My inbox has been inundated with people freaking out about recent papers and articles claiming that grass-fed beef is NOT going to save the planet. Basically, these scientists are ignoring important research and not looking at the full picture. While there’s still work to be done, many have proven that yes, in fact, grass-fed beef IS better for the planet.
I’ve found there are three reasons why people are conflicted about eating meat. The environmental argument is just one. We’re also fed a lot of misinformation about the nutritional implications of eating meat and conflicted about the ethics of eating animals. I get it. While I don’t argue for factory farming, I do offer some logical, concrete reasons for why meat, especially grass-fed beef, is one of the most nutrient-dense foods for humans and according to the principle of least harm, large ruminants like cattle are the most ethical protein choice.
For more about the nutritional benefits of meat, read this post
Ok, back to the recent environmental posts claiming cattle are ruining our planet…
In this post by George Monbiot, he tells us that, “Grazing is not just slightly inefficient, it is stupendously wasteful. Roughly twice as much of the world’s surface is used for grazing as for growing crops, yet animals fed entirely on pasture produce just one gram out of the 81g of protein consumed per person per day.”
The problem with the above statement is that grazing is not wasteful at all. When done correctly, grazing animals benefit the land. They provide vital nutrients and important bacteria through their manure, and their chomping stimulates new grass growth, which can help the plant sequester more carbon. Their overall impact on the land helps it hold onto rainfall more effectively, especially in brittle environments. Monbiot points out that pasture animals graze on more land that is cropped, but this assumes you can crop every inch of land on the planet. You can’t. About 70% of the Earth’s surface is only suitable for grazing, due to water scarcity, topography, poor soil, etc. His statement is incredibly misleading. Cattle and other ruminants can convert food we can’t eat (grass) on land we can’t grow crops on to nutrient-dense human food (beef) while having a beneficial impact.
Monbiot’s suggestion that we swap out all of our animal protein for soy because it’s a better use of land makes no sense. Maybe he should move to Kenya and tell the Maasai that they need to switch to farming soy instead of herding cattle. Let’s see how that works for their nutrition and land health!
And in Grazed and Confused, a special report by the FCRN that spent 2 years reviewing over 300 papers looking at the climate impact of livestock, researchers conveniently left out several pieces of important research that contradicts their findings. A detailed response comes later in the post…
But first, I want to address the inevitable question that comes up every time, “How can we feed the world if everyone switched to grass-fed beef tomorrow?” Please folks, this is not a relevant question in the debate. There are way too many people on earth. This is like asking me how I can possibly fit 200 people in my Subaru Impreza. I can’t. We have far outstretched our carrying capacity. Eating more soy will not fix this. Our population is doubling approximately every 35 years. Also, here’s another important question: is our current industrial agriculture and big food system working? I think not. Are we feeding people well and not harming the planet? No, we’re not. Is grass-fed beef better for humans and the planet? Is it utilizing solar energy better than lab meat and soylent? Yes, it is. Below is a diagram I tend to use again and again…
While I have some good knowledge on the subject of soil carbon sequestration, I’m not a soil expert. I’m a dietitian. Luckily, I’m friends with lots of experts! I reached out to my network and have two responses to post, with permission from the authors. The first is from Dr. Jason Rowntree of Michigan State University and the second from Russ Conser of Standard Soil. They sent me the detailed and well-cited responses below.
Here’s the CliffsNotes version:
- Cattle can convert food humans can’t eat (grass) on land we can’t farm.
- It’s difficult to replicate results of carbon sequestration in different locations due to issues like variation in soil quality, type of grass, and rainfall. What works in Virginia or Vermont probably won’t yield the same results in Nevada or Brazil.
- Grass-fed cattle can actually INCREASE biodiversity. Eating more soy will not do this.
- Monocropping plants like soy, wheat and corn are NOT inherently, ethically “better” or “cleaner” human food than grass-fed beef because they’re plants and not animals. Just, no.
From Jason Rowntree:
There have been recent reports that range from the acknowledgement of grazing management positive influence of ecosystem services, but not as an efficacious tool in reducing atmospheric CO2 to the denigration of grazing livestock as viable components of terrestrial landscapes.
There is a large and ever-growing database, mostly not acknowledged in the recent reports, documenting the positive impacts of grazing on soil carbon along with improvements in other ecosystem services that is consistent with what Allan Savory has been saying for years. To put these numbers into perspective a mid-size car emits around 1.28 metric tons of carbon (converted from carbon dioxide) annually into the atmosphere.
For reference, Allan Savory’s TED talk:
In 2001, Rich Conant and Keith Paustian, at Colorado State University, published a meta-analysis of 115 ranches from a variety of global environments indicating a mean annual 0.54 metric tons of carbon sequestered per hectare (ha) demonstrating the capacity for soil to capture and store carbon. In 2011, Teague et al. investigated the impact of high and low continuous grazing as compared to adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP) in Texas (the approach advocated by Savory) and indicated the AMP treatment had an annual 3 metric tons of carbon sequestered in the soil above and beyond that of the continuously grazed treatments.
USDA ARS scientist Alan Franzluebbers, has indicated high potential in the eastern US as well. In Nature, Machmuller et al, report over an 8 metric ton annual increase in carbon sequestration over a 3 year period following the conversion of degraded cropland to grazing land in Georgia. For context to meet an overall carbon sink (or storage capacity) for a Midwest grass-finishing beef system, our work indicate a needed 0.89 metric ton carbon sequestration to offset the entire footprint, including that from enteric methane emitted by cattle. This seems plausible based on the existing carbon sequestration literature.
Finally, the most downloaded manuscript in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, for 2016-17 cites the beneficial components of AMP and conservation agriculture on North American food production. The authors, of which Rowntree is one, estimate that if these conservation approaches were completed on 25% of our crop and grasslands, the entire carbon footprint of North American agriculture could potentially be mitigated.
Holistic Management is used by thousands of practitioners over millions of hectares of land. Proper adoption of animals to landscapes over a variety of precipitation levels is an efficacious land management tool. We have been on many of these ranches. Our laboratory is currently summarizing a large Patagonia dataset with ecosystem measurements on over 2 million hectares of land mostly managed holistically, that is, using a decision-making framework that helps land managers to move toward their goals in a way that is economically, ecologically, and socially sound in their context. Attempting to reduce the complexity of land management to just animals and time in a reductive scientific environment, is no different than splitting hydrogen from oxygen to study water.
Jason Rowntree, Michigan State University
From Russ Conser:
I feel compelled to comment on a new paper by Wolf et. al. (2017) Revised methane emissions factors and spatially distributed annual carbon fluxes for global livestock on GHG’s (including methane) that came out last week and that is directly related to the talk I gave at The Grassfed Exchange. The paper has gotten a lot of press with an effort to offer its results as supportive of an increasing role for livestock in planetary methane emissions. In short, whereas the paper is generally solid in its own underlying analysis, the attempt to extend conclusions beyond its own analysis falls short in my opinion.
Basics – The paper is a modeling, not a measurement paper. The authors did a more meticulous job of translating updated estimates by country (and even county in the US) into total methane and CO2 emissions for all livestock. Aside from a few assumptions whose implications are not immediately clear (e.g. forage = total animal requirement less documented feed input), it would seem that the overall estimates are sound. But in extending its conclusions, it falls short on 2 important aspects at least in terms of impressions:
1. Spatial Distribution – In the image above, I compare Wolf’s new modeled source map to the Turner map of actual measurements and find a very poor match for the US. It’s somewhat hidden in the text, but I agree with a short statement this implies likely emissions from non-livestock sources – kind of contrary to the point they were making. It’s just a hypothesis, but I would argue this is just another clue that the missing methane emissions MAY be coming from bare or otherwise anaerobic soils on conventional row-crop land (and to some extent on degraded pasture) – which does fit the Turner map.
2. Temporal Distribution – In a slight of hand, the authors try to get away with saying that because there is a rise in both modeled livestock emissions and atmospheric measurements from the early 2000’s to the 2010’s, they must be related. But upon closer inspection of comparing their new data with the cited Nisbet paper (image below), we see a mismatch. The rise in modeled global livestock emissions is from 2000-2007 occurs during the period when atmospheric methane actually plateaued. Then the rise in atmospheric concentrations occurs at a time when the growth in livestock emissions taper off. I have annotated in attempt to make clear. For those not aware, we know from Nisbet’s paper (and others) that the post-2007 rise is biogenic related to ag somehow, and not fossil fuels.
Finally, one related comment not addressed directly in the paper. Much of the growth in US methane emissions comes from increased use of manure ponds for dairies (especially California) instead of letting manure oxidize in pastures. These ponds are high methane emitters. Now, California has put in place options to get carbon credits for putting anaerobic digesters on those methane sources. This fits nicely into the regulatory mentality of “additionality” – i.e. something else you would not do unless someone paid you to. But this is just insanity to me to pay people more money for cleaning up their own messes they created by diverting from the natural system. To me, this paper just underscores weaknesses in our current industrial farming system.
Russ Conser, Standard Soil
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