I’ve been a die-hard carnivore most of my life. The sight of my grandfather throwing thick New York strips onto his small grill is one of my fondest memories. Sharpening my culinary skills as an adult, I regularly gorged on grass-fed steaks, grilled just like my grandfather’s, and imagined myself carrying on the legacy of our Stone Age ancestors.
Like many Americans, eating beef was something I loved and celebrated — at least until I started spending long car rides with my producer, a vegan. The subject of eating animals turned out to be a touchy one during our many hours on the road for America Tonight, and I learned to refrain from offering my latest technique to extract the marrow from cow bones.
Cattle are an American icon, brought to market by cowboys on the range. Americans consume about 25 billion pounds of beef annually, and to meet that demand, 31 million cattle are slaughtered in the United States every year. But it wasn’t just my detailed description of freshly slaughtered flesh that my producer found disturbing. It was a concern for the environmental impact that beef production was causing.
As it turns out, he isn’t alone. Experts at this year’s climate summit in Paris say that livestock production accounts for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gases. Gidon Eshel, a research professor of environmental physics at Bard College, published a groundbreaking paper last year on the impact of livestock production on climate change. Among his findings: a fixed number of calories from beef has a far greater impact on global warming than an equivalent number of calories from pork, chicken, milk or eggs.
In other words, all that beef has come at a steep cost to the environment.
But one grass-fed beef producer, Ken Jaffe, disagrees. Ten years ago, Jaffe left his life as a family medical doctor in Brooklyn to establish Slope Farms, a grass-fed cattle ranch in upstate New York. He sells what he calls “a superior product” to high-end restaurants and specialty markets.
“We’re not using any herbicides. We’re not using any pesticides. We're not using any chemical fertilizers,” he said. “This is a self-nourishing system. The sun makes the grass grow. The cattle harvest the grass. The cattle fertilize the grass, and all we have to do is just move them to the next pasture.”
Jaffe said that this grass-fed model works for the consumers too.
“It tastes better, it has a healthier fat profile. These animals are living a better life for beef, for cattle because they're living what is a more cattle-like existence," he said. "They're outside. They're grazing. This is what cattle were genetically designed to do."
Eshel said he appreciates Jaffe’s connection to the animals. Having grown up on a farm in Israel, he raised cattle for beef, but says he gave up eating beef when, as a scientist, he crunched the data and recognized the cost to the environment.
“I'm not opining about their happiness, I'm opining about the greenhouse gas emissions,” Eshel said. “If your objective is really to produce most efficiently the most beef you can, the corn route is more efficient.”
But Ken Jaffe says the environmental impact depends on the quality of the pasture.
“If you're feeding cattle really crappy grass – older, more fibrous grass – then you get more methane produced,” he said, looking over his pasture in Upstate New York. “But if you compare the production of high-quality multi-species grass with a good amount of legumes in it, which we have here, and which you can produce by just promoting perennial pasture, it's much less so.”