There’s a lot to think about when you’re considering what to have for supper: the cost; your health; the production impact on wildlife, and the environment; ethical questions on the treatment of animals. Now we’re being asked to think about climate change too, especially when it comes eating beef and dairy products.
I respect people who have seriously thought all of this through and become vegetarian or vegan based on what they see as unnecessary cruelty to animals. The rest of us however need to think a little harder.
We’ve been told over and over about the amount of damaging methane produced by cattle belching. Researchers say it accounts for about 14% of greenhouse gas production worldwide (transportation is 20%). A handful of executive chefs at Michelin Star restaurants are responding by taking beef off the menu, and of course making headlines. Just last week the extraordinary climate campaigner Greta Thunberg called for people to stop eating meat and move to a plant based diet.
"Our relationship with nature is broken. But relationships can change” says Thunberg on social media. I respectfully think a purely plant based diet will create other environmental problems we don’t want, but I’m glad she talked about nature, what’s natural. It gives us another way into this discussion.
For thousands of years hunter-gatherers joined other predators to survive by killing herbivores, animals with a unique digestive system that allowed them to extract energy and nutrition from plants, especially grasses, something humans can’t do. They do this using a rumen, an organ filled with bacteria that breaks down cellulose. The rumen is in fact the source of the methane we worry about now.
The action of animals with hooves foraging on grasslands made small indentations in the ground that captured moisture. The herbivores also added manure supplying nutrients to help the plants thrive. It was a highly sustainable ecosystem and was really how cattle were traditionally raised on farms with the manure also going to fertilize other crops.
This changed in my lifetime with the development of feedlots in the 1950’s. This industry, with feed brought to cattle squeezed into pens, was more efficient and cheap beef fuelled the development of the fast food restaurants and everything that followed. These big feedlots continue to be centered in western Canada with the Maritimes still linked to more traditional methods of raising cattle.
It’s this critical link to grass and the importance of manure to maintaining soil health that we need to pay attention to. PEI is a textbook case of soils degrading after half the beef industry was lost following the mad cow scare in 2003. Manure became scarce and farmers had less reason to grow grass and forages as rotations shifted to soybean and corn. Organic matter levels fell and are just now starting to rebound.
It’s the soils we have to think about as plant based meat substitutes become more popular. Stable, CO2 absorbing pastures get plowed up to produce the pea and soy protein needed for the Beyond Meats of the world. Soil erosion, nitrate leaching, all of the negatives tied to row crop production come into play. Is that what we want on a massive scale?
We’re fortunate in the Maritimes to have Atlantic Beef, which supports small and medium sized producers in the region. The cheap calories from the fast food industry won’t soon disappear, but as consumers we can make better choices with beef produced locally.
And there’s another local link to improving beef production. For decades, PEI dairy farmer Joe Dorgan told anyone who would listen that feeding seaweed to cattle makes them healthier. Researchers elsewhere are now astounded discovering that small amounts of the right varieties of seaweed added to cattle feed virtually eliminates methane production. The idea is quickly being commercialized. I hope Joe gets some recognition.
We also need to be wary of getting caught up in the Bay-Wall Street euphoria of new plant-based companies. They’re attracting billions in investments, branding themselves as climate change fighters. I’m not condemning the genuine effort by many to make things better, but when the share values and celebrity endorsements get more media attention than how these products are being produced I get suspicious.
And finally let’s be grateful that unlike the millions who live with food insecurity every day we get to think about environmental, nutritional, and ethical concerns. That’s a privilege many don’t have, and we need to get this right.