Ethical Beef, Part 1: The Benefits of Eating Meat

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Cattle and other livestock have the ability to process food from land that farmers would have otherwise left untouched.
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In “Defending Beef,” environmental lawyer and vegetarian Nicolette Hahn Niman debunks popular myths about meat consumption, arguing that, when done properly, the earth benefits from the production of meat from cattle and other livestock.

Is eating meat ethically right or wrong? In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman aggregates the research and personal insight to explain how eating meat is beneficial for humans and for the planet, stating that there is a need for meat to be produced the right way. This excerpt, which explains how the proper production of meat will produce significant results in individuals’ lives and the Earth’s environment, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”

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Eating Meat Does Not Create More World Hunger

In addition to what’s already been explored, two major ethical questions surrounding beef consumption remain. One is whether it’s morally acceptable to eat meat at all. The other is whether eating meat aggravates world hunger. I will address the first momentarily, and start with the latter. The idea undergirded the hugely popular and influential book Diet for a Small Planet, which argued, essentially, that the world’s finite resources are stretched thin and would quickly be expended if a growing population of humans continues eating meat. The raising of livestock, especially cattle, the argument goes, is uniquely resource-intensive and cannot be morally justified in a world where (now) some 900 million people don’t have enough to eat. In various forms, we continue to see this line of reasoning everywhere today in the materials of vegan and environmental groups.

I agree that meat and dairy consumption is out of balance: There’s more than necessary in industrialized countries and not enough in developing countries, where malnutrition generally, and deficiencies of protein, iron, and vitamin B-12 specifically, are rampant. But there are so many things wrong with the assertion that eating meat adds to global malnutrition and starvation that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Perhaps first I will point out that it can only be sensible to quit eating meat for this reason if doing so actually aids in relieving global hunger. For me, as a lawyer, this is so self-evident it should hardly need to be stated. And yet, in over 20 years of reading various forms of the “livestock aggravates world hunger” argument, I have never seen anyone effectively demonstrate that if you stop eating meat you will help world hunger. Rarely is such proof even attempted.

When distilled down to its essence, this is not really an argument that by refraining from eating meat you will help feed others. Instead it’s more an endorsement of a principle of food equity: that it’s unfair to eat resource-intensive foods while others have insufficient food. But we could just as easily argue that we should refuse to drive because billions of people in the world cannot afford cars; we should refuse to use air-conditioning; we should refuse to take airplanes. I don’t see how doing any of those things helps a single person in need, therefore I find none of those arguments compelling.

Global hunger is not actually, and has not at any time in recent decades, been a product of an inadequate world food supply. Food and nutrition expert Dr. Marion Nestle points out that the global food system produces some 3,800 calories per day for every man, woman, and child on earth, which, she points out, is almost double what’s necessary for adequate nourishment. For the last four decades, per capita food production has actually grown at a pace 16 percent faster than the world’s population. In his book World Food Security, Dr. Martin M. McLaughlin, who has worked on food security issues and taught university courses on the subject for decades, makes plain that world hunger has very little connection with the quantity of food the globe produces. Poverty, not food shortage, is the key, says McLaughlin. “Hunger . . . is a political and social problem,” he writes. “It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and of entitlement.”

Moreover, livestock farming is not the province of the rich—in fact, very far from it. It actually helps more poor people than it hurts. A recent article in the journal Nature points out that one billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their survival. Likewise, a 2013 FAO report states: “Hundreds of millions of pastoralists and smallholders depend on livestock for their daily survival and extra income and food.” In many developing countries, many poor families, including those who own no land, have a cow or goat or some chickens, and the eggs, milk, and meat make up an irreplaceable component of their income and food. “Almost every smallholder farming family in a developing country owns livestock, whether chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, buffaloes, donkeys, horses, yaks, llamas, or camels,” states a 2014 article by an Indian agriculture official. “Livestock development benefits poor rural families, many of them engaged in farming but not owning land.”

The Advantages of Keeping Livestock

Livestock keeping offers numerous salient advantages in gaining food and financial security not afforded by plant crops. In contrast with crop farming, which produces sporadic, seasonal, perishable products, livestock is an asset that can be maintained for short or long periods of time then quickly converted to food or cash when needed. This has been the case since people began keeping farm animals, Simon Fairlie points out. “[A] main role of animal husbandry has been to provide food security: ‘The purpose of domestication was to secure animal protein reserves and to have animals serve as living food conserves.’” This is why livestock are sometimes referred to as “an ATM for poor farmers.” The world over, the flexible nature of animal keeping has always been among its primary benefits, Harold McGee points out: “Livestock not only transformed inedible grass and scraps into nutritious meat, but constituted a walking larder, a store of concentrated nourishment that could be harvested whenever it was needed.” Additionally, in many parts of the world farm animals raised for meat and milk also provide invaluable labor and transportation services. Oxen still pull plows and carts on a large portion of the globe. These are all attributes utterly unique to animal keeping.

Women, who make up the majority of animal tenders in the developing world, are often livestock’s greatest beneficiaries. Animals provide women reliable income and protein-rich foods for their own families, both available on an as-needed basis.

An article in the science journal Nature points out, as well, that crop and livestock farming are highly complementary. “Half the world’s food comes from farms that raise both. Animals pull ploughs and carts, and their manure fertilizes crops, which supply post-harvest residues to livestock.” In his book Feeding People Is Easy, veteran British science reporter Colin Tudge, who has traveled the world extensively and reported for decades on food and agriculture, states that “pastoral farming is very important indeed,” declaring: “The oft-bruited generalization—that we could most easily feed the world if everyone was vegetarian—is simply not true.” Among the reasons he points to are that “there is no system of all-plant agriculture that could not be made more efficient, in biological terms, by adding in a few livestock, provided they are the right kind, and are kept in the right numbers, in the right ways.”

That farm animals are the lifeblood for hundreds of millions of the world’s poor became much clearer to me after I attended an international convening of smaller-scale livestock keepers. The Livestock Futures Conference in Bonn, Germany, hosted by the nonprofit League for Pastoral Peoples, gathered 70 livestock keepers and researchers from 16 different countries and several continents. Among those in attendance were people involved in camel herding from Pakistan, cattle herding from Uganda, sheep herding from Germany, and goat herding from Argentina. (Henning Steinfeld, lead author of the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report, was there, too.) I was honored to have been invited to speak about issues facing livestock farmers and ranchers in the United States. The organization’s founder, a remarkable German woman named Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a doctor of anthropology and veterinary medicine who has lived for extended periods among camel-herding people in India, has labored for years to raise the profile of smaller-scale livestock keepers before the world’s policy organizations. On the global level, just as on a national one, the biggest players tend to be given greatest consideration.

The Livestock Futures Conference highlighted the environmental and societal damage caused by industrialized livestock production, contrasting it with the social and ecological contributions of smaller-scale farmers and herders. Research and testimony described wide-ranging benefits to smaller keepers, including environmental and climate protection, cultural preservation, tourism, and support of local labor markets. Presenters showed that in many of the globe’s arid regions, in places where land cannot be put to other uses, the small-scale livestock sector is responsible for the largest share of animal production, all told making up 30 percent of world production of animal-based foods. Despite the wealth of measurable contributions of small-scale keepers to food security, they are still being ignored in national and international policy. The conference was part of a multiyear strategy by the league and its allies to change that.

Even if we accept without proof that eliminating livestock would lead to a greater supply of food for the poor (which I definitely do not), the notion relies on exceedingly fuzzy math. Let’s look at some of the problems. First off, it assumes that grain currently grown and fed to livestock would still be grown and would somehow end up being made available to the world’s poor. This completely ignores the realities on the ground. If livestock were no longer generating a demand for grain, why would farmers and agribusiness companies continue growing it? They would not. Like anyone engaged in the production of any commodity, they would adjust, and farmers would shift to growing crops for which there was the most demand. More sugar beets, perhaps? In the alternative, they might convert the land to other, non-agricultural uses. Under either scenario, global hunger is in no way reduced.

For another thing, the nutritional value of the world’s supply of meat and milk would be difficult to replace with foods from plants, especially for people in the developing world and children. To substitute for all animal-based foods would take far more than a one-to-one pound-for-pound or calorie-for-calorie replacement by grains and soy. The Pimentels point out: “Animal proteins contain the eight essential amino acids in optimal amounts and in forms utilizable by humans for protein synthesis. For this reason, animal proteins are considered high quality proteins. By comparison, plant proteins contain lesser amounts of some of the essential amino acids and are judged to be lower in nutritional quality than animal sources.” This is especially important for children, they note, whose rapidly developing bodies particularly benefit from nutrient-dense foods. “Another advantage of animal products over plant products as food for humans, especially children, is the greater concentration of food energy per unit of weight compared with plant material. For example, . . . beef has three times as much food energy per unit of weight as sweet corn.” Nutritionally, animal-based foods are more important to the world’s poor than other foods, and for the one billion of them who raise livestock, it helps them feed themselves. Eliminating animals from the food system would likely make the world’s hungry more food-insecure, not less, and more dependent on government assistance.

Moreover, while world grain use for livestock is significant (and I believe it’s too high), it’s far less than what people generally assume. Cattle in the developing world are usually fed little or no grain. In the United States, the breeding herds of beef cattle (about 30 million animals) are generally also maintained without grain. Nearly all steers and heifers raised for beef in the United States are raised on mother’s milk and pasture, then fed grains only in the latter portion of their lives. And overall, even for cattle fed grain in industrialized countries (both beef and dairy types), a large portion of their diet still comes from forage or farm by-products (like straw or rice bran). An article in Nature noted that around 70 percent of grains used by developed countries are fed to animals, with 40 percent of such feed going to ruminants, mainly cattle. As I have argued several times, this amount can and should be pushed down significantly. Even so, the same article points out, much livestock feed in developed countries comprises plant matter inedible to humans. “Even where large quantities of cereals are consumed by ruminants, up to 60 percent of their diet comes from high-fibre feed that humans cannot digest . . . In the European Union, more than 95 percent of milk comes from animals fed on grass, hay and silage, supplemented with cereals.”

Moreover, even in the developed world, some cattle milk and beef comes from animals raised entirely with very minimal or no grains. Some American beef cattle, our own among them, are raised from birth to slaughter with no grain. “Cattle in New Zealand’s exemplary dairy industry obtain 90 percent of their overall nutrition by grazing pasture.” New Zealand’s dairy industry and grass-fed cattle ranchers in many parts of the world, including the United States, demonstrate the feasibility of a worldwide transition back toward forage-based diets for ruminants, including cattle. Some production would be lost, but that would be more than offset by the overall benefits to the environment, animal health and welfare, and human health.

Want to learn more about raising livestock and eating meat? See these articles:

Ethical Beef, Part 2: The Efficiency of Cattle Grazing
Ethical Beef, Part 3: The Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 4: The Pleasure of Raising Livestock
Ethical Beef, Part 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animal Herds

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Defending Beef.