Joel’s Rebuttal to Article in NY Times

For those of you who didn’t see the article in the NY Times I have attached a link below so you can read “The Myth of Sustainable Meat” written by James E. McWilliams that was published on April 12th….

The Myth of Sustainable Meat

After being swamped by emails Joel eloquently responded to this with the letter below…it has yet to be published. This was posted on our FB page but I felt this was important enough to re-post….

To the New York Times and everyone interested in truth:

The recent editorial by James McWilliams titled THE MYTH OF SUSTAINABLE MEAT contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response.  But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate.  For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book  FOLKS, THIS AIN’T NORMAL.

Let’s go point by point.

First, that grass grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed.  This is factually false.  Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside.  Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical.  Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world;  herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration.  Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands.  Quick, or we’ll all perish.  I assume he’s figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions.  But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane.  This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds:  herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.

As for his notion that it takes too much land to grass-finish, his figures of 10 acres per animal are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures.  At Polyface, we call it neanderthal management because most livestock farmers have not yet joined the 20th century with electric fencing, ponds, piped water, and modern scientific aerobic composting (only as old as chemical fertilization).  Hence, while his figures comparing the relative production of grain to grass may sound compelling, they are like comparing the learning opportunities under a terrible teacher versus a magnificent teacher.  Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, bio-mimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.  The rain forest, by the way, is not being cut to graze cattle.  It’s being cut to grow transgenic corn and soybeans.  North America had twice as many herbivores 500 years ago than it does today due to the pulsing of the predator-prey-pruning cycle on perennial prairie polycultures.  And that was without any corn or soybeans at all.

Apparently if you lie often and big enough, some people will believe it:  pastured chicken has a 20 percent greater impact on global warming?  Says who?  The truth is that those industrial chicken houses are not stand-alone structures.  They require square miles of grain to be carted into them, and square miles of land to handle the manure.  Of course, many times that land is not enough.  To industrial farmers’ relief, more often than not a hurricane comes along just in time to flush the toilet, kill the fish, and send pathogens into the ocean.  That’s a nice way to reduce the alleged footprint, but it’s devilish sleight of hand with the data to assume that ecological toxicity compensates for the true land base needed to sustain a factory farm.

While it’s true that at Polyface our omnivores (poultry and pigs) do eat local GMO (genetically modified organism) free grain in addition to the forage, the land base required to feed and metabolize the manure is no different than that needed to sustain the same animals in a confinement setting.  Even if they ate zero pasturage, the land is the same.  The only difference is our animals get sunshine, exercise, fresh pasture salad bars, fresh air, and a respectful life.  Chickens walking on pasture certainly do not have any more leg sprains than those walking in a confinement facility.  To suggest otherwise, as McWilliams does, is sheer nonsense.  Walking is walking–and it’s generally considered to be a healthy practice, unless you’re a tyrant.

Interestingly, in a lone concession to compassion, McWilliams decries ranging hogs with rings in their noses to keep them from rooting, lamenting that this is “one of their most basic instincts.”  Notice that he does not reconcile this moral imperative with his love affair toward confinement hog factories.  Nothing much to use their noses for in there.  For the record, Polyface never rings hog noses, and in the few cases where we’ve purchased hogs with rings, we take them out.  We want them to fully express their pigness.  By moving them frequently using modern electric fencing, polyethylene water piping, high tech float valves, and scientifically designed feed dispensers, we do not create nor suffer the problems encountered by earlier large-scale outdoor hog operations a hundred years ago.  McWilliams has apparently never had the privilege of visiting a first-rate modern highly managed  pastured hog operation.   He thinks we’re all stuck in the early 1900s, and that’s a shame because he’d discover the answers to his concerns are already here.  I wonder where his paycheck comes from?

Then McWilliams moves on to the argument that economic realities would kick in if pastured livestock became normal, driving farmers to scale up and end up right where we are today.  What a clever ploy:  justify the horrible by eliminating the alternatives.  At Polyface, we certainly do not discourage scaling up–we actually encourage it.  We think more pasture-based farms should scale up. Between the current abysmal state of mismanagement, however, and efficient operations, is an astronomical opportunity to enjoy economic AND  ecological advantages.  McWilliams is basing his data and assumptions on the poorest, the average or below.  If you want to demonize something, always pick the lowest performers.  But if you compare the best the industry has to offer with the best the pasture-based systems have to offer, the factory farms don’t have a prayer.  Using portable infrastructure, tight management, and techno-glitzy tools, farmers running pastured hog operations practically eliminate capitalization costs and vet bills.

Finally, McWilliams moves to the knock-out punch in his discussion of nutrient cycling, charging specifically that Polyface is a charade because it depends on grain from industrial farms to maintain soil fertility.  First of all, at Polyface we do not assume that all nutrient movement is anti-environmental.  In fact, one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground.  This is why low lands and valleys are fertile and the uplands are less so.  Animals are the only mechanism nature has to defy this natural downward flow.  Fortunately, predators make the prey animals want to lounge on high ground (where they can see their enemies), which insures that manure will concentrate on high look-out spots rather than in the valleys.  Perhaps this is why no ecosystem exists that is devoid of animals.  The fact is that nutrient movement is inherently nature-healing.

BUT, it doesn’t move very far.  And herein lies the difference between grain used at Polyface and that used by the industry:  we care where ours comes from.  It’s not just a commodity.  It has an origin and an ending, start to finish, farmer to eater.  The closer we can connect the carbon cycles, the more environmentally normal we will become.

Secondly, herbivores are the exception to the entire negative nutrient flow argument because by pruning back the forage to restart the rapid biomass accumulation photsynthetic engine, the net carbon flow compensates for anything lost through harvest.  Herbivores do not require tillage or annuals and that is why all historically deep soils have been created by them, not by omnivores.  It’s fascinating that McWilliams wants to demonize pasture-based livestock for not closing all the nutrient loops, but has no problem, apparently, with the horrendous nutrient toxicity like dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey created by chemical fertilizer run off to grow grain so that the life of a beef could be shortened.  Unbelievable.  In addition, this is one reason Polyface continues to fight for relaxing food safety regulations to allow on-farm slaughtering, precisely so we can indeed keep all these nutrients on the farm and not send them the rendering plants.  If the greenies who don’t want historically normal farm activities like slaughter to occur on rural acreage could understand how devastating these government regulations actually are to the environmental economy, perhaps McWilliams wouldn’t have this bullet in his arsenal.  And yes, human waste should be put back on the land as well, to help close the loop.

Third, at Polyface, we struggle upstream.  Historically, omnivores were salvage operations.  Hogs ate spoiled milk, whey, acorns, chestnuts, spoiled fruit and a host of other farmstead products.  Ditto for chickens, who dined on kitchen scraps and garden refuse.  That today 50 percent of all the human edible food produced in the world goes into landfills or greenie-endorsed composting operations rather than through omnivores is both ecologically and morally reprehensible.  At Polyface, we’ve tried for many, many years to get kitchen scraps back from restaurants to feed our poultry, but the logistics are a nightmare.  The fact is that in America we have created a segregated food and farming system.  In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs.  Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps.  This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm.  At Polyface, we only purport to be doing the best we can do as we struggle through a deviant, historically abnormal food and farming system.  We didn’t create what is and we may not solve it perfectly.  But we’re sure a lot farther toward real solutions than McWilliams can imagine.  And if society would move where we want to go, and the government regulators would let us move where we need to go, and the industry would not try to criminalize us as we try to go there, we’ll all be a whole lot better off and the earthworms will dance.

Joel Salatin

Polyface Farm

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About Wendy Gray

Born and raised in Staunton, Wendy left small town life for college in Richmond only to return to back to her cherished hometown. She's been working for Polyface since February 2008 doing PR/Mktg, helping to run the farm store, assisting Joel with his busy schedule, organizing special events on the farm and in the community, bugging Daniel and planting herbs wherever she can find space!

28 Responses to Joel’s Rebuttal to Article in NY Times

  1. Nicole Edwards says:

    Give it up to Joel for some constructive critisim.

  2. Very well said, Mr. Salatin. It’s unfortunate that “you just can’t cure stupid” in the case of the author of the original article. I’m pretty new to farming, but I’ve already gotten into fights with people who are “proud of raising GMOs” and think that all chickens MUST be fed medicated feed. Heck, I’ve even written to Reader’s Digest (that response hasn’t been published either) about an article that stated that city dwellers make less of an impact on the land than farmers. I applaud you, sir. You’re making it work, and it makes sense.

  3. Anita Nelson says:

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
    Great rebuttal, Joel. The win is coming!

  4. Joe Hernandez says:

    Joel, Keep on doing what you’re doing. The following train is getting longer. The folks that you are most impressing are the younger crowd. The McWilliams of this world have been trained, bought and tattooed. They are given their talking points and turned lose. The young listeners and doers are seeing that the non-industrial model does work. They in turn will show others. It’ll take time (if we have that long) but the industrial Ag model is not sustainable. By definition they will wither, in time. But at what cost and who will carry that load in the end? All you can do, Polyface, is what you are doing. Keep the faith, Joe

  5. Catherine W. says:

    Awesome rebuttal, Joel! My family loves what you are doing. Please keep doing it!!! Our kids and chickens thank you for the inspiration you give to everyone, not just “farmers”. Your approach is so down to earth and understandable. This NY girl is a believer!

  6. Did you even read what Joel wrote ? It wasn’t Beach Resorts.

  7. Did you even read what Joel wrote ? It wasn’t Beach Resorts.

    This was a great reply, but most likely will be water off a duck’s back. I think Joel hit the point with asking where McWilliams gets his paycheck from. Michael Pollan spoke out at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo back on January 12, 2010. This infuriated Harris Ranch Industrial beef operator chairman David Wood who not only threatened to withhold a promised grant money from the university, but also demanded that my former Ag instructor Robert Rutherford who ran the only holistic animal farming course in the country be fired. My former Ag instructor volunteered to give up the class and hand it over to someone else. Here’s the full story. BTW, if I’m correct, I believe Joel has spoken there around that time as well.

    This whole industrial system today is ruining our Earth.

  8. Joel you are impressive about the methane emission they keep blaming the cows for that and people believe that which is totally false!

    If we just raise our own poultry then we would not buy eggs and someone has been discouraging us from growing chickens in the backyard because of bird flu which is also untrue.

  9. Grace Hernandez says:

    Wendy, thanks for keeping us in the loop!

  10. THurdler says:

    Happy Earth Day to all of you wonderful people at Polyface! I have written an article about Joel and Polyface on a small blog. I hope to get the word out about all of the wonderful work that he and you all are doing. Please check it out and let me know what you think. Here is the link to the article:

  11. Dianne Stanbach says:

    After visiting your farm on several occasions, exploring local farms for an alternative to driving almost 4 hrs to Polyface, we realized some time ago the complexities, the unequal harassment small farmers face. As part of the higher education system here in VA, I feel compelled to share the truth with so many, and that truth is so often misconstrued by people like Mc Williams that it is truly disheartening. But when I seek to present an unbiased presentation of the ongoing battle for natural farmers, students naturally reach the same conclusion–government and corporate greed is at the heart of the debate. I live-streamed TEDMEDLIVE to our campus, and my students were really impressed with many speakers who practiced what they preached, especially you Joel. I take pride in our future generations, and we indeed must continue to uncover the truth by refuting false reasoning. Joel, you are a true defender of what is right, and I will continue to do my part to enlighten, inspire, and awaken students and colleagues to the real issues of sustainable farmer and possibilities of a healthier earth.

  12. Having researched further on Mr McWilliams, the individual of course is a VegenExtremist. First, he no’s nothing about restoration of ecosystems and proper custodialship of the Earth. If he actually did know these things, then he’d see what an ally a Joel Salatin and others like him are to the planet. Using his extreme ideologically driven political definitions, such creatures as Mountain Lions and Wolves should be eliminated from North America in order for the land to heal.

    It’s an ambarrassment of an article and the New York times should be ashamed for printing it because it reveals they have no common sense either if thewy allowed such a nonsensey piece to be published. The only thing I can assume is that media makes no real money/profits off articles of positive constructive beneficial to mankind content, therefore a controversial tabloid style as Mr McWilliams offers is no doubt viewed as a readership ratings money drawing Bonanza magnet for attracting more advertisers.

    Beyong what he stated, there was nothing of value as to be taken seriously. If he was truly an eco environmental world lover, he wouldn’t have specifically targeted someone who would be one of his best allies for restoring habitats. As it is you have to question who behind the scenes paid him to present such a rant that otherwise is typical fodder for opposing sides to put down the green movement. The Greenie movement would have been better served if he’d kept his mouth shut.

  13. Yet another Vegen attack on Joel who also hasn’t ever done their homework. What part of replicating what is brilliantly designed in nature verses factory farms are these people refusing to allow to penetrate their thick skulls ?

    The natural world is in far more danger by these groups whose apparent mission is to turn folks off to anything Eco-Green!

  14. Rick DeCrastos says:

    Thank you Mr. Salatin. Stay strong! Looking forward to your next book.

  15. Wendy says:

    This is why Joel is listed as one of my hero’s, I hope it gets reposted at the New York Times with only one small change. Please put spaces between the paragraphs, I lost my spot a couple of times scrolling.

  16. Jen Murtoff says:

    LOVE IT! Great job, Joel! I just (yes, only now) reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I love your farming model and the respect you have for natural behaviors and diets. It’s the only way to go. Keep on keepin’ on.

  17. After I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from
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    Is there a means you can remove me from that service?

  18. David Axberg says:

    We are doing it because Joel said we should and it made sense. Thanks for all your hard work. By the way my hogs do not have nose rings either, they are clearing forest for more pasture. My animals work for us in more than a manure way.

  19. Marvin Marksberry says:

    Well said Sir. Thanks for leading the way.

  20. You know, I just can’t get this out of my mind ever since this controversial article came out against Joel. I’ve since explored a bit on the Net this insane NYT Article and Joel’s response. One Vegen website and I won’t promote which one so as not to give them traffic, was in reference to Joel’s nature replicting farming system. They totally sided with Mr McWilliams, but clearly it was some of the most ignorant reasoning I’ve ever read. The article itself was about a guy who had not eaten meat in over 15 years and he missed it. However, he said that he was soon going to start again. The post or article on his Vegen website was about Dr Josef Mengele-type of science where Scientists can grow animal protein meat tissue in a lab where they could create burgers. SERIOULY ?????? That’s sicker than GMOs, but I thought animal protein was evil to Vegens ????? Apparently not if no animal was harmed.

    Here’s my personal take on most VEGEN GREENIE MILITANT MOVEMENTS. The vast majority know next to nothing about nature or how it works. Most of these people come from upscale urban environments, buy they food and other nutrition from places like “Wholefoods”, etc and buy into whatever marketing ploy those brand products sell them without actual personal research(or rather they blindly take the info on faith), take out hiking permits and visit nature reserves once in a while at some national Park and that’s the extent of their participation in Natural World life. If they do garden, they do so “organically” and purchase products that they are sure have no chemicals to harm plants or critters. The facts are that many of these ECO_GREEN promoted products are nothing of the sort. The best way of going organic is to do it yourself and actually educating yourself on composting. While there may be a handful of truly eco-green VEGENS out there, the majority are not and Mr McWilliams is most likely one of them.

    So the articles out there across the Net that these folks are writing about the “Myth of Humane Meat” pit Joel’s real world holistic environmental approach verses politically correct Secularistic Dr Mengele Meat Protein raised in a Lab by Whitecoats creating their version of “Soylent Greenie”. Which health product do you want ?

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  22. Alexandra says:

    I am a liberal, a vegan, and completely on board with the farming methods employed by Mr. Salatin and Polyface. I’m a vegan because farms like Polyface are few and far between. I am not ethically opposed to eating meat- I was an omnivore most of my life and would be again if I had regular access to ethically raised meat. What I’m opposed to are the horrible abuses to animals, to the environment, and to human health that industrial operations inflict.

    It’s disheartening to hear people refer to ‘crazy liberal greenies,’ and ‘militant vegans’ as nutty, tree-hugging morons. Understand that many of us are doing the best we can to avert the madness of industrial Ag and take control of our health while living compassionately. My philosophy is that it’s not how long the animal lived or whether it died, but what quality of life it had while it was alive. I support farms like Polyface, and I can only hope that collectively we finally get a clue and change the defunct, broken-down systems that dominate agriculture today. Unfortunately, as with virtually every other pressing issue, it’s not likely until a truly monumental environmental/political/social catastrophe strikes. In the meantime, please show the same compassion toward people trying to do the right thing as Salatin does toward “the pigness of the pig” and the land.

    • Sophia says:


      I do hope you have stated your position in responce to the NY Times article as well. It’s so perfectly sound! Plus, I believe the issue at hand has more to do with what is true in nature than what is considered to be a modern, political, liberal issue…especially since the word “liberal” has been hi-jacked in modern political usage to mean something that it does not. And I think this “hi-jacking” leads to much of the confusion and “militant” polarization in understanding what is true and good stewardship when it comes to the environment: our land, animals, ourselves, others, and all natural resourses. Hense the difference between someone like you and the types (or perhaps more accurately, ideas) Joel takes issue with. Your position is sound because you undertand what is true…how things really work. There are many, like Mr. McWilliams, who don’t.

      Thanks for your post. I think it’s an important one.

    • Hava says:


      I’m not sure how many Joel Salatin books you’ve read, but it’s funny – Joel touches on just your point in one book of his books (it’s been too long so I can’t remember which one). Anyway, he says basically that he and Theresa (sp?) would be vegans if he didn’t raise animals sustainably himself and/or couldn’t get meat and meat products from a local farmer who treated their animals right. He said that the abuses heaped upon the animals in the industrial food system, and the massive problems inherent in the processing of giant numbers of animals every day, makes it impossible for anyone with a conscience to eat CAFO food.

      Anyway, the anger in this post by Joel and in the responses to Joel’s post come from the fact that McWilliams doesn’t think like you or Joel – he really is a “militant vegan.” He sees the solution that you and I and Joel and everyone else reading this blog sees, and says, “No, that’s not good enough. That doesn’t work. Our only solution is to become vegan.” He misses everything important. I mean, my God – he wrote an entire BOOK on this topic. This isn’t a guy who was misinformed that one time, and is now spreading misinformation. This is a guy who has spent many hours researching this topic, and has come to completely the wrong solution to solve our problems. That is frustrating.

      I do have to say that I find it interesting that you can’t find a source of local, humanely raised animals to access. I live in a small town in rural Idaho (a Mecca for CAFOs and Monsanto) and I have quite a few choices to buy my products from. I have also gone on tours of multiple local farms, to make sure that they really are walking the walk. Perhaps do some research online – you might be surprised that local choices have sprung up since the last time you looked. I just did research tonight myself and found out that there is a local producer of raw milk, something I had no clue about. So it is possible to find something new, even for us who have been trying to eat locally for years. 🙂

      Good luck!

  23. Byron Smith says:

    Thanks Mr Salatin for a constructive reply full of important points and insight. I have appreciated your input on many occasions before.

    One quibble: I think your comments about methane are a considerable (and possibly misleading) exaggeration.

    When you say “Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration”, neither claim is true.

    Check out the table here:

    Ignore the first column and the last two. The other eight columns summarise the findings of eight studies that attempted to perform a global CH4 budget. You’ll see that there is some variation as these are not easy numbers to measure, and that the studies also covered different time periods (Globally, atmospheric CH4 levels have not been steady but are rising).

    Thus, the total natural CH4 sources are estimated between 145 and 222 Tg per year, of which wetlands comprised between 69 and 88%. Total (natural + anthropogenic) CH4 sources are estimated between 503 and 610 Tg per year, of which wetlands comprised less than 40% (and perhaps as low as 25%).

    This is a long way from your claim of 95%. Indeed, none of these estimates puts total natural sources anywhere near anthropogenic ones.

    In all but one of the budgets, ruminants are a smaller element than wetlands, but the ratio is never higher than ~1:2.5. Your claim that “herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration” is quite a long way off the mark. All the studies put them somewhere between 16 and 32% of total CH4 emissions, with most saying somewhere a little under 20%.

    To put this in perspective, if we take a rough guess from eyeballing the various numbers and say that ruminants contribute ~90 Tg of CH4 annually, then this has a warming effect (over 20 years) equivalent to adding roughly 6.5 billion tonnes of CO2 annually (or the equivalent of 2.25 billion tonnes annually over 100 years). When we keep in mind that global CO2 emissions are somewhere around 35 billion tonnes annually, this makes ruminant methane kind of a big deal.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and all your work. Keep it up!

  24. Jennifer says:

    This was a great rebuttal, but I really don’t like the use of the word “greenie” to label what is really an uninformed animal activist. To my mind a “greenie” (I can really only guess at what this term actually means) is typically someone who cares about the environment and is someone who is driven by a much different ideology than an animal activist. It is muddying the waters to lump “greenies” with animal activists and it gets people who really do care about sustainability in the form of environmental custodianship off-side. For example, I recently went to a wild-dog management workshop where the majority of the audience was concerned about “greenies” coming in and somehow preventing them from continuing their pest management programs, which are a necessary component of good farm management. I don’t believe “greenies” (which I guess are people like me) who care about ecological sustainability want to preserve feral animals in the landscape – this would be far more true of animal activists.

    Also, I think green-waste facilities are at least somewhere to start from. Even locally I drive past tonnes and tonnes of dumped citrus that couldn’t make it to market for one reason or another and that is only one farm. I was talking to a manager of a value-ad facility last week and while they attempt to process much of their waste product into value-ad product, not all of it can be utilised and there is literally tonnes of it every single week. Once again, that is only one of many such facilities in my local area. Regionally we could make great use of a composting facility, which would return the composted waste to the farm in the form of a safer and more responsible fertiliser product. This would ultimately enhance regional soil health and get attitudes shifting regarding the use of chemical fertilisers. What a fantastic opportunity!

    Locally we grow much more plant matter than animal, and while we are governed so tightly in Australia by regulations, composting is a good alternative, at least until we can get some change happening in the way we farm and the relationship between the farmer, big business the end user. Change is happening all around us and a composting facility could just be an agent for change when there is no other way to shift the current paradigm.

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