Social Issues

Can Eating Cows Save the Planet?

11 min read

Industrial animal agriculture is a total environmental disaster, polluting local ecosystems and contributing to climate change. While one obvious response is simply to stop eating animals, there’s a growing movement known as “regenerative agriculture” that claims that raising cows can be part of the solution to climate change and other environmental problems. We asked Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, a leading agricultural scientist, to share the real science with our readers.

It’s no secret that industrial animal agriculture is a disaster for the planet. And cows raised for beef are particularly problematic.

According to one important source, global livestock systems, including the crops grown to feed them, are estimated by scientists to produce almost 13% of global climate emissions. This is over half of all agricultural emissions. Cattle are the main cause, producing about 64-78% of livestock emissions, or about 9% of total human-caused climate emissions.

Cattle are the main culprit because their digestive process produces large amounts of the potent climate change gas methane, unlike non-ruminants like poultry or pigs. Non-ruminants produce some in their manure, but far less overall. Methane from ruminants accounts for about 40% livestock greenhouse gas emissions.

Livestock also require a tremendous amount of land — about 70% of all agricultural land. This leads to deforestation, which releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Forty percent of livestock-related emissions come from conversion of land (such as tropical forests) into feed crop production and pasture. Livestock, and especially cows, require much more land than most crops consumed directly by people. Crops are about twice as efficient at producing protein if consumed directly rather than as meat from poultry or pigs.

Cows have similar inefficiencies for feed grain use, even though they also eat forages and therefore proportionately less grain. But they use much more land because grazing requires more land to produce a pound of protein compared to grain feed. It is this especially high land requirement that makes cattle a major driver of tropical deforestation. This harms biodiversity as well as releases carbon emissions.

That’s not the whole of the negative environmental impact of industrial livestock production. There’s the rampant overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock, both to:

  1. Mitigate disease in these crowded concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or “factory farms,” as they’re more commonly known)
  2. To promote growth

We increasingly see the serious unintended consequences of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in the spread of multiple-antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” throughout the human population.

Factory farms also harm the local communities in which they’re embedded, and the environment. They do this through pollution and sewage runoff. And they contribute to a massive loss of biodiversity that comes with converting vast tracts of land into pesticide dependent monocrops to feed the animals.

Is it the Cow or the How?

regenerative agriculture practices on cows

Given all that, it seems obvious that we must reduce our meat consumption to combat climate change and save the planet. But not everyone agrees. Within the last couple of decades, many proponents of a movement known as regenerative agriculture (RA) have argued that cattle farming, done differently, could actually fight climate change and repair the environment. As summarized in one article “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.

RA includes far more than just livestock. It’s a different ethos, one that seeks to respect and mimic natural cycles and processes, and increases rather than decreases soil fertility over time.

RA has much to recommend it as an ecologically sound alternative to industrial farming. It supports diverse crop rotations, better biological diversity such as habitat for pollinators, and healthy soils, which all benefit the environment. It may also contribute to higher incomes for struggling farmers.

Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

The term “regenerative agriculture” has been attributed to Robert Rodale, scion of Rodale Farms, over three decades ago. Rodale’s initial broad definition said thatRegenerative organic agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops; greater diversity in the biological community; fewer annuals and more perennials; and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources.” These are all principles that generally coincide with other transformative approaches to food and farming such as organic (of which Rodale was also a pioneer), agroecology, and permaculture. Agroecology, unlike several definitions of RA, usually emphasizes social issues as well as science and farmer innovation.

The primary emphasis of RA has been on building healthy soil as the foundation of multifunctional agricultural systems. For example, Gabe Brown’s much read seminal work, Dirt to Soil, is essentially a manual on building fertile soil using managed intensive rotational grazing of livestock, cover crops, and crop rotations. In fact, the term regenerative is often associated with rejuvenating, or regenerating, soil that has so often been degraded by industrial farming over the decades.

There is an important link between this emphasis on soil health and reducing climate change. Improving soil is centered on increasing soil organic matter, which contains carbon as a main component. Soil carbon is the largest terrestrial carbon pool, greater than atmospheric carbon dioxide or carbon in plants and animals. And often even more carbon can be added to the soil. This carbon enters the soil in the form of crop residues and roots, manure and organic composts, after being removed from the atmosphere by plants through photosynthesis.

The emphasis by RA on soil health coincides with the recognition that soil carbon sequestration has potential not only to improve farming but to contribute to removal of the main greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Importantly, this may help to reverse climate change.

While improving soil quality is also a major goal of agroecology, organic agriculture and permaculture, RA often makes this its central focus. This has provided the movement for RA with a powerful tool to gain adherents and supporters among climate change activists and those who recognize the need for fundamental change in agriculture.

Cows and Regenerative Agriculture

Many RA proponents include livestock in their vision of an agriculture that increases soil fertility over time. They point to the mid-Western American prairies, whose “breadbasket” levels of soil fertility involved giant herds of bison and other grazers roaming the plains and constantly moving to new pasture. Farmers and scientists have innovated methods of cattle management that mimic the natural migration of these herds, and therefore theoretically increase the carbon in the soil over time.

That’s the central idea in Dirt to Soil — that farming must increase environmental health and viability by building soil fertility rather than focusing on constantly increasing yield through breeding and chemicals. And that the best way to do it is through grazers. Definitions of RA by others also include livestock as an important component.

And, they aver, cows done right can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and thereby fight climate change. Let’s examine the science behind this claim.

Do RA Cattle Fight Climate Change?

What is the basis for claiming that RA cows can reduce climate change, contrary to most current research on other forms of raising cattle? One source for this claim may be from the Rodale Institute in a 2014 report: “Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current [global] annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” According to this report, a substantial part of the sequestered carbon would come from pastured livestock. Similar claims, sometimes exaggerated, are made by other organizations.

And indeed, some very good research supports this perspective. For example, a research paper from 2018 shows that under RA “adaptive multi-paddock” grazing (AMP – one of the methods that mimics herds of grazers in the wild) high levels of soil carbon sequestration more than cancels out greenhouse gas (GHG) production, and thereby reduces overall GHG in the atmosphere. By contrast the corn and soy fields that CAFO feedlots depend on usually do not gain and often lose carbon. Therefore, the CAFO beef in the research remained a major GHG emitter, unlike AMP beef.

This research and others like it seem to support those who say that, when raised correctly, beef can be good for the climate. However, this perspective misses some of the results of the same research, and others, that can have negative implications for RA beef and climate change if applied too widely. These issues have to do with scale, time, and land use.

What Some RA Advocates are Missing on Climate and Beef

First, the limited current studies do not reveal how widely RA pasture beef practices could be applied to achieve high rates of soil carbon sequestration, or for how long. And rates of sequestration, and therefore how well soil sequestration may offset cow GHGs, vary a lot between sites based on soil characteristics (this research, for example) and climate. This has implications for how widely RA beef production can sequester carbon at high rates. For RA beef to have a large impact it must be widely adopted globally.

Second, and most importantly, pasture raised cattle, even using RA methods, need several times more land than most crops eaten directly to obtain the same amount of dietary protein, as noted earlier. In fact, they need double the already very high amount of land required by cows raised in CAFOs, according the research cited above which is otherwise very favorable to RA beef.

Farming is already pushing land use issues in harmful ways. Increasing meat production, including RA pasture beef, would likely increase encroachment on remaining uncultivated habitat like tropical and temperate forests, wetlands and savannas. And deforestation driven by cattle already releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. So while individual farms that raise RA cattle may more than offset their own GHGs, when cattle are considered globally and collectively, their substantially increased land demands must also be considered. And like it or not, we are part of a global community.

As well, the concern is not merely about current consumption levels. Projections of increasing global meat consumption in coming years based on historical trends, could make this already large land use problem even worse. One typical recent projection estimated beef consumption increasing 69% globally by mid-century, with greater increases of poultry and pork, if we don’t change course. Under current projections, food climate emissions could increase 51%, mostly from animal products, especially red meat. These considerations led the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to state in its recent report that we will not be able to limit global warming to 1.5 C, even if fossil fuel use is eliminated soon, without addressing land use (mainly agriculture and deforestation) contributions to climate change.

Another problem with this RA “good beef” perspective is that most work on soil carbon sequestration shows that after several decades, sequestration rates decrease and eventually may approach zero. How long this takes varies a lot between sites (depending on soils, local climate, history of land use, etc.).

That raises the question of what happens after several decades, even if rosy projections about RA in the present are correct, when soil carbon sequestration slows substantially and can no longer counter high cow methane and nitrous oxide production? Some are willing to kick that can down the road, but hasn’t that kind of short-term thinking contributed to the predicaments we find ourselves in now with climate change, where the science was clear decades ago that we need to stop burning fossil fuels? Some RA livestock scientists believe that high rates of sequestration can be maintained longer, at least for many decades if not centuries, but there is a lot of uncertainty about that. And in any case, that still could be seen as kicking the can down the road to our progeny.

Some proponents of the “good beef” perspective also claim unique value of RA livestock for improving soil health and soil carbon sequestration. I have not seen good evidence of this. Livestock can be good for soil. They can stimulate production of grasses and other plants adapted to grazing. And manure can accelerate cycling of carbon and other nutrients tied up in plants. Perennial pasture usually sequesters carbon faster than annual crops, even those grown ecologically. But good agroecological practices, reforestation and agroforestry can also sequester a lot of carbon and build soil fertility without livestock, or fewer livestock, with much lower land use — and without the production of large amounts of methane.

Those crop-farming systems provide habitat that facilitates biodiversity and could leave more land for conversion back to habitats like forests, wetlands, and prairies that themselves sequester lots of carbon and provide other environmental benefits.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A research report last year involving several scientists and NGOs, including myself, found that RA or agroecological pasture beef could have an important positive role in reducing climate change, but only if we consume considerably less meat per person globally than we do in the US or Europe. For example, by mid-century, with 9-10 billion people, this would mean on average consumption of a quarter pound of meat twice a week and between 2 and 3 cups of milk per person (or more meat if milk is forgone, and vice versa). For those of us in the US, that means getting at least the great majority of our protein from plant sources. It would also require eating foods produced by environmentally and socially sound means such as agroecological organic or RA.

Currently people in places like the US and much of Northern Europe consume high amounts of meat, milk, and eggs. For example, the average American eats 222 pounds of meat and poultry per year (almost all coming from CAFOs), along with 276 pounds of dairy products. Many climate scientists believe that sustainably produced meat and milk can be an important part of the picture. This is especially true in developing countries that may benefit from more access to meat and milk than they currently have. But to do that and to prevent land use disasters, others need to eat less meat and dairy. The industrialized nations can’t legitimately say to the rest of the world to limit its meat consumption while doing the opposite.

The argument that those who are concerned about the climate impacts of meat want to “take away our hamburgers” is propaganda in support of the corporate industrial meat system. This is pointed out by Naomi Klein in a short video released on September 15 (starting at minute 4:17). While substantial reductions by current high meat consumers should occur, hamburgers and steaks could still be on the menu, if less often. But some RA advocates tell us that, if produced correctly, we should be able to eat, essentially, as much beef as we like. Unfortunately, this unlimited meat message steps unintentionally into the rhetorical trap of climate change deniers, their corporate sponsors, and the industrial meat industry.

What All This Means

regenerative agriculture farmer looking at his cows

The challenge for RA pasture beef is not at the individual farm level. For now, pasture raised RA beef is such a small sector of US agriculture that it is not consequential for climate change or land use. Addition of RA beef at this level could have local benefit, but is not going to meaningfully affect global climate change. Over time, if CAFO beef production can be reduced, as it should, there should also be considerable room for increased RA pasture production. This is provided that we collectively achieve lower levels of per capita meat consumption. If this occurs widely it may make a measurable contribution to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, though probably much less than some RA advocates suggest.

But some RA beef advocates go beyond the local, to suggest global value for climate reduction based on unrestrained consumption of beef. The current message about the appropriate amount of beef production from the RA community as a whole is at best unclear. The message that we can eat as much meat as we may want, as long as it’s produced correctly, when applied globally, could be dangerous.

One of the important motivations for RA pasture beef, when coupled with locally owned processing and marketing, is that it can be a very good way to add income for farmers. These farmers are barely making ends meet in an economy where low row crop prices are the norm. This is an important consideration. As Gabe Brown has noted, it is hard for farmers to make a good living on commodity crops alone, although they are by far the main crops of the Midwest.

Farmers of commodity crops are having the life squeezed out of them by economically powerful corporate suppliers of expensive inputs like patented GMO seed, pesticides, fertilizers and huge machinery on one hand. Then meat and dairy integrators, grain handlers and huge food retailers on the other hand. And the overproduction and resulting low prices built into the current market system frequently leads to unsustainably low prices. This is why we also need comprehensive policies that support fair crop and livestock prices, break up monopolies, control supply, and foster ecological practices.

But on the other hand, more expensive RA meat will mostly be a luxury item, and not accessible for most of the poor. This is also why we need to advocate for livable wages and benefits for all workers, especially people of color and indigenous people. This would in turn allow fair prices to farmers and good income for farm workers. That path provides real opportunities for RA farmers, and all farmers, as well as for the rest of society.

Hopefully those in the RA community will continue to closely examine what their movement is about, how it is defined, and how it will relate to the broader communities pushing for social change and an end to the escalating climate crisis. That broader community desperately needs farmers that can make a living by practicing agriculture that heals the earth and communities. And farmers need the rest of the climate change community to support them if they are going to be able to push back effectively against environmentally and socially destructive corporate industrial farming that is killing the countryside and the planet.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What do you think about regenerative agriculture?
  • Do you have any direct experience with the environmental impact of animal agriculture?
  • What are your favorite alternatives to meat?

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