It’s surprising how many messages I see admitting to the benefits well-managed cattle can have on the environment, yet still saying that eating red meat has a high carbon footprint. I’ve even seen people claim that grass-fed beef is WORSE than typical beef. Folks, please stop and use your common sense for a moment. Eating animals that consume grain is NOT a better environmental choice than eating an animal managed well on pasture. Grazing animals can convert food humans can’t eat (grass) on land we can’t farm (pasture) into incredibly nutrient-dense food (beef, lamb, bison, venison, etc.).
All healthy ecosystems are teaming with life, both plants and animals. Grazing animals can actually INCREASE biodiversity. Their impact improves soil health, pasture health, increases the number of insects, pollinators, birds, and other critters. Nature wants complexity, not monocrops. To illustrate this, please take a moment to view this excellent video, “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts” of my friend Will Harris, done by Peter Byck:
Now after seeing this, can you still tell me that animals raised this way are actually WORSE for the environment than animals raised in confined factories because they “take up too much land”? Let’s consider land use. One study from Tufts University looked at various diets and their impact on land. The researchers found that a plant only diet was NOT the most efficient use of land. This is because a plant (crop) only diet didn’t utilize any pastureland at all. In fact, diets with “low to moderate” amounts of meat outperformed the vegan diet. If we eliminate animals from our food system, much of the world’s agricultural land would go unused. They also found a vegetarian diet performed “best” however, this is based on our current system of a high consumption of chicken. Factory farmed chicken eat ONLY grain. Those same researchers are working on a study looking at meat from a pasture-based system and how this might change the numbers. I’m excited to see the results!
But wait, cows emit too much methane!
Let’s not forget that prior to the mid-1800’s, there were an estimated 30-60 million bison roaming North America, yet nobody seems to acknowledge this when citing current “devastating” herbivore numbers. When the animals are incorporated into a responsibly managed, natural system, mimicking the way nature works, the entire system works.
Most of the CO2 emission numbers for food items comes from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA]. While their analysis did take into account all sources of GHG during production, the numbers stop at emissions. No accounting for mitigation from carbon sequestration or methane oxidation, or nitrogen fixing were included. The worst emissions in this scenario (looking only at emissions) will be the animals who take the longest to reach mature weight, like grass-fed cattle. When you look at the entire cycle, cattle, responsibly rotated on pasture, have at minimum a net neutral and likely a net gain for carbon sequestration. Concentrated animal feces from factory farms (like manure lagoons) are a much different environmental issue than scattered cattle poop, urine and hoof across grasslands in a natural system.
It all starts with healthy soil.
Cropping the soil (like planting vegetables) withdraws nutrients, and with each harvest, and you need to replenish the account. Conventional agriculture does this poorly with chemical fertilizers, producing GHG (Green House Gas) emissions, which are largely overlooked when people are singing the praises of eating vegetables. Home gardeners and organic farmers know that the best way to improve the soil bank is to add compost, ground bone, blood, and animal manure. Properly managed herbivores are also adding to the soil bank in a natural way. Their “waste” is fertilizer.
In order to have a truly regenerative system, we must support healthy plants AND animals. This means that lettuce, kale and trees are just as important as crickets, mice, birds, pigs and cattle. Here’s another powerful video to watch, farmer Gabe Brown talks about our modern chemical agricultural system vs. the system he supports at his farm.
Watching this video, I also noticed quite a connection between our modern “standard” food system and our healthcare system. Do we want to attack with drugs/chemicals or do we want to support health and biodiversity/biome?
So why don’t people get this? Well-managed cattle and other animals can work WITH nature, not against it. Why are so many folks turning to a plant-based diet for the environment instead of realizing that grass-fed beef is actually a solution to climate change? I think this is a deeply complex topic that’s rooted in corrupt science, egos, and a misunderstanding of basic human physiology. But the biggest reason I think people want to deny that regenerative agriculture is an important solution for human health and the environment is that we’re disconnected from nature.
With more people living in cities and buying their food in grocery stores instead of raising it themselves, many have lost their connection with the fact that humans ARE nature. We are animals! Everything eats and is eaten. We don’t like to admit that something has died for our life. We don’t accept responsibility for how our food is raised. And while factory farming is wrong, plant-based agriculture can also be incredibly destructive and cruel.
Rural America has fallen apart.
As my son prepares to enter high school, we just went through his elective choices. It’s basically java script or art instead of auto shop or basic cooking skills. Don’t get me wrong, I love art education. In fact, I have a BFA in Art Education. But what happened to life skills? There are tech school options, but in my area, these schools not as well funded as the schools preparing children for entrance into Harvard and beyond. Plus, do kids really have to choose a tech track at age 13? Why not expose them to practical skills that will prepare them for life? Why not develop an appreciation for trades, even if they aren’t going to become a professional plumber? We move away from our rural homes, into cities to chase a dream of “better” lives. We’ve left our farms behind in search of a more “cultured” existence. Small towns across America are deserted, their vibrant economies gone largely because of our industrialized food system. Please check out this trailer for “Look and See”, a documentary on Wendell Berry:
We’re pouring millions (billions?) of dollars into the exploration of another habitable planet, instead of taking care of the one we have, and investing in things like lab meat instead of just trying to understand how to make better meat. We already have the answers in our history, but our hubris prevents us from looking back and makes us think that shiny new technology will save us all.
Here’s a few things to consider: what ecosystem died in order to make way for that massive field of monocrop wheat/corn/soy/broccoli? Who lost their home? What damage happened when the chemicals were sprayed? How is the field fertilized? How much carbon was released when the plow came? Was a river or someone’s drinking water polluted to produce that food? What about the fish that rely on that water, or the bear who needs to eat those fish? What were the labor conditions for the Farm workers? Is that block of tofu or slice of lab meat really causing “less harm” than well raised grazing animals that are working with nature, improving soil and providing habitat for birds, insects and other species? What were the inputs for that “clean” lab meat? We produce vegetables at our farm but I can tell you that we NEED animals as part of any regenerative farming system. Plant-only farming is not natural, because any healthy ecosystem needs plants and animals.
Want to learn more?
I wrote this post and this post on the environmental benefits of well-managed cattle. To learn what I mean by “well managed,” please read Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Book, Defending Beef or Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz and check out Allan Savory’s Ted Talk, see Savory’s recent Keynote Speech, “Fate of City-Based Civilization in the Hands of Farmers” at the No Till Winter Conference in Wichita Kansas. Also see the work of the Savory Institute and watch Soil Carbon Cowboys, another great short film by Peter Byck.
I’ve also interviewed Maryn McKenna, Ariel Greenwood, Nicolette Hahn Niman, Judith Schwartz, Joel Salatin, Will Harris, Lauren Tucker, Lierre Keith, Russ Conser, Ruben Anderson, Andrew Smith, Jack Kittredge, Andrew Gunther, Tim Joseph, Tiffany Fink-Haynes, Adam Danforth, Chris Kerston, Tamar Haspel, Caroline Watson Grinrod, Judith McGeary and Shannon Hayes on my podcast, Sustainable Dish.
There are so many more champions in the sustainable/regenerative agriculture movement, and this is such a visual story that I’m making a film, Sacred Cow. It will explore the nutrition, environmental and ethical reasons why we need pasture-based animals in our food system. I don’t think the environmental argument can be made without looking at the nutritional and ethical piece, as they’re all entwined and connected. They all must be tackled to tell the full story.
And if you’d like to make a smaller contribution to the film, you can give at any level here or simply share this post or my campaign with your friends to help spread the word! Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to keep up to date with my latest blog posts, podcasts, and news about the film project. Thank you!