By: Emme Laundry
On Oct. 14, 2020, American students wrote essays on the rhetorical effectiveness of “Actually, Raising Beef Is Good for the Planet,” an article by cattle rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman featured in the SAT. As a vegan who’s passionate about activism and sustainability education, writing an essay explaining how effective this article’s rhetoric was pained me, to say the least–knowing so many others were reading the same thing and likely believing it was even worse.
Hahn Niman starts out by claiming that agriculture accounts for only 8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that most of that is due to crop farming. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, animal agriculture is the leading cause of GHG emissions from forestry and other land use caused by deforestation, and it relies on fossil fuels extensively for transporting and drying grain, manufacturing fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment, tillage, and generating electricity used in agriculture. Globally, CO2 from fossil fuel and industrial processes makes up 65 percent of GHG emissions, and it takes eight times as much energy from fossil fuels to produce animal protein as the same amount of plant protein.
Hahn Niman also states that we can lessen the damage cattle farming does to the environment. Even if we ignore the fact that no supplements or “good management” could mitigate the damage more than just not producing as much beef, Hahn Niman’s suggested methods are only plausible for small-scale farming operations; no corporation will spend money to reduce environmental harm when they don’t have a financial incentive to do so. This is a huge problem because research by the Sentience Institute found that 99 percent of meat in the United States comes from factory farms.
The main argument in favor of raising beef goes like this: cattle are good for stimulating vegetative growth and fostering seed germination which helps restore carbon to the soil, leading to an offset in methane emissions. This thinking hinges on the idea that cattle raised on grass have less of a carbon footprint than those that aren’t, such as feedlot cattle which spend about half their lives eating corn and other grains. NPR reports that since grass-fed cattle have longer lifespans, any positive effect this method may have on ecosystems are negated by the fact that each one produces almost double the amount of methane as feedlot cattle.
Hahn Niman’s second major argument about cattle’s consumption of water is just as deceptive. She claims that one pound of beef uses 441 gallons of water, which is not much more than for a pound of rice. This estimate is extremely conservative and doesn’t come close to representing reality. Hahn Niman’s data doesn’t take into account the water used in growing the feed and processing and shipping the beef. Animal agriculture is a leading consumer of water in the United States, and past studies have found the amount of water needed to produce a pound of grass-fed beef to be anywhere from hundreds of gallons to several thousand depending on the study. According to research from Cornell University, a third of all consumed water goes towards irrigating crops used to feed cattle, and in some areas, that figure rises to more than 50 percent. Hahn Niman’s estimate is far from representative of the true numbers, but what motivation would a cattle rancher have to downplay the harm in supporting the meat industry?
Since livestock, especially cattle, consume so many more crops than humans do, we could significantly reduce the amount of water used for agriculture by just replacing those crops with ones that are edible for humans and eating them directly. In the United States, 781.4 million acres of land are used as pasture land and livestock food production, while only 77.3 acres are used for crops we eat directly. Crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat that are commonly used as livestock feed are usually grown as monocultures, causing soil degradation and the destruction of large swaths of forested area. Adopting agricultural methods like agroforestry in our food systems could help to stabilize the global climate with ecologically sound methods of food production, while producing diverse crops that can be used to feed people instead of cattle and even reversing some of the negative effects of industrial livestock production.
The misinformation in Hahn Niman’s article might not seem like a big deal to some, but in the past few decades, climate activists have fought to ensure that the impacts of animal agriculture are addressed in conversations about the climate crisis. Data from market research publisher GlobalData shows that from 2015 to 2018, there was a 600 percent increase in the number of people who identify as vegan, and many make the decision specifically for the environment. Presenting an article like this to hundreds of thousands of teens that don’t have the resources in that moment to fact check the information could greatly hinder that progress, especially when the article in question was featured specifically because of its persuasiveness. If I could go back to October and write the essay again, I now know exactly what I would say: in this article, Hahn Niman uses misrepresented data and cherry-picked information to convince the reader that raising beef is good for the planet, and it’s dangerously effective.
Emme Laundry ’25 is from Seattle, Washington. She loves cats, cooking, and listening to audiobooks. She hates writing about herself.