There is a lively debate going on in the media and around the web about the environmental impact of raising cattle, relative to a purely vegetal approach to agriculture.
Critics say that the methane expelled by livestock contributes to global warming, that what cattle eat and drink should be sustaining humans directly, or that the land cattle graze upon is better used raising produce.
These arguments are not completely off base but they are exaggerated, generalized and offset by important aspects of raising cattle that contribute to the betterment of our ecosystem. In particular, cattle raised on grass throughout their lives (rather than “grain-finished”) represent a boon to our environment.
At present, just 2% of US greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to raising cattle, and that figure can be further diminished, by half, with measures now entering farmers’ repertoires, including bovine nutritional supplements and cultivated dung beetle populations.
More significant is the impact pasture-raised beef has on returning carbon from all sources to the soil. Land covered by vegetation (trees, bushes, grass, etc.), like that used for grazing cattle, is ideal for recapturing carbon via photosynthesis and holding it stably in the ground. Cows’ “pruning mouths stimulate vegetative growth as their trampling hoofs and digestive tracts foster seed germination and nutrient recycling,” writes rancher, attorney and author Nicolette Hahn Niman.
Research on other aspects of cattle farming reflects that a pound of beef consumes 441 gallons of water, a figure that only slightly exceeds the requirement for rice. And, of course, beef is much more nutritious than rice.
It is also the case that much of the land on which cattle graze (85% in the U.S.) is actually unfit for other uses. The grain used to fatten up factory-farmed cattle might otherwise appear on supermarket shelves but the grass fed to cows used by beef jerky purveyors like Lawless Jerky is outside the diet of even the most veggie-loving humans.
Even as vegetarianism becomes more trendy, and non-meat protein options increase, meat-based jerky is not going anywhere. Nor should it, given the offsetting benefits that raising grass-fed cattle has for the earth, and the unmatched nutrition and satisfaction it provides to us.
Sources: Niman, Nicolette Hahn. “Actually, Raising Beef is Good for the Planet.” Wall Street Journal, 19 December 2014; Niman, Nicolette Hahn. “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.” Chelsea Green, 2014