North American ranchers and lobbyists are pushing back against a United Nations’ report pointing the finger at the global North’s huge appetite for meat and dairy for fueling climate change. But science shows that raising cows sustainably, with a low or carbon-neutral footprint, is the exception, not the rule.
Cattle farming has increasingly been singled out for contributing 9.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The meat and dairy industry currently takes up 83 percent of farmland and produces 60 percent of agricultural emissions. From this narrative has emerged a counter-argument, that beef production, if done properly, can be better for the environment than other plant-based crops. Farmers say that grass-fed beef, as opposed to cattle raised in factory farms, can capture carbon, reduce greenhouse gases, and lessen the need for fertilizers and water.
But what does the science tell us about this claim? Research shows that raising cows on grass can reduce carbon emissions, but not all grass-fed farming is carbon-neutral. In fact, more efficient factory farms may produce less greenhouse gases than their grass-fed counterparts.
If ranchers manage their herds efficiently using regenerative agricultural practices, many of those cattle farms can greatly reduce their carbon footprint. Under the right conditions, some can be carbon neutral. But scientists say there are a number of systemic hurdles that make proper regenerative agriculture economically challenging. For now, those types of farms are very few and far between because of the costs associated with more sustainable practices.
According to Paige Stanley, Ph.D candidate at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, not all cattle-raising practices are created equal. “There’s all this stuff that’s come out pointing towards beef being an environmental wrecking ball. Parts of that are certainly true,” she said.
According to Stanley, less than 3 percent of beef farmers in North America use carbon-catching herding practices, whereas 97 percent of beef production involves intensive farming or factory farming. Within the 3 percent of farmers allowing their herds to graze on grass, there’s a smaller group of farmers who use a method called rotational, adaptive, or planned grazing. This involves splitting land into plots and cycling cattle from one area to another. It mimics what naturally happens when herds roam free.
Although cattle emit significant greenhouse gases over the course of their lifetime, rotational grazing, if done properly, can trap more carbon than the cows burp and fart out, and trap it underground. It also requires less water, chemical pesticides, and fertilizers, which have their own environmental impacts. Raising cattle this way means that grains aren’t needed to feed the animals, which also saves on greenhouse gas emissions.
Stanley’s research has led her to study how these types of “carbon sink” farms work, including at a farm in Michigan. “When you think about a more holistic view of good or bad for the climate, certainly grass-fed if done correctly, can be very good,” she said.
This works best in places such as Michigan and other regions surrounding lakes, where the air and soil aren’t really dry. It isn’t as effective in places like the interior upper western states because in places where the soil and air are arid, this same practice doesn’t capture as much carbon because moist soil is better at trapping it.
Stanley says the U.S. government doesn’t incentivize sustainable rotational agricultural practices, based on policies that have been in place for more than 70 years. Take corn, for instance. American farmers received nearly $391 billion in subsidies between 1995 and 2019 and corn producers were the top beneficiary, raking in $113.9 billion in government subsidies.
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of acres across the United States that are growing only corn in ways that are the worst-case scenario for the environment," said Stanley, which leads to soil erosion, habitat loss, and heavy fertilizers and pesticides.
With all that corn being produced, feeding it to cattle was an easy way to bring down the cost of raising cows too, which meant that the number of grass-fed farms in America dwindled.
Rotational grazing, which is also called “mob grazing” requires farmers to invest in equipment and time before they get started. Fencing, irrigation, and labour costs are initially higher but can result in savings once implemented. It remains a niche practice and there’s little economic analysis of what those exact costs entail.
Jason Rowntree, associate professor of animal sciences at Michigan State University, says that leaves ranchers in a tough spot. He cites a recent report outlining the fact that the average U.S. farm is $ 1.3 million in debt.
“It’s so hard to have these discussions when the amount of stress and anxiety these people are under today is historic. That’s something I want to be mindful of. Farmers make decisions to feed their families. They have to manage risk, droughts. Oftentimes, those decisions aren’t the best ecologically, but are what the policies are pointing them to do,” said Rowntree.
Finding beef that’s sustainably and locally raised is its own separate challenge. When you walk into a grocery store, there is no label that allows consumers to quickly identify what kind of beef has been farmed in a way that’s best for the planet.
Many of the items on American grocery store shelves labelled “grass-fed” are coming from Australia and New Zealand and don’t necessarily employ rotational grazing. Hanley says there’s no convenient way to find out if the beef you’re buying is raised sustainably; you have to go straight to the source to find out if regenerative agricultural practices were used.
“I suggest going to farmer’s markets and talking to them. ‘Grass-fed’ doesn’t capture it. Neither does ‘humanely-raised,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘organic’ as far as beef goes. Ranchers who are using this beneficial practice can explain it to you but they can’t really market it to you with a label just yet,” she said.
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