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The Great Sustainability Debate: Meat Or No Meat?

Does the meat industry promote climate change and pollution, or is animal husbandry fundamental to sustainable agriculture?

White cows

Photo: Tim Green aka atoach

Is raising animals for food harmful to the environment, or a natural part of an ecosystem?

Good Magazine published the first post in what I hope will be a long running series called Reasonable People Disagree. The premise is that they select two rationally-thinking people on opposite sides of an issue and print their dueling essays.

This iteration, which is worth reading in its entirety, is about meat consumption and sustainability. But for those of you who want a Readers’ Digest version of the debate, I thought I would lay out some of the highlights.


Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and activist for improving conditions on farms. Her husband is founder of Niman Ranch, on which animals are raised, and she is the author of Righteous Porkchop.

Niman says that modern animal farming practices are to blame, not animal farming itself. She explains how the debate is dominated by two extremes: agribusiness who strive to maintain the status quo and vegan activists fighting to get rid of animal farming altogether.

One of the industry ills is the concentration of farm animals. When animals and animal farms are not placed so close to one another, Niman argues that they play an important role in the recycling of nutrients in their ecosystems.

What the United Nations’ report fails to take into account is the difference between traditional and modern methods. Highly deleterious practices like clear-cutting rainforests in Brazil and the use of nitrous oxide-rich manmade fertilizers should be considered separately.

Niman also contends that that pasture land actually helps to absorb excess carbon dioxide – the atmospheric gas whose surplus is responsible for the greenhouse effect. However, while her essay is nicely ornamented with linked to reputable studies, she does not provide a reference for this last claim.


Lindsay Rajt is a long-time vegetarian and leads grassroots campaigns for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Among those campaigns are KFC’s treatment of chickens and conditions for horses at the Kentucky Derby.

Rajt takes the position that we should give up consuming animals altogether. Her initial argument focuses on the emotional relationships humans have with animals, and the relationships they form among themselves.

She points out that raising animals in order to kill them is easily equated to slave-ownership.

But Rajt also tackles more tangible issues. For example, she states that the modern American diet and Niman’s proposed changes in farming practices cannot match up logistically.

She says that the 10 million animals used every year for food in the United States requires the very existence of the modern factory-style farms Niman demonizes.

Rajt does not shy away from the well-worn arguments that animal farms produce huge quantities of greenhouse gases and that third-world countries could ease their hunger crises with the widespread adoption of vegetarianism. After all, many calories that could be used for hungry humans are wasted in the production of meat.

Who has the stronger argument? Can meat consumption become more eco-friendly if farming practices are improved? Or should we try to eliminate meat products from our diet to conserve resources and reduce pollution?

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer was in the company of foodies for most of her formative years. She spent all of her teens working at her town's natural food co-op in South Dakota, and later when she moved to Minneapolis, worked as a produce maven for the nation's longest running collectively-managed food co-op. In 2006, she had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of participating the vendanges, or grape harvest, in the Beaujolais terroire of France, where she developed her compulsion to snip off grape clusters wherever they may hang. In the spring of 2008, Megan interned on NPR's Science Desk in Washington, D.C., where she aided in the coverage of science, health and food policy stories. She joined Indiana Public Media in June, 2009.

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  • Andy

    Rotational grazing animal farming cannot match up with the modern american diet as far as meat goes. For the modern american diet to continue, we would require CAFO's (concentrated animal feedlot operations). Absolutely correct. But, as far as this is concerned, why are we arguing this as though the modern american diet is something worth preserving?

    Many calories that are used to feed animals could be used to feed humans? That's only because due to our modern meat production, ruminants such as cows are fed grain, which is terrible for their health, and winds up leading to conditions such as acidosis (where their rumen — the chamber of their stomach that digests the cellulose found in grasses — acidifies). So that argument is only relevant is you are consdering raising tons of grain for these ruminants, which is completely unnecessary and damaging, as opposed to them eating the grasses and other vegetation they've evolved to consume, all the while building topsoil with their manure.

    Feel free to read “The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability” by Lierre Kieth. It is NOT a book encouraging the mindless consumption of meat. Please read it, and analyze and consider the information within.

  • Rowland

    I would like to point out (as a grape and apple grower) that my farm can be more sustainable with animals than without. Grazing sheep, chickens, ducks, and geese in my vineyards and orchards gives me many benefits. I can use that wonderful grass that would other wise have to be mowed in the rows (using a diesel powered tractor with mower attachment, and my time) and sprayed with herbicide under the rows (also longer grass provides habitat for pest insects, necessitating higher insecticide use). Also with the animals there is less fertilizer use, as their manure provides some of it. So that’s less use of diesel fuel, herbicide, insecticide, and fertilizer, and the cherry on top is the extra income from the animal products, which for many farmers in my area (the Hudson Valley) has been a life saver since the crash in wholesale apple prices. Unfortunately local zoning in our area often prohibits livestock rearing on farms (sadly, most of our farm land is actually zoned as residential).

  • penelopedia

    In areas of the world that can't produce much in the way of food crops, animals turn the food energy of plants and insects that we can't eat into forms that humans can eat — milk and eggs as well as meat. Where animals graze sustainably on native vegetation in areas not suited for crops, they help solve human hunger problems, not add to them.

    I eat little meat, buy primarily humanely-raised meat, and would be glad to see CAFOs and inhumane treatment of animals disappear, but I think there is a place for meat in the overall picture of human food consumption.

  • smallfootprintmama

    A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a major source of greenhouse gases, but a permanent pasture is a pump that pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility and builds topsoil. According to a recent Scientific American article “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?”… production of high-input, annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rate. Therefore, converting half the U.S. corn and soy acreage to pasture might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result.

    According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enhancing the natural processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere is thought to be the most cost-effective means of reducing atmospheric levels of CO2. Scientists agree that organic matter in topsoil is on average 50 percent carbon up to one foot in depth, and bumping that upward by as little as 1.6 percent across all the world’s agricultural land could potentially reverse the problem of global warming.

    In other words, if we were to restore the soil fertility of the Great Plains that we destroyed in the last 150 years, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide could be reduced to pre-industrial levels within 10-15 years.

    Whether it’s cows, elephants, bison or antelope, grassland requires regular destruction of its top leaves to promote root growth. It requires grazers to chomp down trees and shrubs so it won’t be overshaded, and it further requires significant amounts of their waste to fertilize the soil. This system, which evolved over millions of years, is what sequesters carbon naturally.

    According to Mother Earth News,… “…it is not unrealistic to think that we could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the process.”

    Doing so would give us:

    * a more humane livestock system,
    * a healthier human diet,
    * less deadly E. coli,
    * elimination of feedlots and the manure lagoons they produce,
    * a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide,
    * enormous savings in energy,
    * virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on grazing lands,
    * elimination of the catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin,
    * more vibrant rural communities where farmers and ranchers can earn a decent living with less work and fewer expensive inputs, and
    * a dramatic reduction in global warming gases, possibly reducing our carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions to pre-industrial levels.

  • sanderling23

    The way these questions are posed implies only one right answer, when clearly meat consumption can become more eco-friendly if farming practices are improved AND eliminating meat products from our diet can help to conserve resources and reduce pollution.

    I am vegetarian and try to buy local, organic, etc, etc, what else can be done to help us achieve these goals?

    The descriptions of grazing animals contributing to sustainable agriculture are lovely, but can this be achieved on the scale necessary and how?

  • NameJohn Switzer

    I am an organic farmer growing 10 acres of fruit and vegetables. I like most organic fruit and vegetable farmers us compost as a fertilizer. I make the compost from organic animal manure. If I did not use compost I would need another 10 acres or grow on 5 acres and use rotation for nutrient managment.
    This is a issue I have not seen adressed by either side.

  • NameJohn Switzer

    I am an organic farmer growing 10 acres of fruit and vegetables. I like most organic fruit and vegetable farmers us compost as a fertilizer. I make the compost from organic animal manure. If I did not use compost I would need another 10 acres or grow on 5 acres and use rotation for nutrient managment.
    This is a issue I have not seen adressed by either side.

  • Andrea

    The kind of meat that Ms. Niman produces is very expensive, so I just don't see most American consumers being able to shell out all that money for free-range pork and beef unless they decide to significantly reduce their intakes of animal products. A vegetarian diet full of whole grains, beans, nuts, mushrooms, fruits and vegetables is a lot more affordable than a diet full of the free range animal products one finds at farmer's markets, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and other places.

    Maybe the meat, egg and dairy industries could be sustainable and humane if demand was dramatically lower. But since most people don't really care much about the environment and the ethics of what they eat, I encourage those that do care to make up for those that don't by going vegetarian or vegan.

    Unless global meat consumption is heavily reduced, I don't see much of a healthy future for this planet.

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  • Carrie

    Great ‘readers digest’ version Ms. Meyer. A year old but still being posted on twitter too! One detail I felt could be missing is the fact that Nicolette Hahn Niman herself is also a vegetarian. (?) Last I read, in a great novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, “Eating Animals” he interviews the couple at their ranch and she explains rather eloquently the reasons for her choosing to be vegetarian. Is this still true?

    I personally am not a vegetarian, but the Foer novel changed my life and the way I eat meat. Niman has it completely right in my opinion that the animals and farmlands need each other for sustainability reasons. The argument of the vegetarians & vegans doesn’t hold up (also in just ‘my’ opinion) because if we stop killing the animals altogether for food and just let them all run wild, humans would eventually be forced to harm them for population control reasons; whether killing them and or castration. Then what? Waste the meat and let it rot? What is their solution for that inevitable intervention? There is no way out of it, so what do they propose? That would make for a very interesting evolution experiment.

    I agree that it’s great to have some vegetarians & vegans to balance out the meat eaters, but the root of the problem is that the meat eaters are over-eating & the government is all too appeasing with almost no real regulation of animal factories or CAFOs (?) If the general population exercised a little of it’s own population control (planned parenthood) & ate the appropriate, varied source amount of animal meats and the government better regulated animal farming, there would be enough healthy, affordable meat for everyone. It’s my own personal utopia which will sadly never be attained. Maybe?

  • hemlock s

    ”we stop killing the animals altogether for food” ? ”population control reasons”?

    are you srsly?
    people create alive-meat-factories!

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