Cattle get a bad rap when it comes to environmental and health outcomes. They are blamed for consuming lots of water (some say as high as 2500 gallons of water for one pound of beef), for being unhealthy, for contributing to global climate change through their bovine burps, flatulence and even bad breadth, and their trampling of plants and soils while eating precious grains. Methane spews into the air from cattle!

Cattle replaced bison as the main beef source in the 19th Century. Cattle were more cost effective to move from pasture to railhead and the yield was far greater from cattle than bison. They are, in essence, more efficient converters of grass to food. This prevalence is what has called attention to them as potentially harmful to the environment.

Some facts may counter this view of cattle. U.S. Agriculture accounts for 8% of our greenhouse emissions, the majority of which is from soil management practices. Methane from cattle can be mitigated by nutritional supplements and good pasture management. The cattle can restore carbon to the soil. Most cattle feed on grass causing “beneficial disturbances” through their waste and eating practices. “Research by the Soil Association in the U.K. shows that if cattle are raised primarily on grass and if good farming practices are followed, enough carbon could be sequestered to offset the methane emissions of all U.K. beef cattle and half its dairy herd.

The large water usage was challenged when some studies found that U.S. beef take about 441 gallons of water per pound (similar to rice). Also, 85% of the land grazed by cattle cannot be farmed.

“The bovine’s most striking attribute is that it can live on a simple diet of grass, which it forages for itself. And for protecting land, water, soil and climate there is nothing better than dense grass. And we consider the long-term prospects for feeding the human race, cattle will rightly remain an essential element.”

Are vegetarians wrong in their approach to food at least as far as environmental outcomes are concerned?

Co-authored by Michael Aper, Master of Arts in Sustainability at Wake Forest University. Adapted from Daniel S. Fogel (2016).  Strategic Sustainability:  A Natural Environmental Lens in Organizations and Management.  New York, New York: Routledge:  254.