and digging deeper tells a different story.  Their solution to the problems created by conventional beef and other livestock production is a large-scale shift to regenerative grazing methods, which produces an array of environmental benefits.

Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gas emissions claims about beef begin with the the 2006 United Nations study:  “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which made the claim that livestock is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions and exceed that of the transportation sector.  However, the study had a major flaw in that it compared life-cycle emissions from livestock with direct (tailpipe) emissions from the transportation sector.  This is not a scientifically proper comparison.  A proper comparison would look at either the direct emissions of both or the life-cycle emissions of both.  The authors of the study realized their mistake and retracted it, but that 18% figure still remains a commonly held belief today.

A full life-cycle analysis of the transportation sector has never been done and would very likely reveal that the transportation sector’s impact on emissions is huge because it would have to include emissions associated with oil exploration, production and refining, as well as upstream inputs that go into the manufacture and maintenance of transportation vehicles.  Nevertheless, direct emissions are all we have to compare and direct emissions put livestock’s greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. at roughly 2% to 3% and global emissions at about 5%.

The majority of greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture are actually the result of soil carbon loss from plowing.  This leads to a key point of the book, and a point which is widely shared:  restoring soil carbon is key to addressing climate change.  Soil holds four times the carbon of trees and three times that of the atmosphere itself.  We need to put 700 gigatons of carbon back into the soil if we are to have any hope of reversing climate change, and the most effective way to build soil carbon is through the regenerative grazing of ruminants.

Regarding the methane question, a 2018 NASA study concluded that the largest methane contributions to the atmosphere attributable to agriculture are actually from fossil fuels, cutting trees, and rice farming, not belching cattle (I will add here that paleo-climate research has revealed that when humans began cultivating rice, it did, in fact, have a global effect on the climate).  According to a recent U.S. EPA study, the largest methane emissions in the U.S. come from transportation (28.5%), energy (28.4%) and industry (21.6%).  Total livestock emissions account for 3.9%, with beef’s portion about half of that (2%).

Also not considered when discussing methane and beef is the loss of wild ruminant populations (such as bison, pronghorn, elk, and mule deer in North America).  Not only is the methane they emit part of a natural cycle, it has been sharply reduced as a source, so we need to ask what the net effect on the atmosphere is from the domesticated ruminants that have replaced the wild ones.  Wild ruminant methane emissions in pre-settlement North America were 82% of today’s combined emissions from domestic and wild ruminants.

Regenerative grazing for cattle does, in fact, make a difference.  They cite a recent study by Michigan State University that shows how regenerative grazing produces beef that is a net greenhouse gas sink.  They also refer to a soon-to-be-published life-cycle analysis of emissions from a burger made from conventional beef, a burger from beef raised using regenerative methods on White Oak Pastures Farms in Georgia, and two well-known plant-based burgers:  Beyond Burgertm  and Impossible Burgertm.  The results are surprising2.  While they are still net-positive emitters, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger had much smaller greenhouse gas footprints than conventional beef, which is to be expected, but the White Oak Pastures burger had net-negative emissions.  In fact, in order to offset the emissions from eating one Impossible or Beyond Burger, you would have to eat one White Oak Pastures burger.

Another interesting point the authors raise is that a substantial portion of a cow goes to an array of non-food products that are not considered in emissions calculations such as leather, soaps, fertilizers, medicines, cosmetics, and more.  Every part of a cow gets used, but emissions are typically assigned only to the muscle and ground beef products which are most commonly consumed.  The authors argue, and quite rightly, that those advocating for the elimination of beef must include in any life-cycle analysis the emissions from all of the products that would be needed to replace what we are currently getting from cows, yet this has not been done.

Grain Production

While it is widely believed that most corn and soy production is going to to feed cattle, this is in fact not the case.  Most corn is going to ethanol production (both fuel and beverages), and most corn and soy for animal feed is being fed to industrially-raised chickens and pigs, not cattle.  The digestive systems of ruminants simply cannot handle too much grain, so the majority of their diets consist of grass, hay, and crop residues.  Contrary to popular belief, even feedlot cattle spend most of their lives on pasture eating grass.  They are only at a feedlot for the last few months of their lives.  While at the feedlot, most their diet is a variety of crop residues and spent grains from ethanol production.  Over their lifetime, cattle get about 10% of their diet from grain.

Water Use

Water consumption required for beef production is another area where a closer look at the science is needed.  Water usage statistics for cattle tend to consider all of the precipitation that falls on pastures as going to beef production, not what cattle actually consume.  Also not considered are the fact that cattle return 30% of the water they consume to the land via urine and manure.  When calculated properly, it takes 280 gallons of water to produce one pound of conventional beef and 50 to 100 gallons for grass-finished beef.  Rice on the other hand requires to 410 gallons per pound with similar amounts for avocados, walnuts, and sugar.

Another important point is that crop irrigation accounts for 70% of the world’s fresh water withdrawals with 30% going to the cultivation of rice, whereas regenerative grazing increases water retention and infiltration.  In areas such as North America’s Great Plains where the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted to irrigate crops, we should be asking ourselves whether it’s wise to grow crops in this region instead of  raising cattle using regenerative methods.

Land Use

The authors argue that there is enough land to raise all of the cattle in the U.S. on pasture, even when the fact that grass-fed cattle don’t weigh as much as feedlot cattle is taken into account.  Because regenerative grazing practices are not yet widely used, current pasture lands are only being used at 30% of capacity.  This is because regenerative grazing allows for higher production rates.  Second, the practice of pasture-cropping adds more available land for grazing.  Pasture-cropping uses cattle to graze crop residues after harvest. This has add-on benefits of reducing herbicide and fertilizer inputs during the growing season as the cattle graze down the field stubble and other plants and add their manure to the soil.  This is particularly useful for farmers practicing no-till methods which generally require more herbicides than tilling.  Pasture-cropping can be more widely used than it is currently.

It also must be considered that 60 to 70% of all agricultural lands on the planet are best suited for grazing, not cultivation.  Of the land on the planet suited for growing crops, 1/3 of it is degraded.  In drier areas, the figure is 70%.  Regenerative grazing is an effective tool to restore degraded lands.  Not discussed in the book, but will be in the forthcoming film, is an initiative that is using regenerative grazing to restore one million acres of the Chihuahuan Desert to its original grasslands state.

Lab-grown Meat

While advocates for lab-grown meat suggest it is more sustainable than raising cattle, the authors do not agree, especially when compared to regenerative grazing.  They acknowledge that raising meat requires a lot of energy; however, regeneratively-grazed cattle produce meat using solar energy captured by the plants on which they graze.  Lab meat, on the other hand, requires a complex industrial process with significant energy inputs for the factories used to produce the meat and the manufacture of  its various inputs.  It requires a growth media which is made from corn and soy, and unless cultivation practices are changed, lab meat is not going to improve soil health.

Part III: Ethics

The authors admit that a discussion about the ethics of eating animals is more subjective compared to nutrition and the environment.  They believe that, as currently discussed, the ethics issue is over-simplified and stems from  the separation from nature and death humans have experienced in modern societies.  The authors see complexity in death and feel those those who say “No meat no matter what” don’t see the complexity.

While their discussion includes the basic question of whether or not it is ethical to kill and eat a living animal, it goes beyond that and makes a case that modern food production is wrought with ethical conflicts and animal deaths that are typically ignored by those who argue against eating animals.  I’ll offer just a few examples:

  • Animals die no matter what we do to produce food and far more animals die from row crop agriculture than most people realize. Animals are also killed in large numbers around granaries, food storage facilities, and restaurants.  A huge number of insects are killed by pesticides, including beneficial ones.  It is illogical to ignore these animal deaths or separate them from those that occur from the consumption of meat animals.
  • Palm oil is considered a vegan food yet the industry is responsible for the destruction of three football fields of forest every hour and is endangering orangutans and other large mammals. The industry also uses child labor.
  • Most produce is picked with low-paid and often mistreated migrant labor, including that of children. Should this escape conversations about meat and ethics as it typically does?
  • It is privileged, largely White, well-fed people who can avoid nutrient-dense food like meat. Some areas of the globe cannot avoid meat because not all areas have access to high quality crop land and only have land suitable for raising animals.  Adopting a vegan diet would make these populations dependent upon food imports.  How ethical is it to take away their food sovereignty?
  • Is a food really vegan if it, like in the case of banana production, results in the aerial spraying of carcinogenic chemicals that land on local villages and schools?

Conclusion

I have to give the authors credit for wading into this controversial topic.  I feel they did a good job of examining the issue in a rational manner and breaking it down for a wide audience.  They also made an effort to keep their scientific arguments sound.  A good example, but not the only one, is that they wanted to be able to document the source of the claim many of us have heard that we have 60 years of topsoil left.  They agree that topsoil loss is a very serious problem and just wanted to be able to cite the root science of the claim.  What they discovered; however, is that there is no published science behind the number.  It appears the only source of the number is an off-the-cuff remark by a UN official at a conference.

My quibbles with the book are minor, few, and involve issues that are tangential to the main theme of the book.  I do not feel those quibbles detract from the message in any way.  I will;  however, discuss one quibble that will be of interest to regular readers of Resilience:  peak oil.

The authors mention peak oil but have the common misunderstanding that it’s about running out of oil.  Those of us familiar with the subject know that peak oil concerns have never been about running out, but about flow-rates of cheap, conventional oil (which have in fact peaked), the declining energy return on energy invested of oil, particularly of the unconventional oil sources we are increasingly reliant on, and the consequences of that.  Regular readers of Resilience need no further explanation here.  Their misunderstanding of peak oil does not, in my view, invalidate in any way the central arguments of the book.

My only regret about this review is the amount of information I had to leave out.  I highly recommend Sacred Cow:  The Case for (Better) Meat for anyone who wants to make their diet more climate-change friendly or is interested in building a resilient, regenerative food system.

Notes 

  1. Stanley Young, Stanley S., Karr, Alan, “Deming, Data and Observational Studies: A Process Out of Control and Needing Fixing,” Royal Statistical Society, https://rss.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2011.00506.x, accessed 8/13/20.
  2. E. Rowntree et al., “Ecosystem Impact and Productive Capacity of a Multi-species Pastured Livestock System”, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (In review, 2020). The source of the comparison between White Oak Pastures and the Impossible and Beyond Burgers appears to be a life-cycle analysis paid for by General Mills, the food conglomerate that makes highly processed, grain-based foods.  It can be found here: http://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/blog/carbon-negative-grassfed-beef