Study: Shift to Grass-fed Requires Larger Cattle Herd. Cowboys: Duh!

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A new study – and there seems to be one every week – attacks the beef industry for its environmental footprint. Most of those studies are laden with alternative facts, myths and falsehoods, and the latest one is notable in that it has more holes than a no trespassing sign on a dead end road.

Researchers from the Harvard Animal Law and Public Policy Program and Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment have concluded if U.S. consumers switched entirely to grass-fed beef the nation’s herd would need to be 30% larger. Hmmm…. Probably didn’t need a research project to figure that out.

But here’s why you should care. Studies such as this one makes news, and they continuously chip away at the image consumers have of the beef industry and all of agriculture.

The authors, Matthew Hayek at Harvard and Rachel Garrett at Boston University, began with the premise that there is a “growing interest in producing more beef from cattle raised in exclusively pasture-based systems, rather than grain-finishing feedlot systems, due to the perception that it is more environmentally sustainable.”

Perception is the key word in that last sentence, as the beef industry has plenty of research proving otherwise. But that is only the first leak in their sinking research.

Here’s where the authors research takes on more water: “In order to produce the same quantity of beef as the present-day system, we find that a nationwide shift to exclusively grass-fed beef would require increasing the national cattle herd from 77 to 100 million cattle, an increase of 30%. We also find that the current pastureland grass resource can support only 27% of the current beef supply (27 million cattle), an amount 30% smaller than prior estimates.”

The U.S. cattle herd stood at 94.4 million head on Jan. 1, 2018. That’s 19% more than the author’s count, which is because they subtracted cattle on feed and dairy cattle. Yet, both feedlot cattle and dairy cattle contribute to the beef supply. More importantly, the authors suggest current grass resources can only support 27 million cattle. There are currently 32 million beef cows grazing in America’s herd, doing just fine, thank you.

Wait, they weren’t done. They determined, “future U.S. demand in an entirely grass-and forage-raised beef scenario can only be met domestically if beef consumption is reduced.” Now we understand why this research was conducted – to further the anti-beef agenda.

The paper concludes: “Given the environmental tradeoffs associated with raising more cattle in exclusively grass-fed systems, only reductions in beef consumption can guarantee reductions in the environmental impact of U.S. food systems.”

Such comments are false, and easily debunked. For instance, the U.S. produced more beef in 2017 (roughly 26 billion pounds) than it did in 1975 (23.6 billion pounds), with 30% fewer cattle, according to USDA statistics. The inventory in 1975 was 131.8 million head, and the beef cow total was 45.4 million (compared to 94.4 million and 32 million respectively).

Yet, such statistics about beef’s efficiency and sustainability are ignored. Journalists such as Lauren Wills, who describes herself as a freelance journalist and environmental research intern, would much rather use the Hayek and Garrett study to cite other false statistics.

“This study adds to a body of research suggesting that animal agriculture is destroying our planet,” Wills writes. “Animal agriculture is responsible for a minimum of 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – more than the combined exhaust from all global transportation.”

Sigh… Here, Lauren, is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says. In the U.S., transportation contributes 26% to GHG emissions, power production and use 31%, and all of livestock 4%. Cows are not the environmental boogeyman.


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