For some reason, Richard Coniff’s March 17 opinion in the New York Times made me think of a story my wife tells. She once put two goats in the back of her Subaru wagon to bring them to a friend in San Francisco who didn’t want to mow her lawn. Amazingly, my wife made it all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge before one of the goats started frantically thrashing around. This caused the border collie in the passenger seat to go into an obsessive-compulsive fit. Pretty soon she was trying to pull a goat out from between her windshield and dashboard, pull a dog out from under her gas pedal while dodging tourists in go-carts during rush hour traffic on an iconic piece of Art-Deco architecture.
I had a chance to think about this yesterday as I was slowly moving cattle out of one of our pastures, studded with oaks, bright green and full of wildflowers with recent rains. In 1994 as a pimply faced 13 year old, I informed my suburban family that I would not be eating beef for the avant-garde reason that it produced methane that contributed to global warming. Twenty-four years later, popular culture has caught up, but I have moved on. The same reasons that animated that middle school nature-geek compelled me to become a rancher and grass-fed beef producer. I am an ecologist and came to ranching because of a love for nature and desire to address some of the critical problems we face. As such, I am often amazed at the one-dimensional treatment beef receives.
As an ecologist, I am very familiar with the idea of unintended consequences. Tailpipe emissions are famous for their unintended consequences. Also famous for unintended consequences: tax policies. In this case, a beef tax would actually be an impediment to restoring our biosphere, including our climate.
For instance, everyone knows that cattle emit methane. But bison emit methane, just as much as cattle. Is it a relief that there are not 60 million noxious, polluting bison roaming the continent? The evidence seems to indicate that before humans arrived in North America there were several times as many ruminant animals as there are now.* Yet it was the Ice Age for God’s sake. If we were to restore grassland ecosystems to their full complement of native species, those native animals would emit the same amount of methane. Somehow those ecosystems sorted out all that methane, perhaps through the soil.* For the vast majority of this continent, beef cattle are the only practical grazing animal.
As for CO2, I bet carbon emissions from the average pound of beef are higher than what Richard Conniff quoted. But that is a problem with corn, not a problem with beef. Yet we subsidize corn, and now we’re going to tax beef? It requires huge amounts of fossil fuel to drag gigantic pieces of equipment over every inch of this countries’ 80 million acres of corn ground. This is done many times a year. One of the jobs that those pieces of equipment must perform is the application of synthetic fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. Then that corn (ten pounds of corn for every pound of beef) has to be moved thousands of miles to animals that are standing on concrete. Cattle are very inefficient at turning corn into meat, so their carbon balance sheet is worse than that for chicken or pork. But unlike those other animals, cattle don’t need to be fed corn. Grass-fed animals have a very good carbon balance sheet; no machines, no tillage, no synthetic fertilizer. A beef tax punishes every beef producer. It’s like slapping the same carbon tax on big rigs, Lamborghinis, and geo-metros because they are all vehicles. Very difficult to innovate in that environment.
However, the largest source of CO2 from corn (and therefore corn-fed beef) comes from the soil. When land is tilled and synthetically fertilized to grow corn, soil organic matter is oxidized emitting huge amounts of Carbon. Our small Oregon ranch has probably lost more than 80,000 tons of CO2 in the hundred years since it was first drained and plowed, the annual vehicle emissions of a small city. However, the hope is that we can put that carbon back.
This is what Richard Coniff brushed off as Orwellian doublespeak on the part of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. However, he cited no facts, he did not explain his reasoning or even seem to understand the process. Still, I understand his skepticism. Are any of the big wigs at NCBA sequestering carbon? Probably not. It takes changes in management and we are still learning how to do it successfully. But it is possible and it requires grazing animals. Again, on the vast majority of land in this country, beef cattle are the only grazing animals available and a tax on beef would stop all that innovation in its tracks. The beef industry is one of the only industries that can produce carbon credits, not just debits. Instead of a beef tax, lets research and incentivize soil carbon sequestration.
Putting a tax on beef is a little like moving lawn-mowing goats to San Francisco in a Subaru; seems like a sensible low carbon option. But maybe we’re missing something.