Animals Are Essential To Sustainable Food (On the Other Hand)

NOTE: This set of posts first appeared in Earth Island Journal and because of its tone and content, we share them with you, too.  You will find the second post, There’s No Reason to Eat Animals, here.

A chorus of impassioned criticism has been rising against meat and dairy consumption. Many of the critics identify themselves as environmentalists. Their vehemence has been stoked by several reports, most notably one from the United Nations, documenting that animal farming is contributing to climate change, depleting and polluting groundwater, and poisoning rivers and streams. These reports are timely and necessary. But they cannot rightly be used to bolster arguments that farm animals should be scrubbed from our landscapes. The data indict only inappropriate practices in raising animals, not animal farming per se. The prevailing industrial methods differ radically from traditional land stewardship and animal husbandry. The most environmentally sustainable food production mimics nature in all its complexity – and animals are an essential component.

Today’s debate over livestock is characterized by oversimplified rhetoric. In one corner, agribusiness implacably (and ineffectively) defends the status quo; in the other, vegan activists urge total abolition of animal farming. Their fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century, some of whom attacked apple trees with axes because they were the source of hard cider.

Like the prohibitionists, activists against meat are fueled by the excesses of the day. The number of animals slaughtered in the United States has grown substantially over the past century: It’s doubled for cattle; increased seven-fold for swine; and skyrocketed fifty-fold for chickens.

From an environmental perspective, the concentration of animals is more problematic than the total number. America’s farm animals were once widely dispersed, living in moderate herds and flocks, their manure effectively recycling nutrients, an invaluable part of the farm’s economy and ecology. Today, they are densely concentrated in massive populations, often far from where their feed is grown. The average hog herd, for example, has gone from 15 in 1900 to 766 in 2002. Many modern chicken and hen flocks number over a million birds. In this setup animals are separated from the land and crops, creating soil infertility and erosion on the farm and air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system wildly out of balance.

This imbalance is what aggravates global warming. The UN report blames 18 percent of global warming on livestock. But very little of that has any connection to well-managed traditional, grass-based animal farming. For starters, 48 percent of it is from land-use changes, mostly clearing of forests (for grazing and growing feed crops) in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries. The United States, however, is not expanding croplands. In US farming, most CO2 releases come from fuel burned for vehicles, equipment, and machinery. Smaller, traditional American farms have low CO2 emissions because they keep their animals outdoors on pasture and use little machinery.

Livestock farming also plays a role in nitrous oxide emissions – about five percent of US greenhouse gases. But more than three-quarters of agriculture’s NO2 emissions are from manmade fertilizers. Thus, animal farming that doesn’t need fertilized crops creates little NO2. Using animal manure mitigates the need for commercial fertilizers.

As for methane, there are two types. Much methane caused by animal farming comes from manure lagoons at industrial facilities. Other methane (“enteric emissions”) is generated from animal digestive tracts, particularly of ruminants like cattle, and can be reduced by dietary supplementation and rotating grazing pastures.

It’s important to note that there were plenty of animal enteric emissions in this country long before the arrival of cattle. Prior to European colonization, enormous herds of large ruminants covered the continent, including an estimated 10 million elk and as many as 75 million bison. “The moving multitude…darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.

And we shouldn’t forget that all food has global warming impacts. Wetland rice fields account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. Researchers in Sweden discovered that the carbon footprint of a carrot varied by a factor of 10, depending on how and where it was produced. Singling out meat’s climate impact makes no sense.

Traditional animal farming also has environmental benefits. Recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock actually lessen global warming because their vegetation and soils effectively act as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture sequesters significant amounts of carbon. Perennial pastures can decrease soil erosion by up to 80 percent and improve water quality, according to the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project. Even the UN report notes, “There is growing evidence that both cattle ranching and pastoralism can have positive impacts on biodiversity.”

The Kansas-based Land Institute agrees. The institute has presented the Obama administration with a 50-Year Farm Bill that proposes increases in perennial crops and permanent pasture. “We see future herbaceous perennial grain producing polycultures being managed through fire and grazing, just as the native prairie was ‘managed,’” Institute President Wes Jackson told me. “The large grazer on grassland has always been an integral part of the system here in North America.”

Solving what ails agriculture must entail reducing the total number of animals raised and returning animals to the land, where they belong. A study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded that with moderate reductions in Western meat eating, we could easily feed the world in 2050 using grass-based, humane farming methods.

Environmentalists are rightly angry about the industrialized livestock sector. But eliminating all animal husbandry is like taking axes to apple trees – it wouldn’t work. Worse still, it would make the most environmentally appropriate farming impossible.


As Senior Attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, Nicolette Hahn Niman sought to improve conditions at livestock operations. Today she and her husband Bill, founder of Niman Ranch, raise grass-based cattle, heirloom turkeys, and goats. She is the author of the book Righteous Porkchop.


Celesteh via Creative Commons/Flickr
By Nicolette Hahn Niman


William C
William C5 months ago

Thanks for the article.

W. C
W. C5 months ago

Thank you.

Dale O.

Pat T there is something known as a balanced diet. You say that meat eventually kills all those eating it. Tell that to the Inuit (many Americans refer to them as Eskimo) who have existed solely on a meat diet. Most people eating meat however also eat veggies, legumes, fruit and many live long lives.

The correct portion of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Many make the error of eating too much meat protein at a single serving. However, if one purchases meat from organic sources then one avoids factory farm hormones/antibiotics and GMO feed. The same goes for veggies, organic prevents a lot of problems while GMO/pesticide laden veggies/fruits are trouble. As for Aoibhinn G...since you eat what was once living plants the same reference can be applied to you unless you are able to survive by consuming inorganic rock pate.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

if nobody ate meat anymore. what are environmental costs of farming and shipping produce? and by "nobody" I mean, not even sustance hunters, and nomadic people who heard livestock for meat and dairy.

there are some who tell me it won't make a dent. even to truck fruits and tofu to Alaska. which they alredy are.

but one can still put factories anywhere.
factories create jobs.
thus it's a good thing

or are animal rights activists unrealistic bleeding hearts ?

Terri E.
Terri E.6 years ago

This is the first really balanced article I've read on the subject. I find all the points realistic, and will certainly be looking for organic, and free range meats, eggs and dairy products!

Now if we could just get the government to stop allowing genetically altered produce and grains, and get food processing companies to limit the chemicals they use in our
commercial products, maybe we can all get back to eating the way nature intended us to!

William Ford
William Ford6 years ago

If there are more agruements, will be more problems.

Karin B.
Karin B7 years ago

To Sharon S.: Reading your comment " I have the canine teeth and molars of a meat eater" made me laugh. As I am writing this, I am looking at my beautiful cats and dogs and their teeth. If your teeth look anything like their teeth than I suggest strongly that you visit a dentist to have her/him work on normalizing your teeth. And maybe a priest for the exorcism, because you might be a vampire and not even know it?

Our teeth are not those of meat eaters. Good luck ripping out throats and ripping away flesh with human teeth. You would be starving. Without fire, knife, and fork you would soon be gone. Our intestinal system is also not designed for eating animal matter. True omnivores and carnivores have a short intestinal tract; we have the long ones common to herbivores.

Chris A.
Chris A.7 years ago

There are two sides to every story. I could quite easily be a vegetarian, for the reasons that have been offered. What is forgotten often, is that the animals we use for food simply would not exist without husbandry. A drastic and immediate abolishment of dietary meat would leave millions of livestock with nowhere to go. Do we turn them all out to the "wild" and if so how do we compensate and find employment for farming population?

The argument about dietary health may be spurious; we are probably as much threatened by the use of growth hormones than fats.

Ethically, we should not raise animals in order to kill them for food. Our dentition does not mean that we are essentially designed to be omniverous. The orangutan and gorilla are two primates that have an exclusively plant diet - and vegetarian does not mean boring old tofu. As to eggs, as long as the birds are given good living conditions, surely this is acceptable.

Eirik Cruz
Eirik Cruz7 years ago

Look at our teeth, how is it designed? We're meant to be omnivors, deal with it. It's biological, not moral. Don't bring in morality into an issue that deals with a biological necssity. We don't have enough farm area to sustain a vegan population, it's because people want to enjoy their malls, condos, and themeparks, you want to abolish something, start there and then deal with the overpopulation.

Pat Tyler
Pat Tyler7 years ago

Eating meat kills the animal and eventually kills those who eat it.. Saturated fat is at the bottom of disease after disease,yet many Western Doctors still throw their hands up and say I do not know why you got sick and or died.
Vegans and vegetarians are the most healthy