The editors at Epicurious, a food site at Condé Nast, announced they will no longer post beef recipes. Why would one of the nation’s most popular food sites stop posting recipes about one of the nation’s most popular foods? Is Epicurious trying to self-destruct? No. But they are lecturing their beef-loving customers about a false premise that we shouldn’t eat beef because "it is one of the worst climate offenders” However, they were quick to insist they are “not anti-beef but pro-planet.” But aren’t most of us pro-planet? After all, all humans inhabit the Earth - not just Epicurious editors.
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Every day we choose what to eat. This never used to be a big deal. But today food has become synonymous with politics. I get it. My sister’s family and mine are a close-knit bunch who have mixed views on eating meat. Among our group of children, we have two vegans, two vegetarians, and four meat-eaters. We love each other a lot and we don’t ask the vegans to cook steaks, or the meat lovers to make only plant-based dishes. Instead, we work together to make sure there is enough food for everyone’s plate. Then, we spend our time caring about each other as people, not poking about what we are eating. It is a matter of respect and support for everyone’s choice.
So, why can’t Epicurious do the same for their readers?
Epicurious is riding the climate change wave, but unlike my family, it is not finding a middle ground. They are certainly entitled to their opinion, but are they informed by science or some other factor? Even more audacious, they’re indirectly telling the people, families, and communities associated with beef that it is acceptable to just go out of business.
I have casual conversations with friends and acquaintances who are diligently participating in ‘Meatless Mondays’ or even skipping red meat altogether because they think they are doing a good deed for the climate.
So, is this true? If we banned all cattle, would we reduce global greenhouse gases (GHGs)? No, we would not. Here is a better question: what if everyone knew that meat can be part of a broader climate solution instead of a climate problem?
We want to give you a more nuanced, data-driven perspective so you can come to your own conclusion.
Cows solving climate change? What?!
Raised in Minnesota, I can tell you there is no more beautiful sight than the grasslands. In the late ‘60s, my bedroom window overlooked a wetland prairie. Whether you think of them as prairies, pampas, steppes, or savannas, about one-third of our global land is open grasslands…tall grasses blowing in the wind, full of deer, elk, songbirds, wildflowers, and cattle.
In a recent post, The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production”, showing that ranchers, particularly in the U.S. and Brazil, who own both grasslands and beef can cut emissions by 50%.
As a 1,000-acre rancher in South Carolina told one of us at D2D, “I am really a grass farmer.” When cattle roam freely, their hooves dig up the earth, seeds drop in from neighboring plants, manure adds fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive. The open land thrives because it is a carbon sink.
As Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas told us, “our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.”
Grass-fed and Feedlot finished?
Did you know that about 95% of all cattle start their lives on grass and then finish the last third of life in the feedlot? Many argue that once cattle are in the feedlot, they contribute to the atmospheric methane. Yet it is the reverse: grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.
Because of the tremendous environmental benefits of grassland, we are not saying that all cows should be raised in a feedlot, but to point out that corn-fed cattle simply produce less methane. Additionally, many animal nutrition companies are currently researching for the ‘holy grail’ in animal feed to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50%. The reason? More belching occurs when cattle eat the roughage in the grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. It is when the roughage breaks down that methane is produced.
Moooving over for dairy to digest methane
Putting beef production aside for a moment, we also noticed that Epicurious did not ban another bovine product from their recipes – dairy. Is it because dairy cows produce less methane than cattle? Let’s take a look at the 250 million dairy cows all over the world.
The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digesters for years. Dairy farms collect the cow manure and plow it into rubber-lined ponds right next to the barns.
Each of these coverings looks like a dome and helps capture methane. And then, to make a long story short, methane is used as electricity for the farm or sold back on the grid.
These farms have cheap electricity and are GHG-negative because they use methane rather than fossil fuels. In fact, California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters alone.
They have 56 million dairy cows, more than the E.U., Brazil, U.S., and Russia — combined. Of course, they don’t eat their cows; they just use them for dairy products.
Because their feed and milking systems are not as sophisticated, a cow only produces 2,600 pounds of milk a year versus the U.S.’s 21,000 pounds per cow, on average. Therefore, India needs eight more cows to give the same amount of milk as one U.S. cow. And at 6 million head, China’s dairy cows have a similar production rate as India.
That is a lot more methane!
What if we DID NOT eat beef?
That might be extreme – but it’s what people are thinking. Especially now, given Epicurious’s three million subscribers. Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Burger, said it is his mission to remove meat from our diets. And ReThinkx predicts that the animal industry will be almost extinct by 2030.
Yes, plants are critical for our health. (Have you had your 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables today?) But the nutrients that meat provides are critical, too. What would happen if all we had to choose from were only plants and grains? To find out what an animal-free country would look like, Robin White and Mary Beth Hall of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, studied the impact of a vegetarian country on U.S. GHG emissions, economics, and nutrition.
In short, White and Hall found a reduction in GHGs of 2.6%, or 28% of agricultural emissions. They explain that there would be 23% more food but deficiencies in U.S. nutritional requirements of minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. For example, eating a lean 8-oz. piece of steak provides you with 45 grams of protein, versus eating a cup of black beans with only about 15 grams. You get more protein with fewer calories.
There would also be an economic impact. What do we tell the ranchers, farmers, feeders, processors, marketers, and more who have invested billions of dollars creating protein for human health, not to mention the trickle-down effects on local economies?
Cows are carbon neutral. Really!
Despite popular thinking, the reality is that cows are neutral carbon emitters! How? Over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. It is undisputed that plants pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and then combine it with water and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen. The plants use carbohydrates as fuel for growth and emit oxygen into the air as a byproduct. Very handy for us as we need that to breathe.
When a cow eats a plant, it consumes carbohydrates – which contain carbon. It swallows the plant into their four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is massive and holds enough food to fill your bathtub – about 50 gallons. After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more – “chewing their cud.” The food then goes back down to the stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.
This is when they belch a portion as methane which is then released into the atmosphere. This methane is the culprit, as it is 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.
The good news is that it only lasts for about eight to ten years before it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.
Here is where it gets interesting: according to Frank Mitloehner, Professor and Air Quality Specialist at the University of California, Davis:
“If you are not adding additional cattle or cows to the earth, then there will be no additional methane and no additional global warming.”
As long as more cows are not introduced on the planet, then no additional CO2 is added. For the past ten years, global cattle population has been steady at around 1 billion, yet the average annual presence of methane has steadily increased.
Sources for chart: noaa.gov, U.S. Department of Agriculture; USDA Foreign Agricultural Service; ID 263979.
Putting this in perspective
So where does agriculture stand in relationship to global GHG contribution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is about 12%.
There is no doubt that methane is a powerful GHG that we want to keep out of the atmosphere. But it does not all come from animals. According to NASA, the methane sources can be broken out as follows: 30% wetlands, including ponds, lakes, rivers; 30% related to oil, gas, and coal extraction; 20% by agriculture, including livestock, waste management, and rice cultivation; 20% wildfires, biomass burning, permafrost, termites, dams, and the ocean. Here are more detailed breakdowns:
Freedom to Choose
We are already so divided as a country on a variety of political and social issues. Why are we doing this with food and our climate? Yes, cattle emit methane. That is a fact. It is also true that humans have creatively adapted to a life of comfort and health for thousands of years. Let’s use methane reduction for cattle as a lesson in innovation to make our food and our planet better. Let the science speak for itself and not let emotions get carried away.
I quickly recall my family and I debating issues at the dinner table, but at the end of the day, we respect each other’s thinking. We are environmentalists. We are fierce advocates of sustainable food, innovation, and making the world a better place while also being pragmatic about protecting humans and animals. And we also realize how incredibly fortunate we are to choose what we eat each and every day.
The Bottom Line
What we eat is our choice. How we farm and ranch is our choice. We can’t afford to have this important issue develop into finger-pointing at any one cause or culprit. Methane reduction is more than just cutting cow belches; it is innovation, technology, and a multi-faceted, coordinated approach by everyone. If Epicurious is so anxious to cut beef from their menu, I wonder if they will all ride their bicycles to work once Covid is over.