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PREFACE
In 1970, AmerIcas grassroots environmental movement was
burgeoning as 20 million people poured into the streets to mark
the frst Earth Day on April 22. Cattle raising was dragged as a
villain into the public square along with our nations worst indus-
trial polluters. Beef was increasingly regarded as an ecosystem
destroyer and a primary cause of starvation around the globe;
it was becoming part of the zeitgeist to believe that no genuine
environmentalist or humanitarian would eat beef (at least not
in a well-lit public place). Kicked of by Diet for a Small Planet,
three decades of infuential books like Diet for a New America and
Beyond Beef then succeeded in making it nearly incontrovertible
environmental gospel that beef is public enemy number one.
As a freshman biology major in the mid-1980s, I drank the
Kool-Aid. I quit eating meat and enthusiastically embraced the
attitude that no beef was good beef. Then I promptly fled the
matter away; no more thought on the topic seemed necessary.
That logic fractured soon after I was hired as an environmen-
tal lawyer by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He charged me with starting a
national campaign on meat industry pollution. Initially, my assign-
ment neatly reinforced my long-held negative views about meat
and how it was produced. But the more farms I saw, the more stud-
ies I read, the more experts I interviewed, the less satisfed I was
with my understanding of meats connections to the environment.
I began to recognize my views were simplisticblack-and-white
and formed mostly from the bullet points in vegetarian and envi-
ronmental pamphlets Id encountered in college.
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Fortunately, by the time a handsome cattle rancher proposed
marriage to me two years later, my understanding of the role farm
animals can and do play in food systems and natural ecosystems
was far more nuanced. And I had the good sense to accept him.
Working in the meadows and valleys of our ranch alongside
my husband for the past decade has given me an entirely new
understanding of how natural environments work. Ive lived
among not only cattle but also domesticated and wild turkeys,
deer, coyotes, newts, bobcats, ravens, hawks, egrets, gophers,
and countless other animal and plant species. Ive learned how
humans can interact with ecosystems as landscapes that produce
food while at the same time supportingeven enhancingwild
plant and animal populations that belong here.
A singularly negative view of ranching and beef persists among
many environmentalists and among those who oppose raising
animals for food. Its leaching into mainstream conversations as
global warming concerns have infused the issue with new life.
As a longtime environmentalist and vegetarian, I am intimately
familiar with the criticisms. Rarely, though, have I encountered
credible responses, least of all from the beef industry itself. Yet
nowas someone who remains ecologically minded while raising
cattle myselfI feel compelled to respond, honestly and passion-
ately. This is my answer. This is my defense of beef.
1
INTRODUCTION
Weve all heard the narratIve so oftenthe one about how red
meat, and beef in particular, is killing usthat many of us have
come to accept it as incontrovertible truth. Its so common that its
become common knowledge. The story goes like this:
Americans once raised cattle, pigs, and sheep on small,
mixed farms scattered around the country and sprinkled
with handfuls of livestock. Animal numbers were low and,
correspondingly, Americans ate little red meat. We were
thin. Hypertension, stroke, and heart disease rates were
low. Environmental damage from farming was minimal.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, everything
changed for the worse. Livestock herds ballooned. Cattle
began overgrazing the western half of the United States.
Red meat and animal fat became abundant, cheap, and
ubiquitous. Americans gorged themselves on hamburgers,
butter, and ice cream. The result: soil erosion, water and
air pollution, and skyrocketing rates of obesity and chronic
diet-related diseases.
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Theres just one problem with this narrative: its not true.
Yes, parts are correct. But facts that rarely make it into main-
stream discussions and media coverage diametrically oppose key
elements of this narrative. As this book will make clear, aspects of
the United States environmental condition have worsened, and
chronic diet-related diseases have become more widespread and
severe, but these problems cannot reasonably be connected with
cattle or attributed directly to butter or beef. Why?
Because there are fewer cattle on the land today than there
were a century ago. And because today we are eating less red
meat in general, and less beef in particular, than at any time in
recent history. We are also consuming less butter, far less whole
milk, and much less saturated animal fat. No swelling bovine
herds. No ever-heftier helpings of red meat and animal fat. The
simplistic narrative completely collapses.
If you are skeptical, I wont blame you. What Ive just said
probably runs counter to what youve heard from innumerable
sources for many years. But I come armed with data, and plenty
of it, all from ofcial government sources. While my overall prem-
isesthat cattle are good for the environment and that beef and
animal fat are healthy foodare, admittedly, controversial in this
day and age, the basic agricultural and demographic facts are not
in dispute.
Here is the most pertinent bit of information to keep in mind.
In the second half of this book, I will detail how American dietary
choices have changed. I will show that we eat less beef and less
animal fat now than we did 100 years ago, while our rates of
grain and sugar consumption have skyrocketed. I will present
facts strongly supporting the conclusion that our sugar and four
consumption rather than red meat and animal fat are to blame for
the sharp rise in chronic diseases.
The popular narrative is also far of-base concerning the
numbers of animals on the land. In reality, decreasing per-capita
consumption has run parallel with a downward trend in cattle in
U.S. inventory. The total quantity of red meat and dairy produced
has increased in tandem with our rising population, and some
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is exported. But the amount of beef and dairy the United States
exports is actually quite small. Only about 7 percent and 2 percent,
respectively, go to foreign markets. So cattle raised for exported
meat and milk products barely afect the math.
The bottom line is that increased production levels in both the
beef and dairy sector have not been accompanied by expanding
herd sizes. On the meat side, this is because animals are slaugh-
tered at much younger ages. At the dawn of the 20th century, a
typical beef steer going to slaughter was four or fve years old.
Today, to lower costs, and enabled by growth hormones, that steer
is killed at less than two years old, typically around 14 months.
Dairy cows, too, go to slaughter at much younger ages (often at
just three years of age). This also afects beef supply because, now
as always, a large portion of U.S. beef comes from dairy cattle.
The rise in milk production, however, is owing to an entirely
diferent issue. As I detailed in my book Righteous Porkchop,
selective breeding of dairy cows for greater milk output (read:
large udders) has vastly increased per-animal production. At
the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. average per-cow milk
production was 2,902 pounds annually. Today it is 19,951 pounds
(about 2,347 gallons) per year. Of course, this is often touted as
a huge victory for humanity. But the scale of the increase (nearly
sevenfold) suggests that selective breeding has been pushed to
an extreme. (Indeed, many of todays mature dairy cows even
have trouble walking.) The net efect of this change has been a
substantial diminishment in the size of the U.S. dairy herd over
the past century.
These factors, combined with the virtual disappearance of
animal draft power from agriculture, means there are a lot fewer
large animals on the farms of the United States now than there
were a century ago.
For those of you who may still fnd this difcult to believe,
here are the specifc numbers. Work animals on farms (horses,
mules, and oxen) have gone from 22 million in 1900 to 3 million
in 2002. In those same years, while beef cattle numbers went
up, the increase was relatively modest, going from 44 million to
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59 million. Sheep numbers plummeted, going from a high of 46
million in 1940 to 5 million today. Pig numbers have gone up,
but only slightly: In 1920, there were 60 million pigs; in 2010, 65
million. The total herd of dairy cows shrank dramatically, from
32 million down to 9 million, over the past century. All told, that
means that while early-20th-century farms and ranches had 76
million cattle and 164 million large animals, today they have 68
million cattle and 141 million large animals. In total, thats a 14
percent reduction in large farm animals.
From an environmental standpoint, two factors are signifcant:
How many animals are in inventory at any given moment, and by
what methods are they being raised? These factors will largely
determine the sectors environmental footprint. From a human
health and dietary standpoint, the central question is: What are
we eating, and in what form? On the land, cattle are less present
today than they were for most of the 20th century. On our plates,
there is less beef and less bovine fat.
It is vitally important to understand these facts before continu-
ing. If we recognize that cattle numbers and beef consumption are
both down, it casts serious doubt on the all-too-common narrative
that holds cattle responsible for our current environmental prob-
lems and beef for todays public health crisis. I would not expect
these facts, on their own, to dissolve the concerns of beefs critics.
But it is my hope that clarifying these facts at the outset will assist
you in considering this book with an open mind.
While I strongly disagree with the conclusion that cattle and
beef are responsible for Americas environmental and health
problems, aspects of the narrative I mentioned at the outset are
correct. Serious environmental degradation has been caused by
agriculture, including the cattle and beef sectors. Huge changes
have indeed taken place in the way this country farms and eats.
These issues will be explored in the pages of this book.
As Ill discuss in more detail, Americas food and farm policies
subsidize bad farming practices while providing little support for
those that beneft the environment. They subsidize the production
of unhealthy foods we are already overeating and on which we
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are getting sick. We continue on the path of overproduction. All
of which results in underemployment, cheap food, overeating,
waste, and pollution.
This book is at once a defense of cattle and beef, and an indict-
ment of many aspects of the modern diet and modern agriculture.
Change in both arenas is urgently needed. The United States is the
worlds top beef producer.4 We can, and should, lead the world in
forging a more environmentally sound way of raising cattle.
Whether you are among the critics or the defenders of beef,
if you come along on this journey, you will fnd things to agree
with and disagree with along the way. Whatever your perspective
at the start, I hope by the end you will see things in a new and
diferent light.