Updated: Oct 3, 2021
For a while since reading the book Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, I have been keen to write a short review summarising the conclusions it reaches.
In the late 20th Century and the start of the 21st Century, the Western world has become convinced that eating red meat is harmful to human health, to the planet and also that farming for beef creates a poorly-lived experience for the animals we consume.
The popularisation of veganism and vegetarianism, fuelled by the honourable intentions of causing less harm and suffering for animals, has created an army of committed lobbyists, and has been supported by Big Agriculture, which has a need for increasing crop demand, and Big Pharma, which has a need for increased demand for metabolic conditions to be treated by a life-sentence of drug reliance.
These unlikely bed-fellows have been so focussed on reducing meat consumption in favour of crop consumption, that they have, at times, either wilfully, or ignorantly, (but always conveniently) ignored or manipulated the science and the data relating to eating meat.
The harm caused by beef farming practices is many times exaggerated (or completely falsified), the health benefits of meat consumption overlooked, when cattle's impact on the environment (in the case of well raised ruminants) is beneficial and the effect on the welfare of the animals is positive, subject to the farming practices adopted.
This book seeks to explore these various topics, and separate the facts from the hyperbole, and in the process it makes the case (very convincingly) that, pasture-raised, free-roaming cattle are not only beneficial for the environment, but are optimal for human nutrition and with the right farming practices they live full, free lives and help us to reclaim soil that has until now seemed destined to be desertified by mono-crop farming.
I think it is important that facts are shared in the simplest format possible, and whilst I would certainly recommend that anybody interested in the environment, nutrition and in particular vegans, read the book, I am conscious that not everybody will want to spend the time reading the detail that it goes into, or be able to justify the cost of buying the book.
So here goes with an abbreviated summary of what I learned from this book.
Beef Production's Impact on the Environment
Calculations used to create a case against cattle for environmental reasons tend to be misleading.
Very often, emissions from cattle are cited as damaging to the environment, but these calculations tend to ignore the amazing job of carbon sequestration that is achieved from grazed pasture.
A 2013 report by the FAO titled Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock stated that "grassland carbon sequestration could significantly offset emissions."
Additionally a 2012 study by an international team of scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated that "Soil carbon sequestration at a global scale is considered the mechanism responsible for the greatest mitigation potential within the agricultural sector, with an estimated 90 percent contribution to the potential of what is feasible."
The Soil Association states "Farm animals, especially grazing animals, are essential for maximising farming's potential for carbon drawdown"....and...."Grass-fed livestock has a critical role to play in minimising carbon emissions from farming."
In other words....the weight of opinion amongst the organisations tracking environmental impact from beef farming, is that grazing cattle are a positive carbon resource and this is a significant area of focus for the agriculture industry as a whole to improve climate impact.
Soil quality, Hahn Niman argues, is also greatly enhanced through grazing, trampling & fecal matter. There is a compelling TED talk from Allan Savory here which explains simply how ruminants can make lands, desertified by over-farming crops, useful again.
Carbon in soils is released with "tilling" and mono-crop farming & chemical fertilisers & pesticides destroy soil quality. For these reasons the swathes of land dedicated (& decimated) for the production of soy, corn, wheat & plants for seed oils (which are destroying human health along the way) is massive. These are huge carbon emitters...and once diesel-powered machines have harvested the crops for global distribution, it is easy to see how mono-crop farming is not delivering an environmental solution to food production.
As Hahn Niman states "Converting grassland to cropland causes carbon losses, while converting cropland to grass results in soil carbon gains."
Dr Rattan Lal collaborated on a landmark report on how to improve the worlds soils, and is a professor of soil physics at the School of Natural Resources as well as the director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center at Ohio State University and won the 2020 World Food Prize.
A soil expert, if ever there was one.
His report said there is "notable decline in soil organic carbon when natural vegetation is replaced with crops."
Dr Lal has also stated that carbon in the world's soils has been depleted 50%-70%, yet there is potential to increase the carbon content by 1 to 3 billion tonnes a year....equivalent to 3.5 to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions, from re-creating pastureland with livestock.
This means capturing carbon in soils, managed with grazing ruminants, could solve as much as one third of all human-generated carbon emissions.
Hahn Niman ends this piece clear that "cattle are not in fact a climate change problem at all, they are actually among the most practical, cost effective solutions to the warming of the planet."
In 2011 USDA scientists investigated the benefits of grass-based dairy farming v other types of farming. They concluded;
"When fields formerly used for feed crops (corn & soy) were converted to perennial grasslands for grazing, carbon sequestration levels climbed from zero to as high as 3,400 pounds per acre, every year." Croplands transitioned to pasture "can build up lots of carbon in the soil and substantially reduce your carbon footprint for 20 to 30 years."
Beef Production's Consumption of Water
Water is an extremely valuable, finite resource.
There are two aspects to beef production that relate to water.
The first is the amount of water needed to generate the calories and nutrients in beef for human consumption.
The second is the effect of water retention in the soil, and the preservation of quality soil, to enable the microbiome and the natural ecosystem to thrive.
The first aspect is quite simple really.
In modern, industrialised farms, where cows are kept in feed-lots and "stuffed full" of grains and steroids to fatten them-up for market...the water consumed by cattle is calculated to be relatively high.
Drinking water is pumped to them, and they are generally fed crops such as soy and corn, which take a lot of water to grow (as well as requiring soil-damaging fertiliser, toxic insecticides and all the environmental costs of transportation and packaging the crops, etc).
However......most cows are not farmed this way anymore. Free-range, pasture-grazing cows require no water to be pumped to them for drinking (on farms rainwater is collected for them and they have water from pools/ponds to drink) and the grass they eat is .....again....clearly serviced by natural rainwater.
There is no need for corn or soy to fatten them-up, no need for anti-biotics (as they remain hygenic), and the manure from these animals feeds the soil and enriches it.
These animals make the most nutritious beef, and in the meantime live a happy free-roaming life, whilst consuming the minimum of resources and benefiting the environment by promoting grass regeneration through trampling and grazing.
This helps capture.....not release carbon....but also helps the soils retain water, which further enriches the soil and its eco-system.
The most commonly cited figure used by the media is that 2,500 gallons of water is needed to make a single pound of beef. Occasionally, even higher number are quoted.
Cornell's David Pimentel is said to have contributed details in a book he published, which when later converted into a chart on a vegan website, have been commonly reproduced. They claim 12,009 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of beef.
The same chart claims a pound of potatoes takes 60 gallons of water and a pound of wheat takes 108 gallons.
"As you can see" an article referencing this data states "it takes 200 times more water to make a pound of beef than a pound of potatoes."
Figures like these, used for anti-meat propaganda, seek to hide the facts somewhat.
For example, the presumptions in Cornell's calculations are that the beef is from an animal that consumes 100 kg of hay and 4 kg of grain for each pound of beef generated.
It then goes on the presume that 1kg of hay and grain requires 1,000 litres of water to produce!!
It isn't the cow that requires the water then, but the crops that these proponents presume the cow eats. How ironic, that they would prefer to grow similar crops for humans to eat directly.
So what is the impact when a cow is essentially grazing on pasture all day? Well, the water consumption figures.....evaporate!
Even Pimentel concedes that his figures are not applicable to cattle which are not fed on feed and grain, which means most beef in modern sustainable farms.
Author Lierre Keith, who returned to meat consumption after 20 years as a vegetarian, and who wrote the book The Vegetarian Myth, states that the actual water usage per pound of beef is circa 122 gallons, and that excludes counting organ meats in the in the equation, which would reduce the number still further.
Keith goes further into the nutrition per pound of beef v a pound of wheat, and there are many similar comparisons of beef v potatoes or soy or corn or rice available to anybody through a quick search on Google.
Once nutritional quantity, quality & bio-availability is considered per pound of beef and compared with any crop, the results entirely support beef as preferential.
When you add the cost of water use for agriculture verses the real water consumption for grazed cattle there is no argument at all from a water conservation standpoint.
But it doesn't end there.
Whereas water is retained by grass, (where grazing pastures flourish through the impact of roaming, nomadic cattle on the environment) it is lost through crop agricultural farming.
Water is polluted by the chemicals used for growing the crops, and then the tilled soil and planting rows create water "run-off".
Water on crop farms is then more likely to sit on top of the soil and evaporate, degrading the soil with each year of mono-crop farming, one of many reasons this use of land damages the soil until it becomes lifeless and incapable of supporting anything (desertification).
Whilst Allan Savory and experts like him travel the world teaching those in harsh landscapes how to regenerate barren lands and soils through the development of modern cattle farming practices, we in the developed world continue to destroy habitats, and huge swathes of land by mono-crop farming.
Research in the University of Georgia has shown that "There is no better way to safeguard water in our food system than for rain to land on grass-covered earth."
"Compared with croplands, perennial pastures used for grazing can decrease soil erosion by 80%, and markedly improve water quality."
Agricultural Farming & Health
Whilst the book does not seek to demonise crop agriculture, it does touch-on the disparity in our collective consciousness when considering crops relative to meat.
There seems to be some attributed virtue to plants over animals as food.
This is understandable to some degree, as we become more detached from our food systems and don't like to think of sentient beings as prey.
As humans have evolved we mostly seek to preserve life, and this places eating meat and fish at odds with our evolved value criteria.
Unfortunately for us all, this leans our food choices in a direction which is incredibly destructive, whether land destruction through industrial crop farming, or water pollution through chemicals, or air pollution through global transportation (who doesn't want avocados all year round in Knightsbridge?).
Even for our health, our consumption of crops as food is destructive for our bodies.
We eat far more anti-nutrients in vegetables, which are nutrient poor (relatively to meat) and eventually we consume the chemicals that they have been treated with, not to mention the toxins that they adopt from damaged soils.
We may signal the virtue of this eating style as kind, but it is destructive to human health and the environment.....but the impacts are far enough away from us that we can pretend they aren't there.
We don't understand enough about these impacts on land.
Similarly, if you drive an electric car that is powered by electricity generated from a coal-fuelled power station....you are doing the same harm to the planet as using a petrol car. But you are far enough distanced from the source of the energy to assume the status of eco-warrior because you don't see the impact of the coal-powered power station.
So it is with vegetarianism to some extent.
If swathes of thriving woodland are decimated, each acre at the expense of hundreds of species of animals, birds and insects, to create cropland for [insert crop here] and then the soil quality eroded by monocrop farming, ultimately left as deserted wasteland, carbon is excreted, water lost, rivers polluted with fertilizers and pesticides....never to support thousands of animals again......so one can eat a pesto pasta dish instead of a steak, to save a cow from being part of the food chain.....I think there is some moral humble-pie that should follow that particular vegan meal.
In 2004, US farmers put 23 million tonnes of chemical fertilizers & 1.1 billion pounds of herbicides, insecticides & fungicides on US soils.
The 2014 Census of Agriculture shows that US agricultural operations used commercial fertilizers on 247 million acres; chemical herbicides on 285 million acres; chemical insecticides on 100 million acres; chemicals against crop disease on 35 million acres & chemicals against nematodes on 14 million acres.
US crop farming is by far the biggest user of agricultural chemicals.
Beef as Nutrition
I write a lot about the nutritional benefits of saturated fat and pasture raised beef for good heart health.
I don't want to dwell on these statistics in this section, because that would make the blog post way too long, but in Defending Beef, Hahn Niman does touch on the statistics relating to beef consumption in the United States, and these might not be what you expect.
Whilst the health of the average American (and all of us in the western world) has been in rapid decline, the consumption of beef and meat has also declined during the same period.
Whilst Americans ate 71 pounds of beef per person in 1905, they ate 60 in 2010. In the same years veal went from 7 pounds per person to 0.4, lamb went from 6 to 1, pork went from 62 to 48 and eggs went from 284 to 243.
Maybe you would have guessed this, but the general consensus of the public seems to be that we eat much more high cholesterol or high fat foods such as meat and eggs than we used to, creating the heart disease and other challenges which plague modern western societies.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even in more recent times (1970 to 2005) beef consumption reduced by 22%, pork was down 3%, total red meat consumption was down 17%.
As for saturated fat....during this same timeframe butter declined 15%, lard was down 47% and whole milk was down a whopping 73%. Overall consumption of saturated fats was down 21%.
Of course the consumption of grains, sugar and seed oils (known as vegetable oil) have all massively increased during this period.......as has heart disease, Alzheimer's, dementia and cancer.
Han Niman highlights the data from a few meta-analyses of health trials performed over the years that show no causal relationship between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease/stroke and others that show that meat consumption has no harm relating to these and other diseases of modern society.
If you follow my posts, have read my book, or generally keep up with my blog....this won't be a big surprise to you.
The last of these studies referenced in the book is "a large and exhaustive analysis by a team of international scientists" published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which evaluated the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease.
The researchers based their findings on nearly 80 studies involving more that 500,000 people.
They also reviewed evidence from 27 randomized controlled trials (the "gold standard" for scientific research trials).
This extensive review of medical research concluded; "There is no evidence that eating saturated fat increased heart attacks and other cardiac events."
So...in conclusion, I think Defending Beef is a very interesting read.
I find it sometimes difficult to align kindness and thoughtfulness towards animals, with my heart-healthy, nutrient-dense dietary requirements... to increase saturated fat and meat.
This book helped me to understand more clearly a connection with nature and the positives that can come from a form of cattle rearing which optimises the life of the animals, and also supports a sustainable eco-system for the planet to thrive and for improved nutrition.
If you go into reading it with an open-mind, I think you will be on a learning journey, supported by lots of data and reference points for any follow-up research.
It will help you to feel more in-touch with what really matters for the health of our planet, and the environment, as much as informing you of the huge benefits of creating wide plains of natural pastureland.
It also gives a sense of hope for the planet, at a time when all mainstream media news seems quite apocalyptic.
It will also, I am sure , provide you with a little more peace of mind the next time you tuck into a steak.