Grass-Fed Greenwash

A friend of mine in New York City recently told me that she eats grass-fed beef because cows are a critical part of any sustainable farming operation. Another friend of mine in Portland told me that he eats chickens that eat only grass. And on yet another occasion, a local developer — a portly, jovial, and very wealthy fellow who I had been organizing against — told me in one of our verbal jousts “I am an environmentalist. I grow grass-fed beef!”

For the record, cows do not create nutrients. Cow manure is good fertilizer, but any sustainable farm can get by just fine with other methods of fertilizing the soil. Green manuring and the use of nitrogen-fixing plants, as well as the direct application of mineral supplements, cover all of the plant nutrients that would otherwise be provided by manure. Such are staple practices of modern organic farming. As for chickens, they do not digest grass. They are pretty happy about the bugs they find in the grass, but “pastured” chickens (or pigs) have to be fed grain or they would starve.

By any reasonable measure, Americans eat too much meat and other animal products. Much attention was brought to the issue of factory farming of animals in the 1980s and 1990s. Vegetarianism grew rapidly for a while. By the 2000s, a backlash had formed under the banner of various food ideologies (Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Nourishing Traditions) that promote the idea that you have to eat meat because it contains certain nutrients that you can’t find anywhere else. There are voices in the local food movement that endorse grass-fed animals as an environmentally benign solution to growing food, echoing Richard Mannings view from his book Against the Grain that our modern grain-based diet promotes soil erosion, social stratification, and other problems.

Some would argue that meat is necessary to provide specific nutrients that are critical to human health. Nutritional science is a complex business riddled with ideological overlays. Health arguments based on one or two nutrients just don’t make sense. The bottom line is that after the vegetarians have argued about too much fat and the meat eaters too little, vegetarians or vegans who eat little or no animal products have similar lifespans to people who eat modest amounts of animal products. The wealthy who eat meat daily and the very poor who struggle to find enough to eat both have reduced lifespans. Some of the longest-lived people in the world are found in indigenous cultures that eat almost no meat. Such broad-based statistics speak far more than arguing over an individual vitamin.

It has been claimed that grass-fed animals systems represent a net carbon sink. Properly managed grassland, like a forest, sequesters carbon and builds soil. Based on that fact, the claim has been made that grassfed beef is environmentally beneficial. It is not. Measured on a 10 year cycle, methane is 70 – 100 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Measured on a 100 year cycle, methane is 20 times more potent than CO2. According to the EPA, “Globally, livestock are the largest source of methane from human-related activities.” Nitrogen oxides are 265 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and cattle create 65% of human related nitrogen oxides globally.

When plants decay naturally, their carbon is released back into the atmosphere and some is also trapped in the soil. When those same plants are eaten by human-propagated ruminants, then some of that carbon becomes methane, and the global warming impact is greatly increased. According to recent studies, grassfed beef have a greater impact on global warming than do feedlot beef because of methane. (Feedlots are an enormous environmental problem as well, and a grave ethical concern.) A recent UN study that says the modern agricultural sector contributes more to global warming than transportation. The bottom line is that, because of methane and nitrogen oxides, modern agriculture contributes more to climate change than all of the ships, trucks, cars, trains and buses on Earth.

Even though extensive efforts have been made in recent years to control methane leakage from landfills and natural gas wells, atmospheric methane levels have started rising alarmingly in the last few years. It may be that climate change has already put in place a positive feedback loop whereby warmer temperatures cause the release of methane from the now thawing tundra and from methane hydrates frozen at the bottom of warming oceans, and then that released methane causes further warming. Putting yet more grassfed methane into the atmosphere at this point is a bad plan.

In the U.S., the three leading causes of death — heart attack, stroke, and cancer — are very strongly correlated with high animal product intake. While we gorge ourselves and destroy the global environment in the process, the rest of the world is stratifying into an overfed class who eat too much meat and a growing class of the very hungry who cannot afford food at rising prices. We are well aware of the dire warnings about the environmental impact of human population growth. In recent decades, meat consumption has been growing globally at twice the rate of population. Gandhi has been quoted as saying “The cattle of the rich steal the bread of the poor.” Never could that be more relevant than now.

Lester Brown is a now elderly environmental writer who has studied global food systems for many years. He states the case succinctly. If everyone ate the average American diet, the world could only feed 2.5 billion people. If everyone ate the average Italian diet, the world could feed 5 billion people. If everyone ate the average Indian diet, the world could feed 10 billion people. The difference is created by how much animal products the respective cultures consume. Grass fed beef does not change that equation whatsoever. Already grazing land occupies “30 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface on the planet” according to the UN FAO. We are living on a planet that is already very heavily grazed. With nearly a third of the land surface of the world under hoof, domestic ruminants are the leading cause of global species extinction. And if there is a suggestion is that a new grass-fed rotation “technology” is going to revolutionize grazing as practiced by pastoralists all over the world, then that would be paternalistic in the extreme, and wrong.

Most of humanity is now urban. In the U.S., the average farm size is nearly 500 acres. It is easy to understand, given the privileges we possess in the US, that our citizens would presume the right to consume meat on a daily basis. But in most of the ‘undeveloped’ world, average farm size is a couple tenths of an acre. Food is a “fungible commodity,” which means it gets shipped all over the world. The US is the leading exporter of grain, which poor people all over the world purchase. Few people are aware that the U.S. is also the leading importer of food. We export grain. We import meat, fruit, and vegetables, and use our superior purchasing power to eat the most expensive food from all over the world. If one espouses selling pastured meats beyond the gates of farm, then I would argue that a failure to be aware of ones relations as a global citizen is morally remiss.

Is the local food movement the foundation of a modern renaissance that empowers ordinary people, or is it destined to serve primarily as grassfed greenwash for the most destructive habits of the wealthy? Many Americans want to drive cars, live in spacious private houses, and eat meat daily, and they want someone to tell them that is okay. The world is now full of big, crowded cities. To imagine that those urban populations can be fed with grass-fed beef is both factually wrong and morally misinformed. Capitalism has driven farmers to maximize profit at all costs, and stripped modern agriculture all humanistic or environmental sympathies. We desperately need a viable local farm movement all over the world to counteract the fascistic consolidation of corporate power that is taking over our food supply. A viable local farm movement cannot be built on selling grassfed meat to the rich.

Alexis Zeigler is the author of Integrated Activism: Applying the Hidden Connections between Ecology, Economics, Politics, and Social Progress, (North Atlantic Books). He is also building a zero fossil fuel farm, see &

Robbins, John, Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples, Bllantine Books, NY, 2007

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See the EPA’s summary of Ruminant Livestock, available at:

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Brown, Lester, Plan B 2.0; Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, Norton, NY NY, 2006, p.177

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The State of Food and Agriculture 2006, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2006