Beyond Rifkin

When John Maynard Keynes published his GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY in 1936 a reviewer remarked:  “what is true is  not new and what is new is not true.”  History proved the reviewer wrong.  But for jeremy Rifkin’s new book, BEYOND BEEF, it is an apt summation.  Moreover, since the book draws heavily on doubtful, secondary sources for its information, there is also much in the book that is neither new nor true.

That’s unfortunate.  Rifkin is acknowledged as a prominent social and agricultural gadfly.  Some of his books have made important contributions to social concerns.  But this new book is simply not credible.  It lacks factual data, it vastly oversimplified issues, and it imposes conclusions that cannot be reasonably justified.  

Rifkin’s message is simplistic.  Get rid of beef and we solve most of the world’s problems.  Wendell Berry reminded us over a decade ago that when we attempt to solve a problem by reducing it to some “handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it,” we only succeed in turning it into a false problem.  BEYOND BEEF is exhibit A.

This is not to exonerate the beef industry.  Hundreds of thoughtful spokespersons (many of them IN the beef industry) have acknowledged that there are enormous problems with factory beef agriculture.  But there are also thousands of ranchers who have always raised cattle in the more traditional, humane, ecologically responsible way.  Additionally, thousands more have recently adopted the controversial Holistic Resource Management proposals of Allan Savory and demonstrated very beneficial environmental results.  Rifkin ignored all that and takes cheap pot shots at beef itself.

Let me cite just a few examples:

Rifkin reiterates the old, tired argument that cattle are responsible for world hunger because they consume enormous amounts of grain that should be used to feed humans.  In the first place at least 80% of the nutrients consumed by cattle come from sources that are not suitable for human consumption, like grass, crop residues, and weather damaged grains.  If these feedstuffs were not consumed by livestock they would be lost as nutrients for human consumption.  Furthermore, if it weren’t for ruminants, over a billion acres of U.S. land would not be utilized to produce human food since it is unsuitable for crop production.  My farm in North Dakota is not atypical in this regard.  

Of the 3,100 acres on our organic farm, over 900 acres are native grass and will always remain so since the land is too fragile for crop production.  If it weren’t for our cattle those 900 acres would produce no protein for human consumption.  Furthermore, not a single kernel of our grain is fed to our cattle.  They are grazed on native grass, and fed alfalfa hay (grown on land too fragile for annual crop production) millet straw (residue left over after the grain is harvested) and grain screenings (the weed seeds and broken kernels gleaned from the grain).  Farmers and ranchers generally opt for such feeding strategies simply because they are less expensive than feeding grain.  

Rifkin is oblivious to all of that.  He even inserts a new wrinkle into the cattle vs human polemic:  cattle are also responsible for homelessness!  “While we are packed together in tight urban corridors,” he writes, “nearly 29% of the landmass of the United States is currently used as grazing land, primarily to feed cattle.”  Rifkin acknowledges that urban overcrowding takes place primarily along the seaboards while cattle-feeding areas are mostly west of the Mississippi.  Yet it never occurs to him that there is plenty of room for urbanites to settle in America’s middle states despite the presence of cattle.  Within a five-mile radius of my farm in North Dakota, for example, there are more than two dozen abandoned farm houses.  The last time I looked no cows had moved in.  

Next Rifkin asserts that cattle are responsible for an unprecedented ecological disaster.  Cattle are “one of the most destructive environmental threats of the modern era.”  This sweeping conclusion is based on the allegation that cattle are responsible for deforestation, overgrazing, water pollution and consumption, and global warming.  

Clearly livestock have contributed to these problems, but the fault hardly lies with cattle per se.  Cattle are not permanently married to feedlots and rainforests.  Cattle could (and should) be returned to the land.  Dispersed on diversified farms, cattle could convert crop residues into human food.  Their manure could supply a major portion of soil fertility needs.  

Moreover, farmers all over the world are demonstrating that cattle can be one of our most important resources for conservation.  For example, cattle manure (which Rifkin calls “organic WASTE”) is one of the most valuable and effective sources for building organic matter and fertility in soil.  Properly composted, manure is one of the most environmentally benign sources of fertilizer.  If it were fully utilized it would drastically reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen, known to e one of the principle sources of nitrates in water.  Since soil high in organic matter absorbs and retains more water, manure can also reduce the need for irrigation and curtail soil erosion caused by water run-off.  Thousands of farmers and ranchers are now using manure to achieve these objectives.  Furthermore, grass is one of the most effective ways of rebuilding soil.  In Southern Italy and Lebanon where soils have been badly eroded from continuous crop production, fields have been planted to grass to produce hay for livestock as a means of restoring the soil.  On many European farms fields are regularly rotated to grass for grazing livestock as a perpetual means of building and conserving soil.  Additionally, as Allan Savory has conclusively demonstrated,”herd impact” is an important part of nature’s plant production system.  

According to Rifkin, cattle are also the main cause of global warming.  But methane is the only greenhouse gas that can legitimately be attributed to cattle.  Other emissions are due to specific management practices that are not essential to beef production.  These emissions can thus be shut down without eliminating cattle. And if methane is the culprit we have to turn our attention to other sources.  Wetlands are the source of 21% of all methane emission.  Rice growing comprises 20%. All domestic animals combined account for only 14% of total methane emission.  and US cattle constitute only 1.1%.

Ironically, cattle indirectly reduce methane emission.  Burning biomass and dumping organic wastes into landfills accounts for 17% of methane emission.  If it weren’t for cattle consuming tons of potato residue, corn cannery waste, sugar beet pulp, grain screenings, oil seed residues, brewers grain and millers residues, these wastes would also likely be burned or end up in landfills. Getting rid of cattle, in other words, would only exchange one source of methane for another.  Meanwhile we’d lose the protein for human consumption.  

Finally, we are told “millions are dying from [eating] grain-fed beef”. Rifkin asserts that eating beef necessarily increases cholesterol.  Untrue.  Scientists now seem to agree that modest amounts of lean, red meat do not increase cholesterol.  Moreover, Dr. Maria Linder, nutritionist and bio-chemist at California State University suggests a different scenario.  It may be that the absence of livestock manure (rich in micro-nutrients) from our fields accounts for the absence of important micro=nutrients in our food.  Since some of these micro-nutrients enhance the body’s capacity to expel cholesterol, Dr. Linder believes that the absence of these micro-nutrients may be as much a source of our cholesterol problem as the amount of cholesterol we take in.  If she is right, getting rid of cattle could, once again, be a case of creating the very problem we are trying to solve.  

The potential tragedy of Rifkin’s book is that its lack of credibility could spill over on the hard working individuals and groups who are committed to gathering factual data and developing effective coalitions for change.  Real change comes about when farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, food activists, and food industry representatives sit at the same table to address the real problems and hammer out practical solutions that are good for people, good for animals and good for earth.  There is little glamour in that, just hard, painstaking work.  The Humane Society of the United States stands out as one of the  premier organizations attending to such work where animals are concerned.

One way of moving beyond Rifkin is to give the Humane Society a call and find out what is really happening.  

[Bio:  Dr. Kirschenmann is the manager of Kirschenmann Family Farms, a 3,100 acre Biodynamic farm  in  south central North Dakota.  He also serves as the president of Farm Verified Organic (FVO), and president of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA).]  Originally published in Natural Health Magazine. This article is fair use under U.S. copyright law because it is (1) noncommercial, (2) transformative in nature, and (3) does not compete with the original work and could have no negative effect on its market.


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