Agriculture | Ecotrope

Sustainable Beef Group Divides Environmentalists

Ecotrope | Dec. 14, 2012 7:26 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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A new roundtable that aims to reduce the environmental impacts of raising cattle is sparking a debate about the most sustainable approach to beef.

A new roundtable that aims to reduce the environmental impacts of raising cattle is sparking a debate about the most sustainable approach to beef.

Marc Gunther at Environment 360 reports on the debate within the environmental world over beef. Should environmentalists work with industry to reduce the environmental impacts of beef production or just say no to eating beef?

The World Wildlife Fund has helped launch a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to identify the best practices for producing beef and promote them through big companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

It’s controversial, Gunther writes, because the beef industry is part of the roundtable, and the discussion is likely to question whether feed lot beef is more sustainable than pasture-raised beef, but also because some environmentalists argue raising beef is inherently less resource efficient than other meats like fish or poultry.

WWF says the beef industry will need to be involved if beef production is ever going to become more sustainable, but some environmentalists are questioning whether WWF is being biased by corporate donations from the beef industry, according to Gunther’s report.

As I reported after visiting a feed lot in Texas, the beef industry has research showing feed lots shorten the amount of time it takes to raise cattle to market weight, thereby reducing the environmental impacts of producing beef.

But others say it would be better to send fewer cows to feed lots and convert corn and soybean crop land to pasture for grazing cattle. Some advocate for a method of raising beef on pasture that enriches soil and sequesters carbon dioxide.

As Michael Pollan told Gunther:

“When it’s done well, (grazing) is a great positive — to carbon sequestration, improved fertility, soil biodiversity, etc. The idea of putting more animals of grass is also to re-perennialize a bunch of corn fields in the Midwest, which will have tremendous environmental benefits. It’s all part of shifting from annual monoculture to perennial polyculture farming, which I would think any environmental organization would want to support.”

Meanwhile, as Edible Portland reports in its new issue, there’s a big problem looming over grass-fed beef raised in Oregon. Author Lola Milholland writes about David and Bette McKibben, who raise 100 percent grassfed beef on 270 acres in Dallas.

They’ve gradually had success finding customers, but they still have trouble finding a place to process their beef. The number of slaughterhouses in Oregon has been declining since 1999 when new rules require all meat processors to have a health inspector. Now there are only 10 USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in Oregon to serve thousands of farms and ranches.

“By far the greatest hurdle to their success hasn’t been lack of eaters – it’s the lack of options for meat processing,” Milholland writes. “The meaning of local and humane meat supply changes when ranchers have to drive many hours to and from slaughterhouses.”

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