The Environment and Free-Range, Organic, and Local Meat

USDA Organic farm sign

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Meat and other animal products are a serious environmental issue, leading the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club to call animal products, "a Hummer on a plate." However, free-range, organic, or local meats are not the solution.

Free-Range, Cage-Free, Pasture-Raised Meat, Eggs, and Dairy

Factory farming started because scientists in the 1960s were looking for a way to meet the meat demands of an exploding human population. The only way the U.S. can feed animal products to hundreds of millions of people is to grow grain as an intense monoculture, turn that grain into animal feed, and then give that feed to intensively confined animals.

There isn’t enough available land on Earth to raise all livestock free-range or cage-free. The United Nations reports that "livestock now use 30% of the Earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33% of the global arable land used to produce feed for livestock." Free-range, pasture-fed animals would require even more land on which to feed. To meet the increasing demand for beef, South American rainforests are being cleared to produce more pasture for cows.

The U.S. alone has approximately 35 million heads of beef cattle. According to the USDA, a good rule of thumb is that it takes 1.5-2 acres to feed a cow and calf pair for one year (although that may vary depending on the quality of the pasture). This means we need at least 35 million acres to create grazing pastures for every cow in the U.S. That's almost 55,000 square miles, or roughly the area of the entire state of New York.

Organic Meat

Raising animals organically does not reduce the amount of food or water required to produce meat, and the animals will produce just as much waste.

Under the National Organic Program administered by the USDA, organic certification for animal products has certain minimum care requirements under 7 C.F.R. 205, such as "access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight" (7 C.F.R. 205.239). Manure must also be managed in a manner "that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, heavy metals, or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients" (7. C.F.R. 205.203). Organic livestock must also be fed organically produced feed and cannot be given growth hormones (7 C.F.R. 205.237).

While organic meat does offer some environmental and health benefits over factory farming in terms of residue, waste management, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, the livestock does not consume fewer resources or produce less manure. Animals raised organically are still slaughtered, and organic meat is just as wasteful, if not more wasteful, than factory-farmed meat.

Local Meat

We hear that one way to be eco-friendly is to eat locally, to reduce the number of resources required to deliver food to our table. Locavores strive to build their diet around food produced within a certain distance from their home. While eating locally might reduce your impact on the environment, the reduction is not as great as some might believe and other factors are more important.

An International Institute for Environment and Development report titled, "Fair Miles - Recharting the Food Miles Map," found that the way in which food is produced is more important than how far that food is transported. The amount of energy, fertilizer, and other resources used on the farm may have more environmental significance than the transportation of the final product. "Food miles are not always a good yardstick."

Buying from a small, local conventional farm may have a greater carbon footprint than buying from a large farm thousands of miles away. Organic or not, the larger farm also has the economy of scale on its side. And as a 2008 article in The Guardian points out, buying fresh produce from halfway around the world has a lower carbon footprint than buying local apples out of season that has been in cold storage for ten months.

In "The Locavore Myth," James E. McWilliams writes:

One analysis, by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed that transportation accounts for only 11% of food's carbon footprint. A fourth of the energy required to produce food is expended in the consumer's kitchen. Still more energy is consumed per meal in a restaurant, since restaurants throw away most of their leftovers... The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you'll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer. If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer's market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.

While buying locally produced meat will reduce the amount of fuel needed to transport your food, it does not change the fact that animal agriculture requires an inordinate amount of resources and produces a great deal of waste and pollution.

Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network stated:

There is only one way of being sure that you cut down on your carbon emissions when buying food: stop eating meat, milk, butter and cheese... These come from ruminants—sheep and cattle—that produce a great deal of harmful methane. In other words, it is not the source of the food that matters but the kind of food you eat.

All things being equal, eating locally is better than eating food that has to be transported thousands of miles, but the environmental advantages of locavorism pale in comparison with those of going vegan.

Lastly, one can choose to be an organic, vegan locavore to reap the environmental benefits of all three concepts. They are not mutually exclusive.

View Article Sources
  1. "Don't Eat a Cow, Man!" Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

  2. "Livestock a Major Threat to Environment." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

  3. "Beef Cow Inventory - United States: January 1." United States Department of Agriculture.

  4. "Balancing Your Animals With Your Forage." Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

  5. "State Area Measurements and Internal Point Coordinates." U.S. Census Bureau

  6. "Fair Miles - Recharting the Food Miles Map." International Institute for Environment and Development.