If We All Stopped Eating Beef, What Would Happen to the Land?


The indictment of cattle as environmental polluters is correct with respect to factory meat farms, but completely mistaken as to cattle raised the old fashioned way – on grasslands, grazing as in nature.

NOTE: This article initially was published to Popular Science (PopSci.com) on October 31, 2017

Does #NoRedOctober make sense?

When the land down the road from Lorraine Lewandrowski’s home in New York State’s Herkimer county was sold, it was bought by developers who turned the land into a subdivision.

“The people who bought the lots from us were nice enough, and they all told me that they wanted to be out in the country,” says Lewandrowski a lawyer and a dairy farmer in Central New York. “But they couldn’t grasp what they were doing. The meadows that were alive with little bird fledglings the developers were plowing under to make these 10 acre lawns.”

It’s hard to argue that that was an ecological improvement over the land’s previous incarnation as a farm.

For the past month, many Popular Science staff members have engaged in No Red October in which they eschewed eating beef. The reason was not masochism but environmentalism: livestock accounts for 12-percent of global climate change emissions. And beef—which requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce chicken or pork while emitting five times more climate-changing emissions—seems like a natural place to cut back. Especially since Americans annually eat 54 pounds of beef, or a little more than a pound a week.

Let’s say we went a little more drastic, and we all gave up eating beef overnight. What would that actually do to the ecology of the land, and to the rural communities built around agriculture? Would the resulting change really be a good thing?

Nicolette Hahn Niman doesn’t have a problem with people giving up beef for a month—that probably isn’t going to make much of an impact on farm economies. And there’s something to be said about giving up anything for a while that makes us more conscious of what we’re consuming.

“What troubles me is the repetition sort of ad nauseam is that cattle are inherently problematic for the environment and that the best thing we can do is give up beef,” says Hahn Niman. For years, Hahn Niman was an environmental lawyer working with the environmental non-profit Waterkeeper Alliance. As part of that role she was tasked with looking at the environmental impact that livestock, including beef, had on water systems. She looked at the scientific research, traveled all over the country visiting farms, flew over farm operations, and essentially went down the cattle rabbit hole for two years. Her work eventually culminated in the book Defending Beef. Hahn Niman, a vegetarian, also became a rancher herself after marrying Bill Niman the well-known founder of Niman Ranch (which is now owned by Perdue).

“The more time I spent with it, the more time I spent on farms, the more I became convinced the real question is how livestock are produced not whether they’re produced,” says Hahn Niman. She says telling people to simply stop eating beef is an oversimplification of the issue.

Is this the face of ecological destruction? – DEPOSIT PHOTOS

Take for example the statistic that it takes 11 times more water to raise cattle than to raise pork or chicken. That number doesn’t take into consideration what kind of water is being used. It makes a huge difference if that water is irrigated water, pulled up from groundwater supplies or if it’s just rain water that would naturally occur on a grassland anyway. New York State is relatively wet and has an abundant amount of naturally occurring grassland which is great for grazing and making hay. Because of that, in 2012 the United States Department of Agriculture, along with Cornell Cooperative Extension created a report titled Green Grass, Green Jobs which calls for increasing livestock production in the state.

Similarly, just like all water isn’t the same, land varies too. A large chunk of America’s agricultural lands are grasslands which aren’t suitable for growing much other than grass. Grass is great for ruminants like cows and sheep but less great for people, who can’t actually eat grass.

“Let’s say you drove every rancher in the US off the land. What would happen to the 600 million acres of grazing land?” asks Lewandrowski. “Would it be a Disneyland kind of thing where bison and antelope just take over?”

And, points out Lewandrowski, what would happen to those communities? As farms have consolidated many have been ploughed under to create subdivisions—or, as they’re referred to out west, ranchettes—that fragment ecosystems and are harder on the land. At the same time, when ranchers and farmers suffer economic distress, it dissolves the ties that hold their communities together and themselves. From the droughts in India to the milk crisis of 2010 it’s not uncommon, and incredibly unfortunate for farmers to deal with the dissolution of their livelihoods – and the mounting debts that it creates—by committing suicide. As we lose farms, rural communities lose the economic engine that holds their community together.

“If I said to you what if I got rid of every teacher or any other profession in the United States there’d be an uproar,” said Lewandrowski. “But if I said let’s get rid of every rancher in this country, there are people who are like, ‘oh it would be a good thing.’”
What Lewandrowski is getting at is a real divide between people making the decisions and those who are actually producing our food. And the two sides are generally not talking to each other. Lewandrowski notes that farmers are often excluded from conferences that discuss the future of food and its relationship to climate change.

None of this is to say that when it comes to agriculture, that the status quo is fine.

“There’s an enormous problem with the food system and the way it’s impacting the environment,” says Hahn Niman. “We know in the United States that the number one source of water contamination is from agriculture. There’s a lot of data that the food sector is contributing to climate change in various ways.”

The problem comes from distilling the solution down to a single consumer action, instead of recognizing and fixing the broader system. That means repairing the relationship between purchasers and producers, adjusting feeding operations to be more humane, and literally getting down into the dirt.

“I am increasingly convinced the cornerstone of building or rebuilding a sustainable food system is really about soil health and specifically the biology of the soil and that everything goes up from there,” says Hahn Niman.

The reason is simple – healthy soil is both a sign of sustainable practices and a contributor to a healthy food system. Healthy soils require fewer synthetic fertilizers, for example. And it’s these synthetic fertilizers that contribute so greatly to the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Healthy soils require different grazing practices that move cattle along from region to region. And studies show that when practices like these are employed, that the land itself is healthier. Even the report Livestock’s Long Shadow from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which kicked off much of this debate acknowledged that where you have grazing animals you have more biodiversity, and more water in the system.”

This does nothing, of course, to answer the question of whether or not you should eat less beef. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the wrong question. Perhaps, the better question to ask is: do you know the source of your food? And let everything else fall from there.

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
  • Nobody wants to get to know their food source, know their farmers or ranchers anymore. And those that want to do away with beef, don’t eat it & don’t care what happens to the rancher, their families or the communities they are in. They don’t care what happens to the land either. They mostly assume that it’ll heal & be better without the cattle on it & have absolutely no clue as what it truly takes to raise cattle, who in their opinions, should be “Free”.
    Also…..out west…..a subdivision is a subdivision & when it is built upon a farm field..its a HUGE loss to the community.
    A Ranchette isn’t a subdivision….is a large lot that ruined good farm or ranch land.
    And its the fault of the small towns/small cities that spread their area of impact to encompass farms/ranches, wipe them out by re-zoning into commercial, to keep it from what had been for 70-100 years from staying that way & unfortunately, a lot of the older generations know that their kids or grandkids won’t carry on, so they sell it to a contractor for subdivisions.
    We’re losing our way of life, our connection to our food, our neighbors & the environment & they call it “progress”.

    • I am an oil man and real estate developer so take these comments in that context. Take a look at these two developments of ranches owned by our family for generations.

      Cordillera Ranch is the highest value residential community in the greater San Antonio area. We have 8800 acres in a gated community: http://www.cordilleraranch.com

      Plum Creek is a 2400 acre mixed-use development at Kyle Texas, between San Antonio and Austin. Thousands of people live in traditional neighborhood design subdivision. We have hospitals, a community college, the best elementary, middle and highs schools in most of Texas, and beautifully developed infrastructure: http://plumcreektx.com

      I cannot agree that either of these projects represent a loss to the community. This is because economic growth is good not bad. In Texas many farms and ranches lie in the path of urban growth. Stating this differently people from all over the United States are moving to Texas and want to live in cities like Austin and San Antonio. In doing this they are exercising their rights and the cities themselves are thriving as a result.

      In the meantime I completely agree that most rural development is a blight. This is true in far-West Texas and southern New Mexico. Among several reasons for the blight are that: (1) conservative ranchers view zoning restrictions as a left-wing conspiracy against their property rights, and (2) the working class citizens view it as a trick by rich people to keep them from owning affordable housing and other cheap structures. Both sides need to quit blaming others for what amounts to a failure of civics, in which all are complicit.

      I also agree that the hostility of the feds to Western public land ranchers poses a threat to our precious ranching culture. I am hopeful that we have seen a change of attitude with the new administration.

      I tell my ranching friends that the most important profit they will ever earn is the appreciation of their land, and that whatever they do to their ranch should add value to an eventual sale to an amenity user. If they are fortunate enough to be in the path of urban growth then they should avoid any action that would limit their ability to monetize the value of their land by conversion to a higher use (as we use that term in real estate).

      Those who love the land and want to make more money can reinvest profits from such actions in other ranch land – often using tax deferral to avoid tax. There are hundreds of millions of acres of degraded rangeland – public and private – which can be purchased/leased and revived, with great profit to the owner who is farsighted enough to employ restorative agricultural practices to make this happen.

      So let me suggest, as someone who respects and shares your love of the land: Don’t think of your land as a shrine to dead relatives or the final stop in your family’s journey to prosperity. Treat it respectfully; when, as a result of stewardship and/or luck it has become too valuable to continue in the way that you have been using it, cash in and move on to another transaction. Life is a series of steps, don’t be afraid to take them.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  • In the late 1960s the state of Oregon embarked on an ambitious mission to maintain the rural beauty and character of the countryside. The main tools in this effort are planning and zoning. Basically, fragmentation of agricultural land is prohibited, with nearly all housing development occurring in and near existing cities.

    The results have been impressive, assuming you like the way our countryside looked in 1960. While our population has increased by 150%–about average for the US–our rural countryside looks about the same as it did during my childhood. Our highways are busier, but in general, our infrastructure appears to be very efficient, as population is concentrated near towns. Agriculture–both the business side and the societal side– has also done quite well. Basically, it seems like planning and zoning have been successful.

    I realize this idea of planning and zoning in antithetical to those who believe in total freedom and Austrian economics, and also that it probably interferes with some folks’ ability to make quick money. Frankly, the scale of these sacrifices seems tiny in relation to the values of clean water, wildlife, natural beauty and a stable agricultural base.

    I agree with the comments above about the rather obvious financial gains to be made by converting agricultural land into rural homesites. That’s pretty simple math. But the accompanying view that somehow there is an unending number of “transactions” awaiting implies that there is an unending supply of land to move to and develop. Even in the grand and huge state of Texas, this is clearly not true. Your own estimation of blight-like rural development points out some of the problems with un-regulated development.

    Controlling development comes with some pain–shared pain, I would call it–but it seems to work, at least where I live. Much of the argument against regulation seems to flow from the idea that growth, any measure of growth, is inherently good.

    Thank you for your work at the Circle Ranch, and for your weekly messages. I always find something interesting on your site.

    John Marble
    Crawfordsville, Oregon

    • Hello John,

      As I said I am a strong believer in planning and zoning, which in my opinion should be linked to the profit motive pursued by small landowners like myself. I have an economics degree from Wharton; as I see it, the Austrians, like Marx and Keynes, are ideologues whose ‘economics’ support their socio-political agendas.

      I love your state but see its public policy limitations. Oregon is 55% public land: This guarantees open vistas; Federal domination has influenced Oregon’s planning policies. A good friend owns a ranch on the Deschutes and can’t build a ranch house on his own darn ranch – this is outrageous, in my opinion. Nor do I trust the agencies – consider the Bundy case in Nevada.

      To compensate for 55% of its land being off the tax rolls, Oregon has the second highest state income tax, a state capital gains tax, one of the highest property tax rates, and even a state inheritance tax.

      When I speak of adding value, monetizing that value, and moving on to another ranch, I am including public land across the West where I happen to believe that the rights of public lands lessees will be strengthened by the current administration. Will Rogers was correct when he observed that we aren’t making any more land, but our great-grandchildren will not live to see us run out of desertified land that they can make money restoring. The public lands status, as for example in New Mexico, will guarantee your open vistas. But why not restore the degraded public ranges and allow ranchers to make money doing so?

      Texas is 97% private land and low tax. Texas does not pursue central planning of zoning, instead it leaves these decisions to local county government. This comes with major problems in terms of getting people to accept zoning but it reflects the culture and history of Texas. In my opinion when taken together this explains why Texas’ GDP is 11 times Oregon’s, and also why it is so much bigger economically than California and New York. If you want to make money and keep what you make, consider coming to Texas.

      You and I agree that land ownership is about more than profits, however I disagree that conservation and profits are mutually exclusive. There is a great business model based on harnessing capitalistic methods of small business to regenerative ranching, to achieve rangeland restoration.

      Thanks for your thoughtful observations.

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