Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for the Environment?
In January 2019, 37 scientists in the EAT-Lancet Commission shocked the world when they published a set of diet guidelines for everyone on Earth in order to feed our growing population while keeping climate change in check. The international panel based its recommendations on thousands of research studies covering factors like the amount of arable land on Earth and the nutrients humans need to stay healthy.
Half of our meal should always be fruits and vegetables, the commission's Planetary Health Diet guidelines advised. But that's not what raised eyebrows, particularly in the United States. Earthlings, they said, should eat 14 grams of red meat per day— in other words, one 31⁄2-ounce slice of beef, lamb or pork per week. That's smaller than a quarter-pound burger! The average American would have to cut their red-meat consumption by 90%.
As climate change becomes something many Americans experience in their daily lives—hotter high temperatures and more frequent droughts, fires and catastrophic storms—the nearly 200 countries that have signed the Paris Climate Agreement have each pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. (The U.S. goal, for instance, is 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.)
And reducing beef consumption may be key. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that raising livestock for meat and dairy produces 14.5% of all anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions—about the same amount as the transportation sector. Ruminant animals like cattle and lamb, in fact, contribute three-fifths of that massive amount. Research groups like the EAT-Lancet panel say our efforts should include eating less beef, or none at all.
But some scientists and farmers propose a different future for your burger: grass-fed beef produced through regenerative agriculture. A grow- ing body of research suggests that grass-fed beef could help humans repair some of the damage we've done to our soils, our waterways and our atmosphere. It's one of the few good-news stories in climate change—but it's going to take a massive effort on the part of ranchers, beef processors and consumers to make beef the solution to a problem it has helped create.
According to Project Drawdown, an organization dedicated to finding ways to "draw down" greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, our love for beef contributes to climate change in three ways. In the major beef-producing countries, cattle spend a chunk of their lives fattening up on corn, soybeans and other grains, and the fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizer we use to grow these crops release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the air. In addition, countries like Brazil are burning down huge swaths of tropical forest to make room for soybeans and cattle pastures, releasing carbon dioxide while removing all the vegetation that could recapture and store that carbon in their trunks, leaves and roots.
The third source of greenhouse gases: the cattle themselves. "If we look at the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle, the largest part is enteric methane," says Senorpe Asem-Hiablie, a research fellow with Project Drawdown, referring to the methane the animals produce as they digest their food. Enteric methane (aka "cow burps") represents one-fifth of all the anthropogenic methane emissions—and the gas is 28 to 34 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
Enteric methane levels have been going up. Humans produce more than twice as much beef worldwide as we did 50 years ago, and the world's appetite for meat just keeps growing. By 2050, when the global population is projected to hit 10 billion, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that demand for all meat will rise 88% from just 40 years before.
One last depressing set of statistics to hit you with: even if we wanted to double our meat consumption, the planet may not let us. According to WRI calculations, ruminants already require two-thirds of the planet's agricultural land. We can't just burn down more forest to make room.
Scientific efforts are underway to make raising cattle better for the environment, by breeding them to put on weight more efficiently or feeding them seaweed to reduce the methane they burp. But some farmers are approaching ranching in a radically different way: they see cattle as a powerful tool for capturing carbon from the air and sequestering it in the soil where it belongs.
Several times a day, Carrie Richards heads out to visit the cows grazing on her family's ranch in the rolling Sierra Foothills of Northern California. But she's not necessarily going to monitor the animals—she's inspecting the grass in the paddock. Sometimes she gets two days before she has to herd them onto another 10-acre stretch of land. Some- times it's just 24 hours. The land tells her.
Five years ago, Richards moved back to the 6,500-acre farm that her great-grandfather had bought in 1941. Her father had ranched the conventional way, raising the calves born on its ranch for a few months before selling them at auction. Most went to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), or feedlots, where the they would spend their last months bulking up on corn and other grains. But Richards and her siblings Tom and Noelle wanted to find a better way to raise beef and, in her words, give back to the land. So she studied holistic managed grazing, also called regenerative ranching.
Farmers practicing regenerative agriculture take on a number of practices to build healthy, fertile soils, whether they're growing tomatoes, wheat or forage for cattle: to prevent rainwater and wind from eroding the topsoil, for one, they never leave the soil bare. Instead, between plantings of cash crops to sell, farmers plant cover crops—particularly legumes, such as clover and peas, which "fix" nitrogen in the soil, reducing or eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizers. They also minimize till- ing the soil between plantings or practice "no-till" agriculture, so the previous crop decomposes on the fields even as the farmers plant the next. Many avoid spraying pesticides and herbicides to help the microorganisms in the soil flourish, nourishing the plants in ways soil scientists are just now beginning to understand.
How do cattle play a role in this process? After all, they eat a lot, and anyone who has spent time in a gardening store knows that manure and urine make great plant food, but they're not exactly the sole solution.
Pioneering researchers like Allan Savory, whose Savory Method first articulated the holistic management practices that regenerative ranchers like Richards have taken up, proposed that ruminants play a critical role in maintaining the health of grasslands and preventing desertification. Savory, a Zimbabwe-born researcher, observed the migration patterns of large ruminants across the African plains and theorized that cattle could play the same role on farms.
Richards' cattle now spend their entire lives eating grass or, in California's dry season, hay. When they decamp from one paddock to another, they thunder onto the lush pasture and take big bites of the grasses. But just a few. "If you chomp a grass plant down to the dirt, it takes a long time for that grass to grow back," she says. "If you only take about half of it, it still has a lot of vigor left, and it can reboot itself quickly."
That's the soil-building magic, regenerative farmers and scientists agree: those grasses have grown by capturing carbon dioxide from the air, keeping the carbon molecule to build their cell structure and returning the free oxygen to the atmosphere for us to breathe. When cattle are given a chance to nibble only part of the greenery, they encourage the plant to regrow and spread its roots farther. Those roots contribute organic matter to the soil and exude liquid carbon into the soil, where it feeds the microorganisms underground.
Meanwhile, the cows' hooves break up the soil, making it more porous and able to retain water, and they crush some of the plant matter into the ground to decay. They spread a fine layer of urine and manure as well. Over the years, the topsoil becomes darker, clumpier, richer and denser with nutrients—which in turn makes the grasses growing in it more nutritious to the cattle when they next pass through.
There are a host of other benefits to land and animals alike: the soil absorbs water more quickly and retains it longer, helping keep the plants healthier and allowing the land to better survive drought. When regenerative farmers stop applying chemical fertilizers, they reduce nitrate pollution in waterways and aquifers. When they stop using pesticides, all manner of flora and fauna return to their fields, promoting biodiversity. And when they stop using antibiotics, which cattle in dense feedlots require to stay healthy, they may help prevent the rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases, a problem that some studies have found to result in part from the overuse of antibiotics in livestock.
Tim Joseph, president of the Grassfed Alliance, says you can't profitably raise grass-fed, grass- finished beef (meaning it was never fed grain) unless you employ regenerative agriculture techniques. He's watched farmer after farmer in the alliance struggle through a difficult transition from when they give up spraying chemicals to juice up their soil fertility and when all the biological systems on their land finally click into gear. "They go from not having enough grass for the cows to not having enough cows for the grass," Joseph says. Not only that, he adds, but levels of organic matter (aka carbon) in their soil rises 1% to a whopping 6% within just a few years—a feat that would take Mother Nature decades to replicate. That surge in soil carbon is what has caught the attention of environmental scientists.
There's a nascent but growing body of research measuring the effect of regenerative ranching on soil carbon. Paige Stanley, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jason Rowntree of the University of Western Michigan co-authored a 2019 study of a regenerative ranching operation in Michigan that showed the land sequestered 3,790 kilograms of carbon per hectare per year over a four-year period. A second study the two published in 2020 looked at similar data for White Oak Pastures in Georgia, which raises cattle and other animals on holistically managed pastures. There, they found that the farm sequestered 2,290 kilograms per hectare per year over the course of 20 years. To give you some sense of perspective, if California were able to sequester just half that amount annually on just half of its rangelands, the state would offset the emissions from all the energy California's commercial and residential sectors consumes. "Regenerative grazing has huge potential to sequester carbon," Stanley says.
But is all that sequestered carbon enough to counteract the environmental impact of beef? That's where debate currently roils.
Optimists like the Rodale Institute, which published a report titled "Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution" in 2020, have examined some of these new studies and calculated that if everyone on Earth adopted regenerative agriculture, we could reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Critics argue that regenerative ranching can't possibly supply Earth's growing demand for meat. They point out that grass-fed beef requires two times the amount of land that conventional beef does, and it takes cattle 6 to 12 months longer to bulk up on grass compared to corn, burping methane all the while. (Both of those factors—land and time—are also partly why grass-fed beef still costs more than conventional beef.) In fact, neither of the studies by Stanley and Rowntrees cited above concluded that the soil carbon sequestration fully off- set enteric methane.
Other critics, many of whom advocate giving up livestock altogether, argue that prime farmland in Georgia or Michigan could grow far more crops directly for humans. Even more effective: these former temperate forests could be replanted with trees, which could sequester even more carbon than regeneratively ranched soils.
Stanley says she spends a lot of time on social media arguing against both extremes, partly because she's afraid even the overly optimistic ones will provoke a skeptical backlash. Her doctoral research is looking at the vast rangelands in the West, like Carrie Richards' family ranch, that aren't suitable for crops to see how much carbon these lands might be capable of holding. Regenerative ranching doesn't need to single-handedly solve climate change to have a huge impact on the environment, she argues. "Any opportunity to be grazing better, to prevent overgrazing and carbon loss in any chunk of the supply chain, is a positive in my mind," she says.
Richards is already seeing her family's rangelands heal after 80 years of close grazing. The plant diversity is growing, and the bands of green grass along the riparian zones—where water flows down through the hills—grow wider every year. Her calves put on weight more quickly. When scientists first measured the carbon levels of her soils, they estimated she was adding one ton per acre every year. That number may be increasing.
Asem-Hiablie, of Project Drawdown, sees regenerative ranching as one possible strategy among many—including those methane-reducing supplements, for instance. Consumers eliminating food waste is another. "We have to look at things holistically," she says. "We have to look at not only the environmental but the social aspect as well as the economic aspect."
In America, the market for grass-fed beef is still niche, representing 4% of the total U.S. beef market. Yet according to the Grassfed Alliance, the market grew from $1 billion to $1.6 billion between 2015 and 2019. Joseph says that the best way to convince ranchers across the country to adopt these soil-building, carbon-sequestering ranching practices is to show them that consumers want grass-fed beef.
Perhaps the best way to fight climate change with our diets is to take both the EAT-Lancet Commission's recommendations and the promises of regenerative ranching into account: when it comes to beef, eat less—but eat better.
This article first appeared in EatingWell, Protein.