The Beef with Beef: Addressing the Environmental Stigma behind Cattle Farming

(Part 1 of 4)

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the story of beef and the environment, and why a study done by White Oaks Pastures has shifted the paradigm around beef’s role in restoring the planet’s health, transforming cows from the villain to the hero. <br>
Preface: A Useful Framework

The Good: Ruminant’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment

The staggering environmental difference between conventional beef production and regenerative beef production makes cows an easy target when it comes to the discussions around sustainable food production since environmentalists tend to look at the worst offenders instead of the full picture. In a ground-breaking 2019 study on White Oak Pastures’ beef production, Quantis – a leading environmental research firm – concluded that White Oaks Pastures beef productions’ carbon footprint does not share the stigma of extremely high carbon emissions attached to conventional beef production. In fact, White Oaks’ regenerative practices showed a 111% lower carbon footprint and a total net positive result when it comes to carbon emissions. In total, White Oak Pasture’s integrated system is six times more carbon efficient than conventional beef.

So, the question then becomes what is White Oak Pastures doing differently?
The short answer is nearly everything.

First, raising cows as nature intended, on pastures and fed with grass, reduces the need for buying soy or corn feed to raise the cows. The significance here is that corn and soy are overproduced monocrops typically grown with the help of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals that disrupt microbial functions in the soil. By raising cows on pastures, White Oak Pastures’ captures the most sustainable source of energy on the planet: solar energy. By relying on a bioavailable and highly sustainable food source to raise its cows, White Oak Pastures’ practices support naturally occurring systems without the use of chemicals that disrupt ecological cycles.

Cows play a critically important role in pushing nutrients into the soil to support plant growth, water retention, and overall soil health.

First, by grazing grass, cows spark the cycle of regrowth for these grasslands. When a cow takes a bite of grass and moves onto the next pasture, the grass regrows by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pushing root exudates back into the soil through a process called carbon sequestration. Since the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes most significantly to climate change, sequestering carbon back into the soil via natural cycles presents a compelling solution to lowering atmospheric carbon and restoring soil health.

In a recent study done by the United Nations Environment Program, 89% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas mitigation potential resides in improving soil carbon levels, which translates to an offset of 11% of all human-made greenhouse gases. And, on top of that, every 1% increase in soil carbon through sequestration has a resulting 2% reduction in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In addition to their role in grazing to support restoring carbon to the soil, cows also create an amazing natural fertilizer in the form of manure that helps restore nitrogen and other organic compounds to the soil to promote the microbial and fungal cycles working beneath the surface.

Clearly, regenerative practices show serious promise when it comes to mitigating carbon emissions, but what about the other two greenhouse gases produced in raising cattle - methane and nitrous oxide?

The methane story deserves an article in and of itself. In short, methane and carbon dioxide pose two different “threats” to climate change. While methane lasts only 10 years in the atmosphere and does not accumulate, carbon dioxide accumulates heavily and lasts for over 1000s of years. While methane does have a much higher warming effect than carbon dioxide, the methane found in the atmosphere comes from a naturally occurring part of earth’s biogenic carbon cycle. The emission of methane is merely a byproduct of the breakdown of organic matter, whether digested by cows or decomposing plant matter.

In addition, the case for methane and cows is made less relevant when you notice the low correlation between the rise in cattle compared to the falling US methane levels. The emissions do not track the overall population growth of cattle and experts quite frankly have a hard time sourcing the real cause of methane pollution in the United States. Nevertheless, it makes up roughly 40% of US agricultures current greenhouse gas emissions and does deserve attention. However, it appears as though the case against cows holds much less weight when compared to the positive effects cows have on carbon sequestration.

As for nitrous oxide, almost 90% of agriculture’s nitrous oxide emissions come from the use of manmade fertilizers. It contributes 5% of the US total greenhouse gas emissions and of that roughly 73% is attributed to farmers. The good news? Since regenerative practices like White Oaks Pastures avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers altogether, the case for shifting to more regenerative practices becomes that much stronger.

While reducing atmospheric carbon catches all the headlines, the other positive externalities from reintroducing cows back to the pastures hold potentially even more promise when it comes to defending against soil erosion, promoting biodiversity above and below ground, and stabilizing the water, mineral, and microbial cycles that allow these ecosystems to flourish.

The Bad: Conventional Beef Production is Not Sustainable
Any honest environmentalist or land steward in the United States can tell you the damaging effects of conventional beef practices do not promote a sustainable food system. By forcing cows into contained spaces and feeding them soy, corn, and some grain feed, conventional beef production misses all of the benefits of letting cows work the fields to sequester carbon back into the soil and further promotes soil degradation by using feed grown through synthetic fertilizers as opposed to sustainable grazing practices.

Unfortunately, poorly aligned incentives have led to highly concentrated aspects of the beef industry and conventional beef production accounts for a majority of the beef produced in the United States. The mounting pressure for change across the industry from both an environmental and food quality perspective has led regenerative farmers to create some ambitious goals. In the next five years, land stewards want one-third of the acres in the United States to move towards regenerative practices, up from less than 5%. The effort to make this change requires attention and education, but the ranchers and farmers remain hopeful.

The bad news right now, unfortunately, is the low percentage of regenerative farms in the United States compared to the number of conventional farms offsets most of the positive work being done on those farms. Nevertheless, it inspires hope for what the future holds if regenerative farmers can capture more of the market share.

The Ugly: The Narratives Around Beefs Environmental Effects
The lack of consensus among the experts when it comes to beef and the environment creates massive amounts of confusion for the average person trying to do what is right for the planet – which I optimistically believe most people intend to do.

Two groups of environmentalists – land stewards known as regenerative farmers versus, for lack of a better term, “progressive” environmentalists – seemingly agree on two points and disagree on a third. The first two points are 1) climate change poses a serious, potentially irreversible, threat to all living things if changes are not made in the next 30-50 years and 2) conventional agriculture and beef production methods are not sustainable from an environmental or a financial perspective. The point of disagreement, dubbed “the ugly” due to its controversial nature, is the beef industry actually plays a critical role in a sustainable future through improved methods of cattle farming via regenerative practices.

So, why do the experts disagree?
The source of the disagreement dates to 2006 when an article called Livestock’s Long Shadow, written by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), villainized the entirety of the meat industry, revealing that cattle farming contributed 18% of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Due to a miscalculation, the authors later revoked the data entirely, however, the beef industry has carried a bruised reputation until this day.

In order to see the narrative change, more and more farms like White Oak Pastures must begin to show the world the positive effects of regenerative practices in the face of escaping the historical narrative that beef poses a threat to the environment.

More to come…

Over the next several weeks, I am going to take each of these sections and expand on them to capture more of the details and to simplify these arguments for people to use as a tool for the next time they hear someone say “beef is bad for the environment”.