Going vegetarian won’t save the planet

Op-eds Opinions

Blaming the beef industry actually distracts from its potential to be a sustainable food source

A beef cow in  grassland with a cowboy hat and a steak, graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

“Becoming a vegetarian is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint and live a more sustainable lifestyle.”

We’ve likely all heard this by now. It frequents lists describing the best ways individuals can reduce their carbon footprint, usually making the top five. Even if you can’t commit to veganism or vegetarianism, we’re told that at least reducing your meat consumption will have a large impact, especially when it comes to beef. Between the large amounts of land needed, high resource inputs, and methane emissions from cattle digestion, beef has become the big bad guy of food sustainability.

While there are many reasons people might choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, the environmental argument to do so is too simple to be helpful. It actually distracts from conversations about how to make our food systems sustainable, which will likely involve both livestock and crop agriculture reform.

The numbers are grim when you compare the environmental impact of beef versus plant-based options, so people argue that the obvious conclusion is to stop eating beef. This argument often cites carbon emission figures based on global averages and the most damaging practices, like deforestation for rangeland. Experts hotly contest the accuracy of these numbers, which vary depending on what you choose to include in the calculation. Global numbers lack regional context, which is crucial to understanding the impact beef has on local environments. 

Canada’s beef is largely produced in the prairie provinces, with Alberta being home to the largest herd of cattle according to the most recent agriculture census. Eating Canadian beef means you are most likely eating cattle raised in the prairies. We are not clearing Amazonian rainforest to make way for our insatiable taste for steak and, in fact, cattle ranching can help conserve our own biodiverse grassland ecosystems. 

As a former resident of the foothills of Alberta, I have a special respect for the grasslands. Aside from their breathtaking beauty, they have the potential to play a massive role in climate change mitigation. Healthy grassland can store huge amounts of carbon, as well as prevent soil erosion, filter water, and provide biodiverse habitat. People are beginning to discuss the importance of grasslands and preserving them, and we need to remember that cattle can help in this effort.

Canada’s grasslands co-evolved with bison. Before colonists caused their near extinction in the 1800s, the impact of their grazing on grassland ecosystems of the Great Plains earned them the distinction as a keystone herbivore. An estimated 30 million bison are thought to have roamed the plains of North America, and this is the conservative end of estimates. Grasslands evolved with rotational disturbances caused by these massive herbivores, benefitting from grazing and fertilization through their manure. 

The near-extinction of plains bison is its own despicable-but-common story of colonizers working to control Indigenous populations through destroying their way of life. Focussing on the environment, however, the loss of this keystone species was a massive disruption for grassland ecosystems. Bison and cattle cannot be seen as identical ecologically, but with proper grazing management and attention to conservation, cattle can fill a similar role.

While there are many efforts to conserve plains bison and restore their role as the great grazers of the grasslands, cattle are by far the dominant species. There are massive amounts of privately held rangeland in Canada’s prairies that are currently ranched with cattle. We need to focus on promoting ranching practices that help preserve our native grassland and keep it healthy, rather than making sweeping statements about how damaging beef is for the environment. 

People are rightfully stressed about the impacts of our choices on the environment in the face of the climate crisis. Diet has become a hot topic because it is something that individuals can control and make immediate changes to. But with an agricultural model that creates a massive gap between food production and consumers, the way we discuss food systems really matters. This narrative about reducing beef consumption for the environment has become commonplace and has a real impact on how people view their food.

The truth is that food is complicated. The point here is not to villainize people who choose vegetarian or vegan diets, but instead to add more nuance to our discussion of diet choices. I don’t pretend that the beef industry is perfect or that it will save us from the worst of climate change, but there are important factors to discuss about what kind of food system we want to have. 

Cattle and other ruminants fit into our natural landscapes, however imperfectly. They turn grass into human nutrition while helping to maintain ecosystems. We can also make use of the whole animal like their fats and hides, saving the production of those materials elsewhere.

As for me, I am going to continue eating beef. I will also continue to research and learn about sustainable farming practices and how I can use my purchases to support the market for sustainable beef. 

When I buy a package of Canadian ground beef, it is my uncle that I picture, a rancher in northeastern Alberta. The uncle who stops the truck while we are out doing farm chores to point out a specific native species of grass, which only grows on this one hill in the whole surrounding area.

I may be romanticizing cattle ranching, imagining the wide expanses of native prairie that I am familiar with, watched over by my uncle who is a grass nerd and cares about grassland health. But my perspective gives me pause when I am faced with the environmental argument to stop eating beef in order to save the environment. It’s just not that simple. 

We are going to have to tear down and rebuild our food systems if we are going to survive as a species. Agriculture, the beef industry included, will need a lot of work before it is sustainable. In fact, we probably do need to reduce our meat consumption to achieve a sustainable model. But to villainize the entire industry is to push out important perspectives on agriculture and sustainability — ones that we desperately need for our future.