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Cattle aren’t actually killing the planet, says vegetarian rancher

Livestock’s environmental impact is complicated but done right, it’s good for the planet, says author

It’s become accepted wisdom that cattle production is worse for the environment than gas-guzzling SUVs — but it’s not true.

“We’re told over and over again that cattle are bad for the environment and, therefore, everybody should eat less beef,” said Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.

“We’re being bombarded with this message every day, but this is an issue that has become dramatically oversimplified. The facts are often lost in the conversation.”

The ‘beef is bad for the planet’ message came to the forefront about a decade ago — but it didn’t arise out of the work of environmentalists or scientists, said Hahn Niman. Rather, it came from animal rights activists who found their ‘meat is murder’ message wasn’t persuading meat eaters to become vegetarians, she told attendees at Organic Alberta’s annual conference earlier this month.

Since then, the mainstream media — outlets like CNN, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and Maclean’s — have also picked up this message, sharing this ‘fake news’ as though it’s fact, she said.

The truth is a little more complicated.

“It’s reductionism,” she said. “It’s about taking a really complex issue and simplifying it to the point where it’s minimized, obscured, and most especially distorted.”

Hahn Niman has been one of the most prominent — and unlikely — advocates for the cattle sector.

First, she’s a vegetarian — and became one out of concern that livestock production was indeed bad for the planet. She’s also a rancher and married to the founder of Niman Ranch, an iconic American brand of naturally raised, sustainable livestock production.

Greenhouse gases

While agriculture is a contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions, “it’s a relatively small piece,” Hahn Niman told conference attendees.

In Canada, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015 was mostly due to a 76 per cent increase in emissions from the oil and gas industry along with a 42 per cent increase in the transportation sector, she said. In comparison, the total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 were sitting at 8.1 per cent. The projection for 2030 is 8.0 per cent.

“It’s not increasing. It’s actually slightly decreasing.”

However, carbon emissions from farming are going up, and are expected to rise to 2.5 per cent in 2030 (versus 1.7 per cent in 1990), mostly as a result of increased mechanization and higher use of commercial fertilizers.

“It’s projected to increase, and it’s an important increase — but not huge,” she said.

In 1990, methane accounted for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s projected to rise by only one per cent in 2030.

Nitrous oxide emissions, on the other hand, are a cause for concern.

In 1990, 52 per cent of nitrous oxide emissions came from agriculture. That’s projected to shoot up to 70 per cent in 2030.

“I suspect the vast majority of that 70 per cent is about fertilizer use in crops,” said Hahn Niman.

“We need to be thinking about the amount of fertilizer we use in our crop production. This is where the focus should really be in terms of climate work in agriculture.”

‘Positive opportunities’

Still, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock.

However, in the U.S., domesticated ruminants contribute about two to three per cent of that, she said. And a National Academy of Scientists study concluded that eliminating all farm animals would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2.6 per cent.

But you also have to factor in what would happen if pastures were plowed under so crops could be grown, she added. A University of Wisconsin study estimates that 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gases are released each year when grasslands are converted to crop production.

The current conversations around cattle and climate change ignore that.

“Agriculture across the world has been practised in problematic ways, including grazing,” said Hahn Niman. “This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. But when it comes to grazing, there are some really positive opportunities there.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity is the growing trend toward holistic agriculture, she added.

“Problems need to be looked at holistically, especially this question of livestock management,” she said. “You can’t look at a problem in isolation. You can’t just reduce it down to one component. You really have to think about how everything is connected.”

Graze well

In nature, nothing works in a vacuum — everything is part of a system, said Hahn Niman. That can be seen in the nutrient and water cycles, and in microbial populations in the soil.

“You can’t take cattle and talk about them like they’re human-made machines,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way in nature. Everything is part of a system.”

People are just starting to understand those connections, particularly the importance of grazing management on soil health, and vice versa.

“The understanding of the importance of the microbiome of the soil is really new. All of modern agriculture has focused on the physical and chemical properties of soil and has almost ignored the biological properties up until very recently. But that is by far the most important of those pieces.”

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, livestock producers need to move away from current high-input practices to ones that regenerate ecosystems and build more resilient soil biology, she argued.

“Cattle play an essential role on the Earth because they graze,” she said, adding grazing protects and improves the soil by keeping a permanent cover of forage plants, which increases water retention and soil fertility while decreasing soil erosion.

“If it’s a well-managed animal, it’s actually benefiting the ecosystem by being there,” she said. “If you graze badly, you degrade the soils. If you graze well, you build the soils. It’s that simple.”

But there’s not nearly as much focus on soil health as there should be, she added.

“The answer is well-managed soils. If you’re going to be addressing climate change, that should be at the very top of the list.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.


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  • Monkeeworks

    Facts like this article state are ignored by the UN- IPCC. The IPCC panel has said publicly they cannot introduce facts that do not fit into their climate models as the outcome would skew the data being introduced. Yeah, didn’t make any sense to me either.

  • Vee

    “In 1990, methane accounted for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s projected to rise by only one per cent in 2030.” WRONG ! Arctic warming and permafrost melting is due to increase methane by huge amounts

  • dario

    agree very much on what is written, agriculture is still fundamental
    also and above all in the breeding of livestock that from an extra
    perspective here in Italy, beyond the production of parmesan envied and
    appreciated all over the world, one of the few things the
    European Commission will have the green light to make the current
    transformation of biogas plants into biomethane plants. Investment in
    the next 4 years for € 4.7 billion and meet 10% of the consumption of
    renewable energy in the sector According
    to estimates by the Italian Biogas Consortium, Italy is in a position
    to reach a production of 10 billion cubic meters of biomethane by 2030,
    of which at least 8 are obtained from agricultural sources. The waste
    from cattle breeding, the manure it
    is in fact the main raw material with which to feed the digesters
    capable of producing biogas. In the 10 years, bio methane could cover
    around 15% of the total the
    annual requirements of natural gas.But the benefits for our economic
    system would not stop here, the development of the supply chain that
    leads from the barn to the methane distributor for cars, can allow the
    creation of at least 21000 jobs with a tax revenue of about
    € 16 billion. Here, as fundamental aspects of agriculture, they can
    direct our farmers’ commitment to a future that is not only made of
    sustainable agriculture but also of a contribution serius and true for the development of our country.