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Eliot Coleman: Irresponsible Farming Is the Problem, Not the Meat

Recently, Chelsea Green, partnering with YourDailyThread, launched a Web campaign urging readers to go “Meatless in May.” The post drew the following response from Chelsea Green author Eliot Coleman.

Dear Chelsea Green,

I am dismayed that my publishers have been so easily fooled on the meat and CO2 issue. Ever since I read the UN report condemning meat eating vis a vis CO2, I have been puzzled by their conclusion. The culprit is not meat eating but rather the excesses of corporate industrial agriculture. The UN report shows either great ignorance of that fact or possibly the influence of the fossil fuel lobby with intent of confusing the public. It is obviously to someone’s benefit to make meat eating and livestock raising an easily attacked straw man (with the enthusiastic help of vegetarian groups) in order to cover up the singular contribution of the only new sources of carbon—burning the stored carbon in fossil fuels and to a very small extent making cement (both of which release carbon from long term storage)—as the reason for increased CO2 in the modern era. (Just for ridiculous comparison, human beings, each exhaling about 1kg of CO2 per day, are responsible for 33% more CO2 per year than fossil fuel transportation. Maybe we should get rid of us.)

If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2. The pasture-raised animal eating grass in my field is NOT producing CO2, merely recycling it (short term carbon cycle) as grazing animals have since they evolved. Hell, there were over 60 million buffalo in North America before the first European arrived not to mention innumerable deer, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, and so on all eating vegetation and in turn being eaten by native Americans, wolves, mountain lions, etc. It is not meat eating that is responsible for increased CO2; it is the corn/ soybean/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals are raised. When I think about the challenge of feeding northern New England, where I live, from our own resources, I cannot imagine being able to do that successfully without ruminant livestock able to convert the grasses into food. It would not be either easy or wise to grow arable crops on the stony and/or sloped land that has served us for so long as productive pasture. By comparison with my grass fed steer, the soybeans cultivated for a vegetarian’s dinner, if done with motorized equipment, are responsible for increased CO2.

But, what about the methane in all that cattle flatulence? Excess flatulence is also a function of the unnatural feedlot diet. If cattle flatulence on a natural diet were a problem then those 60 million buffalo and their friends would have caused heat to be trapped hundreds of years ago. Or could there be other contributing factors today, factors that change natural processes, which are not being taken into account? Could not the artificial nitrogen fertilization of pastures greatly increase the NO2 from manure? Might not the increased use of phosphorus, nowhere near as abundant in natural systems, have modified digestibility? I am just speculating here but the fact is clear. It is not the livestock; it is the way they are raised. But what about clearing the Brazilian rain forest? Well, the bulk of that is for soybeans and if we stopped feeding grain to cattle much of the acreage presently growing grain in the Midwest could become pasture again and we wouldn’t need Brazilian land. (US livestock presently consume 5 times as much grain as the US population does directly.) And long term pasture, like the Great Plains once was, stores an enormous amount of carbon in the soil. But what about the increased demand for meat causing there to be far more livestock on the planet than ever before? Again that is not the animals’ fault but rather the problem of human population explosion. But even then, if the animals were grass fed, they would just be recycling not producing CO2.

If those people concerned about rising levels of CO2, instead of condemning meat eating, were condemning the enormous output of CO2 due to fossil fuel use by a greedy and biologically irresponsible agriculture, I would cheer that as a truthful statement even if they weren’t perceptive enough to continue on and mention that the only “new” carbon, the carbon that is responsible for rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, is not biogenic from livestock but rather anthropogenic from our releasing the carbon in long term storage (coal, oil, natural gas.) . Would we even be having this discussion if humans were not burning fossil fuels? Targeting livestock as a smoke screen in the climate change controversy is a very mistaken path to take since it results in hiding our inability to deal with the real causes. When people are fooled into ignorantly condemning the straw man of meat eating, who I suspect has been set up for them by the fossil fuel industry, I am appalled by how easily human beings allow themselves to be deluded by their corporate masters.

Eliot Coleman
Harborside, Maine
May 4, 2009

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