Too Much Bad Beef


Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes first started paying attention to cows during a trip to the United Kingdom, where they were struck by the many small-scale herds they encountered in roadside pastures. They realized that back in the US, they seldom saw cows, since many are sequestered in giant barns or industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

When they returned home, Gail—a retired environmental lawyer—started reading about cows and was struck by how important their story was. Soon, she was urging Denis to join in on her research project.

The result was their upcoming book Cowed (W.W. Norton, March 2015). In it, Denis and Gail, as the book’s subtitle promises, look deeply into The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.


“As a source of labor and food, cows were integral to the settlement of the American frontier,” they write. And today, the impacts of America’s 93 million cows on our lives are profound—from their climate footprint to the environmental harm caused by growing tons of genetically modified corn for their feed to the fact that cow parts are in hundreds of common consumer products—even though most people don’t know about it. 

Green America editor-in-chief Tracy Fernandez Rysavy talked to Denis Hayes—president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, former director of the National Renewable Energy Lab, and the national coordinator of the first Earth Day—about the impact of cows, our impacts on them, why it’s imperative that the world eat less beef, and why he and Gail won’t call for everyone to turn vegetarian or vegan.

First Step: 
Eat Less Beef
(then keep going!)

If you or someone you love is a meat-eater, a good first step to a lower ”foodprint” is to eat 
less beef.

Cowed co-author Denis Hayes recommends limiting your beef intake to no more than half a pound per week—a 70 percent reduction for the average American—and making it organic and grass-fed and -finished, as well as local. (See labels)

Then, consider going vegetarian or vegan, at least part-time. Try embracing the popular “Meatless Monday” movement and eschewing meat and dairy one day a week. Or you can try New York Times food writer Mark Bittman’s advice and go “vegan till 6”—i.e. eat vegan meals and snacks until dinnertime on a daily basis.

Once you’ve achieved that reduction in your overall meat consumption, consider adding in even more vegetarian and vegan meals, until you cut your meat consumption in half.

If you can go vegetarian or vegan for good, you’ll do even more for the climate, the Earth, animals, and your health.

Green American/Tracy Fernandez Rysavy: Why Cowed? What made you want to write a book about cows?

Denis Hayes: That’s what everyone asks! Cows are the Rodney Dangerfield of animals—they get no respect.

If we’d written a book about dogs, we’d almost be guaranteed a best seller. Dogs share our homes. Of course, cow parts are in every room of our homes, too, but we aren’t aware of it. 

When was the last time you encountered an actual cow? Americans never interact with real cows today the way we did when I was a kid. We’ve moved 93 million cows to remote, gigantic, sometimes-barbaric, confined animal feeding operations [CAFOs] where they are out-of-sight, out-of-smelling-range, and out-of-mind. Cows deserve better than that. 

GA/Tracy: What kind of cow parts aren’t we aware of in our homes? Does that mean it’s not possible to be truly vegan or cow-free?

Denis: It depends on how narrowly you define vegan.

Americans don’t just eat. “Consumption” includes clothing, furniture, laptops, and medicine. It’s not hard to avoid jackets, shoes, and belts made of leather. But cow parts are in everything from lipstick to fabric softener, and people generally don’t know it. Can someone who doesn’t eat meat but has a new mitral valve in his heart made from a cow’s pericardial tissue call himself a vegan?

GA/Tracy: Let’s talk impacts. Our diets have a big impact on the environment and the climate. But your recommendation, surprisingly, was not to go vegetarian or vegan.

Denis: My wife and I admire vegetarians and vegans. We’ve been mostly vegetarian for decades. The more meat a diet contains, the greater its environmental impact, definitely including climate impact. But, according to a poll done for the Vegetarian Times, just 3.2 percent of American adults are vegetarian. I wish that number was ten times larger, but wishing won’t make it so.

Cowed is aimed at the other 97 percent. Unless we can significantly shift that vast majority who are still eating meat—often a lot of meat— we are not going to achieve enough environmental change fast enough to matter. 

America has the third-highest beef consumption in the world (behind Argentina, and, of all places, Luxembourg.) The average American male eats 85 pounds of beef a year! And that beef is mostly marbled (a Madison Avenue word for fat) and is typically produced under inhumane conditions in CAFOs.

Someone who eats 85 pounds of beef—and remember that is merely the average for men—is not a prime candidate to go vegan. But if we can persuade those people to reduce their consumption from 1.6 pounds of bad beef every week to, say, one-half pound of good, healthy beef from the right sources, the benefits for human health and the environment will be profound. 

Our goal with Cowed is to significantly reduce the amount of beef consumed overall while shifting people to healthier, organic, grass-fed and -finished beef. Because of the way federal subsidies for agribusiness operate, grass-fed, humanely raised beef is more expensive than corn-stuffed beef from miserable cows. But if you reduce your beef consumption to healthier levels and turn to better beef, you can be far healthier and save money at the same time.

Cowed authors, Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes

GA/Tracy: The facts you gave about cows’ impact on our water supply—particularly the Ogallala aquifer—were, frankly, terrifying.

Denis: There aren’t many economic activities more water-intensive than raising conventional beef cattle. On average, it takes 840 gallons of water to produce one pound of grain-fed beef. 

The Ogallala lies beneath Nebraska and parts of Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and South Dakota. The Ogallala provides nearly a third of all groundwater used for irrigation in the nation, and it waters 40 percent of all the grain fed to cows. 

But the Ogallala has a very slow recharge rate, and much of it essentially doesn’t recharge at all. Over the last century, we’ve pumped out more than two-thirds of the water in the aquifer—enough to fill Lake Erie. We’ve also covered the whole aquifer with industrial agriculture, with its fertilizers and pesticides, as well as a very large number of CAFOs with their leaky lagoons. So we are contaminating the Ogallala as well as draining it. 

Parts of the Ogallala have already stopped producing usable water, and the entire aquifer could reach the end of its useful life within 25 years. How important is that in the big picture? One-fourth of all agricultural products in the US are grown with Ogallala water.

GA/Tracy: How serious is the environmental footprint of cows? Where do cow-related emissions come from, beyond their burp and “tailpipe” gas, as you call it.

Denis: As a rough rule of thumb, eating a pound of beef has a somewhat greater climate impact than burning a gallon of gasoline. Conventional, grain-fed, feedlot beef produces five times more global warming per calorie, requires 11 times more water, and uses 28 times as much land as pork or poultry. Overall, the climate impacts of cows stretch from the diesel machinery and fertilizer in the cornfields to the vast quantities of greenhouse gases given off by the so-called “lagoons” into which feedlots dump their poop.

GA/Tracy: Is grass-fed beef really much better than beef from CAFOs, in terms of climate impact? Author John Robbins says that if we ate as much grass-fed beef as we do factory-farmed beef, it would still be a climate disaster.

Denis: John is an old friend and one of my longtime heroes in the space where diet intersects the environment. His fundamental point is irrefutable—a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet is better for the environment. Beef and dairy cows, combined, produce almost nine percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases. That’s a stupendous number, especially since billions of people eat no beef at all. 

Cows’ ancestors evolved their complex stomachs eating grass, not corn. Grass-based diets have been beta tested and perfected over a very long time. The world’s plains and prairies will sequester more and more carbon each year if planted with perennial grasses; when planted with annual cereals, like corn, they instead put net soil carbon into the atmosphere every year. 

Local ranching also diminishes the carbon footprint of transportation, processing, and of cow poop. The dif- ference in impact between a Big Mac and a quarter-pound of LeftCoast GrassFed Beef—or beef from Green America-certified businesses like Kol Foods and Green Zabiha—is enormous.

GA/Tracy: Is it possible to quantify that on any front?

Denis: Although the methane from grassed cows and corn-fed cows is similar (most studies have the grass-fed cows giving off less), the grass-fed cows live longer, so perhaps each grass-fed cow gives off more methane during its lifetime. But that’s an irrelevant metric. The question is how much CO2-equivalent do you get per pound of beef, and that’s where grass-fed wins—along with, of course, the gargantuan climate advantages of perennial grasses over annual corn.

GA/Tracy: Our readers may find it interesting that you’re in favor of eating grass-fed beef to create a market to preserve the species.

Denis: Gail and I think of it this way: Aurochs—the fierce, intelligent, self-reliant, wild creatures that were the ancestors of all cows—were very successful in the natural world, much like bison. In both cases, the same apex predator, humans, changed the balance, exterminating the aurochs and nearly eliminating the bison.

We humans have bred cows to meet our needs but left them completely dependent on us. What is an animal that produces 50 gallons of milk a day going to do in the wilderness? The average cow has no survival skills. So unless people can make a living raising cows, cows will disappear. 

Various cow by-products permeate our lives, but cow economics are utterly dominated by demand for beef and milk. That’s why Temple Grandin—who has as much empathy for cows as any human being—is comfortable eating them. There’s not much of a market for companion cows or lap cows. 

Raising cows correctly, whether for beef or milk, is incredibly hard work. Doing it on a small scale eliminates economies of mass production. Organic, grass-fed and -finished beef operates on deep commitment and small margins. If no one is willing to pay a premium for a healthy product from a local rancher who treats his cows as sentient beings, sustainably raised cows and their keepers will disappear.

GA/Tracy: Many people go vegan because they’re concerned about the horrific manner in which animals are slaughtered for meat, even if it’s grass-fed beef. What are common worst and best practices for cow slaughter?

Denis: Finding local or mobile humane processing plants is the greatest hurdle for most small ranchers trying to raise their cattle humanely. 

Federal law requires animals to be unconscious when they are killed, but its enforcement (to be generous) is spotty. Moreover, the law itself doesn’t apply to individual farms or certain religious practices. Even in slaughterhouses where the law ostensibly is in full effect, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups have videotaped so many incidents of gratuitous cruelty—skinning cows while they are alive and conscious, hanging a live cow by its tail, ramming live cows with the blades of a forklift—that I feel ashamed to be a member of my species.

Several states have responded to these outrages, not with rigorously enforced anti-cruelty laws, but instead with “ag-gag” laws that make it a crime to videotape animal cruelty! 

For people who wish to eat beef from cows who were treated humanely throughout their lives, the only real assurance (other than becoming a rancher yourself) is provided by independent certification. My friend, Wayne Pacelle, serves on the board of the Global Animal Partnership. It offers five levels of certification, nudging ranchers toward ever tougher standards. The top level, 5+, is the gold standard in this field. However, we interviewed ranchers who for a variety of good reasons chose to use “Certified Humane” or “American Welfare Approved.” All three provide consumers a high degree of confidence that cows were not mistreated during their lives or subjected to cruelty, fear, or pain in their final moments.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Mark Morford said he eats meat, but only “grass-fed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.” If you’d like to do the same, look for these labels on beef products:
USDA Process Verified Label To ensure that beef is grass-fed, look for a USDA Process Verified seal on the label. When it appears next to a “grass-fed” label or statement on a beef product, this voluntary seal means that the government has verified that the cow has received a majority of its diet from pasture for the entirety of its life after weaning. The label does not limit the use of antibiotics or hormones.
The USDA does not have a standard definition for the term “grass-finished.” If you see it on a label, it likely means the cow received a pasture diet in the last few months of its life. Grass-fed cows with the certifications in this box are also grass-finished.
USDA Certified Organic Label The certified organic label ensures that cows are fed organic feed, receive 30 percent of their food from pasture, and were not given preventative antibiotics or hormones.
American Grass-fed Label The American Grassfed Association (AGA) seal ensures that the cows live on family farms, are treated humanely on the farm, and are fed grass all their adult lives. They are also never treated with antibiotics or hormones, or confined to feedlots.

Animal Welfare Approved Label

The Animal Welfare Approved label includes all the requirements of the AGA seal, but it also mandates that cows be treated humanely during breeding, transport, and slaughter.
Step 5 Label The top level of Global Animal Partnerhip 5+ certification is the gold standard for humane treatment of the farm animals it certifies—currently beef, pigs, and chickens/turkeys, with more types to come in the future. Each step has its own requirements, encouraging farmers to “move up the ladder.”


GA/Tracy: In the book, you go into the 
well-known health effects of eating too much beef: a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer. One thing that shocked me is that prion diseases in people might be more prevalent than many think due to beef consumption.

Denis: The human equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, is Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), an incurable, fatal disease that eats holes in human brains, much like BSE does in cows. CJD can just occur in the human brain, be inherited, or be transmitted through exposure to infected tissues. 

When people eat meat from BSE-infected cows, they swallow infectious prions, or misshapen proteins. Those who are susceptible develop a type of CJD called variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which means the disease was caused by eating infected meat.

Although 35 million cows are slaughtered annually in the US, only 40,000 are tested for BSE. A century after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, we expected meat safety to be far better regulated than it is. But, as a result of a terrible interpretation of an obscure 1913 law, American ranchers are absolutely prohibited from testing their beef for mad cow! The government successfully sued a rancher to stop him from testing his own cows at this own expense. We were astonished and appalled.

Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner thinks Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases (ALS, Parkinson’s) might be prion diseases. In one study of 46 patients who had been clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, autopsies disclosed that six (13 percent) actually had CJD. Other autopsies of presumed Alzheimer’s patients discovered 3 to 5.5 percent actually had CJD. In 2012, the CDC estimated that 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. If, say, four percent of them actually have CJD, that would equal 216,000 cases of CJD—far, far higher than the 314 deaths per year that would be expected with the United States’ current population. If we’re missing huge numbers of CJD cases, might we also be missing vCJD cases among older persons?

Prion diseases have received far less attention than they deserve in the US. We need to do a far better job of diagnosing and understanding such diseases in both cows and in people.


While there is no such thing as a genetically modified (GM) cow, conventional cattle in the US eat feed that is mostly made up of GM corn and soy. In fact, 88 percent of the US corn crop and 94 percent of the US soy crop is GMO, and the vast majority of both goes to feed animals, especially cows. If you eat meat or dairy, the best way to avoid feeding the GMO machine is to buy organic. When organic beef or dairy cows are fed grain, it must be 100 percent organic. 

Our latest campaign from Green America’s GMO Inside program targets Starbucks, asking it to serve only organic dairy milk. The popular chain is already a leader in the coffee-shop industry, as it serves rBGH-free dairy and using only USDA-certified organic soy milk. Visit to learn more.

Read our 5 Steps to Better Dairy»


GA/Tracy: What surprised you most in doing this research?

Denis: One pleasant surprise was how very much we liked and admired all the folks who are trying to do cows right. They are smart, pragmatic, hard-working problem-solvers, with a sense of humor to boot. All are frustrated by a regulatory framework and government incentives that use their own tax dollars to stack the economic deck steeply against them. But they don’t sit around and whine about it. 

Every one of them, from an artisanal cheese maker on Vashon Island to rugged-but-college-educated ranch hands in remote Montana, could make more money doing something else. But they love what they are doing, and they are making a decent living. 

Combine these producers with the best stores, the best restaurants, and even the best chains, like Chipotle, and you begin to get a glimpse of a whole new economy. It is real people interacting with their neighbors at a reasonable scale, and it sidesteps the faceless, inhumane grotesqueries of industrial agribusiness.

Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment is available now for preorder at your favorite bookstore and will be released March 9, 2015.

From Green American Magazine Issue