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ISSUE 120 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/27/2006

Meat sustains economy

By Ben Heidgerken
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 27, 2006

After reading April Wright’s article “Meat costs environment, Caf” in last issue’s Messenger, I decided that the St. Olaf community needed a different, positive view of what “sustainable” livestock agriculture is. All of my data come from, the United States Department of Agriculture website, and personal experience from my family’s beef cattle ranch in Western South Dakota.

In order to recognize that livestock production has a legitimate place within agriculture, it is first important to note that not all land is created equal. Of the 1.156 billion acres of agricultural land in the United States, 788 million are used as grazing land. There are various reasons that so much would be used in what Ms. Wright would call an “unsustainable” way.

Features of the land, such as topographical inconsistency, mineral deficiencies and rocky ground, make it infeasible to plant in many parts of the nation. Another major factor is precipitation; a large percentage of the nation’s land does not receive enough annual rainfall to harvest edible crops consistently. Irrigation is a possibility, but water tables nationwide are dropping, so this option is irresponsible in the long run. Combining these factors, a total of 85 percent of the nation’s grazing land – 670 million acres – is unsuitable for crop production. It is a much better and sustainable use of this land to raise what can be eaten than to leave it fallow or to struggle against the natural environment of the area.

Ms. Wright is correct in stating that energy is lost converting grain into meat. Despite these losses, there is a relatively small amount of trade off between human crops and livestock crops. Cattle spend a large portion of their lives grazing, not eating grain, and they do not compete with human resources during these periods. In addition, the silage fed to cattle consists of grasses, grains and grain byproducts that are unable to be processed by the human digestive system. For instance, the part of soybeans that is fed to livestock is the inedible protein flakes that remain after the soybean oil has been extracted for human consumption.

Water is also “lost” in producing meat, but not as dramatically as Ms. Wright indicates. In comparing beef to wheat, Ms. Wright states that 500 to 1000 times as much water is used in beef production. This statistic is extraordinarily high; suggests a ratio no more than 20 to one.

All told, the total number of U.S. cropland acres “traded” to raise crops for livestock instead of for humans is about 81.9 million. There is good reason that these crops – and in fact a majority of the rest of crop production – are not used to raise crops for human consumption. Harvesting such a high-quality product on such a large scale requires much more labor in the agricultural industry than is currently available. Instead, different techniques that produce a product indigestible by humans are used to increase harvesting efficiency.

Ms. Wright is also correct to mention livestock manure as problematic. Factory farms, to which I am also opposed in principle, are a source of a large amount of excess livestock waste. However, it is inaccurate to state that manure, as a whole, “doesn’t end up as fertilizer.” More than 50 percent of cattle manure is produced in conditions where it can be composted naturally, and a considerable percentage of confined cattle manure is also able to be reclaimed. As for her statements about disproportionate soil erosion and oil consumption, neither is substantially greater because of livestock production; the cropland harvested to feed livestock would need to be planted even if it were used for human food, and this use still requires substantial quantities of oil and causes just as much erosion.

Ms. Wright and I agree that there is a problem with American livestock production, but our solutions are vastly different. In my opinion, sustainable livestock production begins by reducing the power given to factory farms and packing plants as the middle men of the industry and by minimizing the amount of grain that goes into cattle production. These practices will create a sustainable solution that does not require the systematic elimination of one of the largest sectors of the American economy.

Contributing Writer Ben Heidgerken is a senior from Rapid City, S.D. He majors in religion and in mathematics.

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