Let them Eat Kale (and Quinoa): Richard Oppenlander Offers a Brilliant Critique
March 12, 2012 6 Comments
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.