A Brookover Ranch Feedyard cattle farm


© George Steinmetz / Contrasto


After taking this photograph, photographer George Steinmetz and his flight instructor Wei Zhang were arrested by the authorities in western Kansas on charges of trespassing. A curious accusation to say the least, for an image taken from a powered paraglider.
Now famous for his bird’s-eye visual storytelling, the photographer was working on an issue of National Geographic dedicated to food. The incriminating image shows an expanse of cattle feedlots with several hundred animals – a form of intensive livestock farming widespread in the United States. Although the cattle are not permanently confined indoors, farming in feedlots is associated with a number of animal welfare issues (could this be why the owners of Brookover Ranch wanted to avoid prying eyes?), from heat stress due to exposure to rainfall or excessive sunlight, to respiratory diseases caused by the high concentration of animals, lameness and digestive disorders due to the diet. But assessing the environmental impact of feedlots compared to other forms of livestock farming such as grazing is far from simple. Which has a greater impact... meat from intensive farms, with animals fattened on high-protein cereals, or meat from animals out to graze, with a slower growth rate and therefore more emissions and requiring more land? As well as providing important ecological services, pastures can, however, also act as sinks for the carbon in the atmosphere, partially offsetting the emissions.
Whether intensive or extensive, meat consumption is now a ticking time bomb with its environmental consequences in terms of transport, land consumption and soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, use and pollution of water and loss of wild biodiversity. Now more than ever, the environmental cause is also looking at our plates.

Andra Meneganzin