BREAKING NEWS: Raising Farmed Animals is Still Terrible for the Environment

With the United Nations’ 2006 scathing report on animal agriculture, and the recent WorldWatch Magazine article purporting that raising animals for food contributes more than 50% of all greenhouse gases, one would think that the book would be closed on the issue. Unfortunately, we’re not even close to having the last word.

Time Magazine recently posted an error-ridden article entitled “How Cows (Grass-Fed Only) Could Save the Planet.” The fallacies are too numerous to bother detailing, I have already addressed many of them in the past. But let us always resist the baffling logic that says “if grass-fed beef is better for the earth than grain-fed beef, then it must be helping the environment.” If punching someone hurts less than stabbing them, is it helping them heal?

Worse than the Time Magazine article was a story earlier in the week, from an environmental news site, blindly praising Niman Ranch for its supposed sustainability and animal welfare standards. Considering that the cows are still killed in the end, and that the methane that ALL cows emit far outweighs the environmental impact of the fuels, fertilizers, and feed for the cows, there is really no way a cow could be raised to “high welfare standards” or “sustainably.”

Every grass-fed “miracle” story emphasizes that cows can actually help sequester carbon by helping grass grow. But they conveniently leave out or downplay the fact that grass-fed cows emit significantly more methane than grain-fed cows (not that grain-fed cows don’t contribute to a host of other environmental problems), and methane is about 75 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a twenty year period. Additionally, these stories all compare raising grass-fed cows to either raising grain-fed cows (omitting the option to just not eat meat at all!), or to growing vast amounts of monocrops for vegetarians (omitting the fact that most monocrops in the US are grown to feed cows!).

Even if raising grass-fed cows is slightly better for the environment than grain-fed cows (and that is debatable), a vegan world is not only possible, but high preferable. It would be more sustainable, would not raise any animals to be killed, and would more easily nourish the entire earth’s population. Why strive for mediocrity when we can work for total compassion?

Michael Webermann

Michael is the Campaign Coordinator for Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM). He works with activists around the globe for Meatout, World Farm Animals Day, Gentle Thanksgiving, and other year-round public outreach campaigns. He holds a degree in Environmental Economics and Policy from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In his spare time he plays in The Buddy System, a Washington DC-based punk band, and works on public pressure campaigns end mountaintop removal, fight global warming, halt the use of animals for fashion and science, and create a just and equitable world for all people.

9 thoughts on “BREAKING NEWS: Raising Farmed Animals is Still Terrible for the Environment

  1. Often it seems that the vegan position is pushing for the end of cows, sheep, etc.; not merely the end of abusing such animals, but practical extinction. That has to be wrong. They say, for example, that drinking milk means slaughtering cows, and certainly that’s the way it’s done in the slaughter culture, but there is nothing lethal about milking a cow. The trick is in maintaining small herds and training oxen to work, which they enjoy.

    Similarly, sheep do not shed their wool, and so shearing them is bebeficial hygeine. It is also not fatal. One simply has to be averse to killing and to respect the animals’ interests. Again this requires small herds. Just because abusive animal farming is bad, does not mean that a vegetatian cannot do it right.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I don’t wish for cattle to be extinct. Note, however, that there is no such thing as a natural Holstein cow; that is a human-made breed; they don’t exist in nature. Also cattle are not native to the US; a cattle herd displaces natural wildlife.

    There’s nothing in the vegan position that pushes for extinction. On the contrary, I’d like native cattle to roam in native habitats. Similarly, I’d love to see sheep flourish in their native lands. I don’t know any vegans who wish otherwise. In their natural cold-weather habitats, sheep don’t need shearing. Sheep did fine these last millions of years without needing to be sheared.

    Through many years of intensive breeding, dairy cows have been bred to overproduce milk. In nature, mammals generally produce enough milk for their young. Through feed additives and genetic engineering, we’ve gradually forced cows to produce more and more milk. This is hard on their bodies; among other things, it robs them of calcium and makes them more prone to painful udder infections. Furthermore, cows’ wild ancestors have a calf every two years, not every 14 months. The cows naturally live in herds under the protection of a bull.

    If we let cows revert to their normal milk and offspring output, there would be scant milk left over for humans (ignoring the fact that the the protective bull wouldn’t let us near the cow in the first place). There certainly would be no dairy industry.

    Practically speaking, you’re unlikely to find a dairy operation in the US that a) lets the calves stay with their mothers as long as they want to (for females, this might be for life), b) lets dairy cows live normal lifespans, c) does not try to make cows get pregnant earlier and more often than normal. In fact, good luck finding a dairy that does not kill excess calves (those above what would be necessary to replenish the herd) and cows who cannot produce enough milk on a routine basis.

  3. Gary- Thank you, (though a slight correction: Niman only raises beef, not dairy. But Paul is addressing Dairy, so I will continue to as well)

    Paul- we are probably never going to agree on this (I’m certainly not going to ever switch to your position), but I will address your points to clarify to our readers.

    1) The animal rights position is that it is inherently wrong to bring an animal into this world for the purpose of using him or her. I understand that it seems feasible to raise animals ethically, but when we are raising an animal for our benefit, then we are going to put our own interests in front of their when push comes to shove, and that is wrong, especially because we have no need for animal products.

    2) The model you are talking about is completely unreasonable for a global population of 7 billion. Since this post focused on the environment, and since Gary addressed many of the welfare issues well above, I will only address the environmental implication of Paul’s world. Several million cows are already contributing huge amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and Paul’s plan would more than double that number. If all male calves from dairy cows were allowed to live out full lives, and all females were allowed to live out full lives instead of being killed between 3 and 5 years of age, the global warming problem would become astronomical. Assuming these would be grassfed cows as well, the problem would be exacerbated, since grass fed cows create significantly more methane.

  4. I’d like to see an article entitled “How Replacing Cattle Ranches with Wilderness Areas Where Native Wildlife Can Feed on Native Flora Could Save the Planet – And how we’ll be able to to that if we switch to a vegan diet since feeding a country of vegans requires less land than feeding a country of meat-eaters.”

    Niman’s “high welfare standards” include forcing dairy cows to be pregnant or lactating their entire abbreviated adult lives, taking baby calves from their mothers, killing the excess calves, and killing the mothers at about five years old – as soon as they’re not producing the artificially high amounts of milk to be profitable.

    Also people should know that on organic dairy farms, cows who get mastitis infections (a common occurrence since they’re forced to produce so much milk) probably will not receive pain-relieving antibiotics since those are disallowed under organic standards. I.e., they will suffer even more than on conventional farms.

    To say that one raises animals under “high welfare standards” when they repeatedly, intentionally do these things to the animals makes a mockery of the word “welfare.” If the victims were dogs instead of cows, the perpetrators would be convicted of animal cruelty, probably at the felony level. The almost-inconceivable horrors of factory farms have lowered the bar so much that by comparison routine cruelties may seem ‘humane” to the public, which is heavily vested in meat-eating and would like to believe that the animals raised and killed for their meat were treated humanely. But if we use the word in its intended way, to indicate compassionate care, all animal farming in the U.S. is inhumane, and ultimately places business concerns over welfare. Individual operations only differ in the degree to which they are inhumane.

    A humane diet seeks to minimize harm to others as far as practical and possible, and for the vast majority of people in “developed” countries such as the US, this means a vegan diet – at a minimum.

  5. Gary,

    I guess by “nature” you mean “wilderness” or something close to it, because as I see it, the separation of human activities from nature is arbitrary. Like it or not, we cannot go back in time. My family is of European descent. Should I and others of non-Native American ancestry go back to wherever we came from? I don’t know whether I would have to go back to England, Russia, Czechoslovakia, or Italy. Clearly we can only move forward.

    The fact that there are no native Holsteins, I would attribute keeping animals as property, not to their inability to survive in the wild. If somehow all the people disappeared, I have no doubt that the Holsteins would do fine in our absence.

    One could also compare your assessment of Holsteins to many, or perhaps all, breeds of dogs. It so happens that the animals in my family include a cow, three sheep, two goats, a dog, etc., and I don’t see how any of them have less of a right to exist than I do, or how any of them would be better off released to the wild.

    The question of sheep shearing is again an issue of living in the present. Several thousand years ago sheep shed their wool, but that trait has been bred out of them. Now they need to be sheared. Do you really think our sheep would be better off released to the wild, living without our protection? It’s quite unrealistic.

    Your assertion that allowing cows to breed at one calf every two years would leave little or no milk for people is incorrect. Our cow is a heifer so she has not produced milk, but there are three other farms in my area where cows are protected (we are Hare Krishna devotees), and one friend of mine (on one of these farms) had a cow give milk for nine years after having a single calf. Of course the 8th year has much less volume than the first, but still a gallon or two a day is quite sufficient to provide all the dairy needs of a family. As it happened, the family left the country for six months around year six, and the cow went dry during that time; but when the family returned, the cow began giving milk again for over two years more. That milk was the product of a loving relationship shared between the people and the cow, whose calf was right with her all along. By the way, the main Hare Krishna farm in our area has some very elderly cows; as I recall the most recent cow to pass away was 18 years old.

    Now I’m not talking about a “dairy operation.” That term strongly implies an exploitative, profit-oriented business. I’m talking about teaching people to value life and take good care of animals, and enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. Currently the mainstream human relationship with farmed animals is abusive and sick, but the proper resolution is not to abandon the relationship but to heal it.

    A few years ago I edited a book on cow protection produced by the International Society for Cow Protection ( In case you’d like to have a look at it, it’s free for download here:


    Since my response to Gary also addresses your position somewhat, my reply to you will be more brief.

    1. I’m not sure what is your basis for declaring what is “inherently wrong.” I would like our cow bred so that she will have the joy of raising her calf and having that companion. The milk is a byproduct. I’m not sure if you would consider that “using” him or her, because there is a purpose but it is not exploitative.

    2. I hardly think that pushing for animal protection and welfare is less reasonable than the vegan position of pushing for abandoning the use of animal products based on a supposed animal rights ideal. Is 7 billion vegans realistic? lol. Good luck with that.

    Concerning global warming, as I said, cow protection works with relatively small herds. The cattle population effects of widespread prohibiting of their slaughter would be speculative, but considering that (according to HSUS) about 17% of beef comes from dairy cows, my initial expectation is that the overall population would drop.

    The goal of cow protection farms is not only milk production. At least in Vedic culture, we protect the cow because it pleases God, Krishna, who is commonly known as Govinda (“giver of pleasure to cows”) or Gopala (“protector of cows”). We have one cow, and as I said, our main reason for wanting a calf is for the cow’s pleasure, not the milk, though we do like milk a lot. We offer the milk to Krishna, who blesses the cow, and then we honor and enjoy the milk. Everyone benefits. The manure is also an essential component of our garden. I guess with the vegan idea we would be mostly dependent on petrochemical fertilizers, which isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.

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