Out to Pasture: Searching for the Future of Meat

on Monday, Jan. 24th

On a recent cloudy day Craig Haney stood watching a group of pigs paw at a piece of degraded pasture on his farm north of New York City. A paddock full of sheep lay beyond the pigs, and to Haney’s left a gaggle of geese was milling about. All the animals, Haney explained, would be used to rehabilitate the land. “We’ll let the pigs break it up, then we’ll re-seed it, and when the grass comes in we’ll move the lambs in there and let them graze,” Haney said. “After that we’ll bring the geese through and let them lay down some manure to help bring the grass back.” Haney’s blue eyes surveyed the scene. He wore muddy boots and jeans, a tattered shirt and a baseball cap. “We spend a lot of time moving animals,” he said.

As Haney spoke that day, livestock operations across the globe were emitting thousands of tons of greenhouse gases, augmenting the impact of an industry the United Nations says is already responsible for about 18 percent of humanity’s contribution to global warming. Within the U.S., the number is smaller: agriculture as a whole accounts for 6.4 percent of emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Even if the U.S. does not lie at the center of the livestock emissions problem, though, it has become a center for research on how to address the issue. In this realm, Haney’s farm, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, represents the gold standard. In an industry where the trend for 50 years has been toward larger, more mechanized operations, Stone Barns is small and intensively managed. Yet it’s unclear whether farms like Haney’s can become a substantial part of the $64 billion-a-year U.S. meat industry. Because large, industrial farms enjoy efficiency advantages in everything from buying equipment to fattening animals quickly, consumers will almost certainly have to pay more – in some cases, perhaps nearly twice as much – for meat from places like Stone
Barns. And with the U.N. projecting that humanity’s demand for meat will more than double by 2050, it is uncertain whether anything but industrial operations can satisfy growing global appetites.

“For this to make any kind of difference, we’ve got to scale up, said Haney. “With a group of small farmers, there’s a lot of variability. Coming up with a production schedule and having consistent product is extremely difficult.”

Stone Barns sits on 80 acres of land among rolling hills near the banks of the Hudson River, 45 minutes north of New York City by train. Haney raises sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, and bees. He also raised cows until two years ago, when he stopped because there was too little dairy infrastructure in the area to make it cost-effective.

From a global warming perspective, the absence of beef and dairy cows at Stone Barns may be the farm’s greatest asset. Cows emit methane as a byproduct of digestion, a gas that is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a warming agent. Cows that eat only grass actually emit more methane than those that eat grain in feedlots before slaughter, but producing feed grain also results in substantial emissions, mostly from the use of nitrogen fertilizer.

Since cows eat far more grain than most other farm animals, they contribute much more to global warming. Manufacturing one kilogram of beef in a U.S. industrial feedlot on average produces nearly four times more emissions than a kilogram of pork, and 13 times more than a kilogram of chicken, according to a 2008 study by Nathan Fiala, an economist at the University of California at Irvine.

Haney’s lambs subsist on grass that is fertilized only with animal manure, and the organic grain his pigs eat requires no nitrogen fertilizer to produce. The result is a relatively low- emissions diet, compared to the high-grain menu often presented to feedlot animals. According to a 2006 U.N. report, “systems sourcing feed from grasslands can be expected to emit negligible amounts” of greenhouse gases compared to feedlot systems.

Can it Work for the World?

If small-scale, intensively managed farming is environmentally preferable, then why don’t more farms look like Stone Barns? Money is a key reason. Stone Barns was founded by the Rockefeller family, and operates on an endowment of more than $25 million. Without that support, it’s not clear that the farm would exist, especially not on land that is expensive because of its proximity to New York. “Farming in Westchester [County] can make sense, but in some ways it doesn’t,” said Haney, “whether it’s the cost of land, or the cost for workers to live here.”

Photo: rxb

In addition, the environmental advantage enjoyed by small farms becomes an economic disadvantage when compared to the efficiencies of larger operations. Glenn Winsor, who operates a 4,000-cow dairy operation in Harpursville, New York, said his size allows him to negotiate lower prices on inputs like food and medicine. “Large equipment purchases are also easier,” he said. “For example, most farmers around here would own a [straw] chopper. I can spread the cost of that chopper over 2,000 cows, rather than over 100 cows, like a smaller farmer might.”

In the future, environmentally conscious meat producers will face an entirely different challenge: the explosion of global demand. “Because the growth is so big, there is just no other way to meet it” besides using industrial feedlots, said Fiala, the California economist. “[A pastoral] system would be great, but there’s no way that an increase in global consumption can be sustained with that system.”

Unless worldwide demand for meat unexpectedly eases, dampening the global warming impact of livestock will likely depend on reducing the environmental footprint of industrial farms. There are many ways to do this: Glenn Winsor, the New York dairy farmer, is planning to install a methane capture system within three years that will generate electricity for his farm by trapping emissions from the vast amounts of manure his cows produce. However, such systems remain prohibitively expensive for most farms.

Eat Less, Eat Better

Of all the potential futures for meat consumption, the one that might most please meat- eaters who are concerned about global warming is on display every day at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a butcher shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. Dickson has a red beard with flecks of gray and wears a butcher’s apron over a collared shirt. He stands behind a display case full of Sirloin, chorizo, lamb shank, and merguez sausage, sipping coffee. His shop buys meat from small upstate farms located within 400 miles of Manhattan, a standard intended to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

Quality, of course, is not free. At a nearby supermarket, unmarked meat sits under plastic wrap, selling in some cases for just over half of what Dickson charges. A lamb shank is $3.99 per pound to Dickson’s $7, and a top round cut of beef is $4.59 to Dickson’s $8. Such low prices, Dickson says, hide an ugly history. “We’re conditioned to believe that meat should be cheap, but it really shouldn’t be that cheap,” he said. “When you go into a grocery store and meat costs the same as a tomato, you know there’s something wrong.”

Dickson’s higher prices illustrate the central theme of a greener meat industry: many of its proponents hope consumers will develop a taste for better meat as a less-than-every- meal treat, instead of eating cheap meat all the time. Dickson’s already doing his part. Surrounded as he is by a carnivore’s cornucopia, he eats meat only twice a week. “My girlfriend limits me to that,” he says, and smiles.

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