Let them Eat Kale (and Quinoa): Richard Oppenlander Offers a Brilliant Critique

I’ve been reading Richard Oppenlander’s persuasive new book Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Responsibility . . . What You Choose to Eat is Killing Our Planet. One aspect of the book that I especially appreciate is Oppenlander’s condemnation of not only factory farming–a big fat target if there ever was one–but his equally condemnatory take on so-called sustainable alternatives–free-range this, grass-fed that, cage-free whatever, etc. As readers of this blog know full well, I’ve  repeatedly noted that there’s very little difference between the two forms of animal agriculture. In fact, I’ve even argued that supporting the alternatives systems is, however inadvertently, supporting CAFOs.

My perspective has been animal welfare. Oppenlander, however, illuminates the environmental consequences of choosing alternative sources of animal products. This is an important, much needed, emphasis. How many times have you heard, after all, the comment that “I choose grass-fed beef because it’s more sustainable”? Well, it’s not more sustainable. Especially if you compare it, as Oppenlander does, to growing kale and quinoa–two of the healthiest foods on the planet.

His juxtaposition of the inputs and outputs of raising a grass fed cow on two acres of land versus growing kale and quinoa on that same land is astounding.  After two years of raising a cow on grass you’d have 480 pounds of “edible muscle tissue.” You’d also have produced tons of greenhouse gasses (especially methane), used 15,000-20,000 gallons of water, imported loads of hay for winter feeding, been left with a carcass needing disposal, wound up with food that, eaten beyond moderation, would cause heart disease, and very likely trampled the soil, establishing preconditions for erosion. In a world of 7 billion people (about to be 9 billion) crunched by diminished resources, we cannot afford this waste.

By contrast, if you used those two acres to grow kale and quinoa, you’d end up with–get this–30,000 pounds of nutrient-rich, delicious, fibrous food. You’d have done this while having used very little water (if any), produced no greenhouse gases, and been left with loads of green manure to work back into the soil as fertilizer.  We could not only feed the world this way (with, of course, a huge diversity of plants), but we could do so on much less land.

So, which do you consider more sustainable? This would be an excellent example to keep in mind next time you hear some earnest foodie “environmentalist” spouting on about the sustainability of local, organic, grass-fed, humanely treated, peace-causing, world-saving grass . . .fed . . .  beef. I say there’s no such thing as sustainable animal agriculture. I say there’s no such thing as a meat-egg-dairy-eating environmentalist. I say we let them all eat kale.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to Let them Eat Kale (and Quinoa): Richard Oppenlander Offers a Brilliant Critique

  1. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    Hi James, I agree with you in terms of alternative animal farming methods having the same impact on the environment as CAFO’s, but I disagree that supporting alternative methods inadvertently supports CAFO’s, even though it seems to make sense intuitively. Have you read Norm Phelp’s essays on this? Here’s one of them. http://www.animalsandethics.org/scienceweighsin2.html
    Thanks and take care.
    Louisa

  2. Louisa,
    Thanks for the Phelps prompt, and for your comment. I fully agree that welfare and abolitionist approaches CAN be, to paraphrase Phelps, wings on the same bird. I’ve made such a case myself on this blog. There is, however, a critical qualification: the welfare improvements MUST be cast as steps on the road toward abolition. Otherwise, the impact is to perpetuate the cultural legitimacy of eating animals. And as long as it’s considered legitimate to eat animals, we’ll have factory farming. What typically happens is welfare groups claim “VICTORY!” and people think its a-okay to eat meat, so long as it comes from an “enhanced colony cages” and attempts to raise larger questions about animal rights are shunted away. So, when welfare groups explicitly make veganism a goal, and frame improvements as steps toward that goal, I’ll fully agree with you.
    JM

  3. I absolutely loved Dr. Oppenlander’s book. While I believe that no animal should die for my own unnecessary pleasures, no matter how “humanely” they were treated, others often don’t feel that way and go the “sustainable” route. It’s nice to be able to counter that with numbers proving that their humane meat isn’t actually sustainable (or humane).

  4. Keith Akers says:

    Richard Oppenlander’s book (which I’ve also read) reflects an important trend, the understanding of the colossal impact livestock have on the environment. I’m especially glad to see that he doesn’t buy the “grass fed beef is so environmental” argument — actually grass fed beef in several important ways is worse.

    The ethical arguments are of critical importance in talking to people about veganism. However, an existential threat to the planet — the environmental damage which threatens human life on earth — has an even greater force in people’s minds. “Save the whales” is nice, but “save the humans” is something considerably more urgent. Thank you for your attention to this topic.

    • CQ says:

      “… considerably more urgent” to most humans, you mean? Not to the whales!

      That reminds me, tangentially, of the African proverb, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

      I look forward to reading Dr. Oppenlander’s book after I finish “The Exultant Ark” by Jonathan Balcombe.

  5. rebecca says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. Give me Kale and Quinoa, any day! It is friggin’ delicious, invigorating food. Having read Diet for a Small Planet back in the 70’s when I was barely a teenager, and therefore read what was the beginning of these land-use discussions, it is a relief to see, decades later, this stuff out in the mainstream being taken more and more seriously. I am grateful writers like you (and even NY Times Food writer Mark Bittman who is evolving in front of everyone on these issues) have the guts to write about a subject that is so weirdly aggression-provoking amongst omnivores. It will never cease to perplex me, the big deal people make about giving up eating animal products. Took me two minutes of thought, the food is even more delicious and varied, and I feel a thousand times better. All the arguments people make in weak defense of eating animal products just sound antiquated and unenlightened to me… not fact-based; as if I am talking to addicts, not intellects. Thanks again for laying it out… Kale Rocks! And Tahini has more calcium than anything!

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