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If I stick to grass-fed beef, can I live with myself environmentally?

Dear EarthTalk: Even though I know a vegetarian diet is better for the environment, I love cheeseburgers and a good steak every now and then. If I stick to grass-fed beef, can I live with myself environmentally?
– Jeanine Smith, Hixson, TN

cattleYes and no, depending on how much imperfection you’re willing to tolerate. Calorie-for-calorie, an acre of land can feed more mouths growing vegetables and grains for direct human consumption that it can growing feedstock for farm animals that end up on our plates.

But for years beef industry defenders have pointed to the “carbon sequestration” benefits of grazing cattle on grasslands as an environmental justification for continuing to raise and sell livestock. According to the theory, grasslands around the world hold the potential to store (sequester) enough atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) to reverse global warming if they are used to graze livestock “bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators”—in the words of “holistic management” guru Allan Savory—to mimic what were once naturally-occurring processes in nature. Since grasses, like all plants, consume (and then store) atmospheric CO2—a key component of photosynthesis—to grow to full maturity, using grassland to graze cattle helps sequester untold amounts of greenhouse gases as new grasses shoot up after the livestock has passed through.

But a recent analysis by Tara Garnett and researchers at Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network found that the carbon sequestration benefits of even “holistic management”-based livestock grazing are limited at best. They concluded that, even under “very generous assumptions,” livestock grazing could only offset 20-60 percent of the average annual greenhouse gas emissions of grass-fed beef—and only between 0.6 and 1.6 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. This last figure is the real clincher, given that livestock account for some 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions all told.

Livestock agriculture—grass-fed or otherwise—is already a big contributor to global warming purely as a result of methane gas “emissions” from cattle. (Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.) All of this cattle belching and flatulence, combined with millions of tons of off-gassing manure generated on farms around the world, combine to make animal agriculture responsible for 35-40 percent of annual “anthropogenic” (human-caused) methane emissions worldwide.

And it turns out that grass-fed cattle actually generate significantly more methane than their feedlot-held counterparts due to how difficult it is to digest wild grasses versus the corn- and soy-based feed offered back in the barn. Meanwhile, agricultural researchers are working on ways to reduce methane emissions even further for feedlot cattle by adding chemical and biological agents into feed that cancel out the “methanogenic” microorganisms that lead to intestinal production of so much methane in the first place.

That said, environmentalists warn that we shouldn’t rely on such “interventions” when we can solve our problems the old-fashioned way: Reducing your overall intake of meat, if not going vegetarian or vegan altogether, is the only way to guarantee that our meat addiction doesn’t kill us in the end.

CONTACTS: Food Climate Research Network, www.fcrn.org.uk; “Restoring The Climate Through Capture And Storage Of Soil Carbon Through Holistic Planned Grazing,” The Savory Institute, www.savory.global/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/restoring-the-climate.pdf; “Carbon, Methane Emissions and the Dairy Cow,” Penn State Extension, https://extension.psu.edu/carbon-methane-emissions-and-the-dairy-cow.

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  • Shodo

    What you’re missing here is that you can graze cattle on lands that are not suitable for raising either vegetables or grain. That’s a lot of land.

  • Farmer Boy AEA

    I’d like to see that Oxford research because it flies in the face of what I have experienced first hand across dozens of grazing based farms. A realistic expectation across these holistically managed farms is a quarter percent organic matter growth per year. This is hugely more carbon then the effect of the methane emissions from the cattle that are creating this carbon sequestration.

    Another thing that’s overlooked in almost all studies is the methane sequestration of actively growing grass. If that were accounted for it would probably change the picture considerably.

  • Red Wolf Ranch

    I agree and based on the “contacts” used for this discussion clearly it
    is biased and not speaking to the symbiotic relationship that grasses
    have to grazers. This is the place to look and where we create living
    soils through the use of managed livestock we see the soil microbial
    activators and compositors break down the manure as food for the roots,
    gently impressed into the soil through the action of animal impact or
    hooves, and we see up to 300% more moisture retention, less irrigating,
    and more grasses up to 100% per year and wildlife flourishing in the
    grasslands and regenerated riparian corridors. I have studied this for
    over 30 years and when there is no animal impact, plant life slowly
    withers away; animal impact grooms the land, the soil and by naturally
    pruning native plants brings them to full expression. Where there is
    water there is life. Thankyou Farmer Boy AEA!!

  • Ecologist

    Global warming? Nonsense! If all cattle are taken away from natural grazing what are you going to do with the land? Cultivate it? There is ample proof that global warming is a lot of nonsense devised by Al Gore and followed by so called “scientists” the world over.