Grass fed beef and global warming: a closer look

A resounding “huzzah” was released like so much methane gas among vegans and vegetarians when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released its report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in 2006.

The well-annotated study alerted us all to “the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air polution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity” and “to encourage decisive measures. . . . .for mitigating the damage.”

Extensive grazing, says the report, degrades cropland. Ruminant-produced methane and livestock economies contribute more to climate change than transportation, it says. Livestock accounts for 8% of the world’s water use, mostly to irrigate feed grains. Rainforest destruction, pesticide use, nitrogen runoff etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Meat, bad. Plants, the vegetarians have said since the report, good.

I could have missed something, but I saw the word “vegetarianism” once in the report, along with a sidelong suggestion that a few of us in North America could survive eating a little less meat, with the implication that we could survive eating a little less everything. In fact, the report’s recommendations were more about policy than about individual food choices.

Some of my best friends are vegetarians. I’m even related to one or two. I support all Americans eating more plant-based foods and I am a fan of Meatless Mondays.

But it’s a leap over Copper Canyon to go from “raising animals for food is a leading cause of climate change” to “never eat meat again.” Instead, let’s try on “never eat McDonald’s again” (which seems to be working), or “never eat a chicken nugget again” (which isn’t).

To narrow down the global lens just a little, if it animals add more methane to the atmosphere than the transportation sector, it is only because most of the world is not developed. In the U.S. the transportation and energy sectors are responsible for nearly 40% of emissions, agriculture is 14%, and much of that comes from the broken industrial livestock production system. So in addition to cutting back on McDonald’s, take the bus, and turn the air conditioner up a degree or two.

Much if not most of the climate damage caused by livestock rearing comes from cutting down forests to grow livestock feed, using water for manure ponds and growing row crops, nitrogen applications that run off into dead zones and evaporate into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. I could go on. The point: these are the practices used by corporate and industrial agriculture. It’s what allows them to offer cheap prices at fast food restaurants, and at discount grocery stores.

Destructive agricultural practices are under review by many Kentucky farmers, and vocal farmer super-stars like Will Harris, who says his his multi-species White Oak Farm “proactively support(s) nature’s food chain, using only sun, soil, and rain to grow organic sweet grasses for our animals to eat.”

In fact, meat production on grassland like the rolling hills of Kentucky is considered by many to be good for the earth, good for farming and good for our health.

Good for the earth

Cows and other ruminants indisputably produce methane. But the grasslands grazed by ruminants have the ability to absorb carbon. In 2013, The English organization National Trust released a study showing “that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94 per cent, even resulting in a carbon ‘net gain’ in upland areas.” Organic farms did even better at sequestering carbon.

The Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown observed in 2008, “Farming practices that reduce soil erosion and raise cropland productivity usually also lead to higher carbon content in the soil. ” The farming practices he mentions: shifting from conventional tillage to minimum-till and no-till, using cover crops, the return of all livestock and poultry manure to the land, and a return to more mixed crop-livestock farming.

In defense of the environmental soundness of locally produced meat, Maine farmer Eliot Coleman writes that by producing steer for meat, “I am not responsible for any increased CO2. The pasture-raised animal eating grass in my field is not producing CO2, merely recycling it (short term carbon cycle) as grazing animals (and human beings) have since they evolved. It is not meat eating that is responsible for increased greenhouse gasses; it is the corn/ soybean/ chemical fertilizer/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals are raised.” Also the destruction of forest.

Shop at the farmers’ market for grass fed beef. Quit eating McDonald’s. Take a bus.

Good for farms

What is good for the environment isn’t necessarily good for the farm. But grassfed livestock can add much to a sustainable farm.

Acres of the farmland in Central and Eastern Kentucky is rolling hills or hollows, historically unsuitable for row crops (about 26% of non-frozen land is untillable globally). Though no-till farming is gaining traction here, tilling for row-crops is a longstanding tradition (tilling releases carbon in the atmosphere). Grasslands on slopes prevent erosion, and perenniel crops (like pasture) secure the carbon in the soil. Putting livestock on that grass turns solar energy (sun on grass) into food for people, income for the farmer, fertility for the land.

Managed well, these pastures of perenniel forage can help “feed the world,” by producing more food on the same acreage, while increasing income for the farmer. Todd Clark, who farms in Fayette County, KY, has built his production capacity by adding layers of complementary species who use the same forage land. He moves his cattle to a new grazing spot every day, and moves meat-producing chickens in after them to spread the cow manure, eat pests, and produce manure of their own. Clark uses no fertilizer, yet his pastures have become more fertile every year. He creates other layers of livestock with turkeys, sheep and hens for laying eggs. The 83 acres that once supported only a few beef cattle now diversify and multiply Clark’s income, provide a hedge against falling prices of one product and give an example of how small and medium sized farms could play a part in feeding 9 billion people. All while sequestering carbon.

Good for our health

While we’ve been conditioned for years to believe that eating beef and meat in general was bad for our health — high in fat, increased our blood cholesterol etc, it turns out that picture isn’t black and white either.

Grass fed beef

    • Has less total fat than conventional beef raised in a feed lot
    • Has more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids
    • Has more conjugated linoleic acids, thought to reduce heart disease and cancer and diabetese risk
    • Has more antioxidants, like vitamins A and E

The Village Voice and the Huffington Post both determined that grass-fed tastes best. The Village Voice commented that its rib steaks, “taste so different, it is as though they came from unrelated species.” The grass fed beef had better, firmer texture.

And it was more expensive. Though the $26 per pound price tag 5 years ago in New York City is way more than the price paid at farmers markets in Louisville, or even for the Kentucky grass fed beef sold at Whole Foods. .

Grass fed beef at the at the farmers market can be a little more expensive. As Americans we spend more than $8000 a year in medical costs. Perhaps spending a little more on meat might help bring down the costs of our individual health care. Perhaps we just eat a little less meat. The farmer makes a better living, the environment improves, our health improves.

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2 Responses to Grass fed beef and global warming: a closer look

  1. Secular Vegan says:

    The case for veganism has nothing to do with ‘climate change’, it is that as a species, humans do not need to consume animal products; and in developed nations have no need to exploit animals for their labour.

  2. Great article on grass fed beef and carbon. There is huge misunderstanding about carbon and cattle, and your piece lays out much of the confusion. Of course we need better measurement and science to “prove” the point. Climate scientists all the way up to Jim Hanson are unaware of the sequestration potential because they have been influenced by industrial meat system analysis like the UN article you sighted. Yet Paul Hawken’s upcoming Project Drawdown to be released prior to the Paris climate meetings will show that the number one thing we can do to reach our atmospheric carbon drawdown goals is rotational grazing, or more accurately “holistic planned grazing” as developed by alan savory and many others from Australia to Patagonia, and I’m sure to the pastures in the hills if Kentucky! Bigger impact than the potential of rapid deployment of solar energy!!

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