The movement to get rid of cows grows apace, and popular burger joints like White Castle and Burger King (among others) have jumped on the faux-meat bandwagon. Their desire to save the planet is laudable, but are cows really the problem? Large ruminant mammals evolved to shamble around eating and fertilizing.
The real problem, it seems, is how we have changed our cattle-raising methods over the past century. Examining how we manage the herd is the best way to determine the part cattle could play in a sustainable food system. Then, we can figure out whether the alternatives are genuinely better for the environment.
How We Feed the Cattle Causes Huge Problems for Sustainability
It is no doubt that the current cattle industry is an emissions nightmare. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report nearly a decade ago finding that livestock cultivation contributes 14.5% of all human GHG emissions. Of these, cattle raising represents almost half. The primary sources of these emissions are feed, fertilizer (often synthetic), fermentation (i.e., cow gas), and manure.
In the current American system, about 97% of cattle spend the last 4-6 months of their lives on large feed lots. These concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) house cows in crowded stalls, feeding them grains and other cereal crops and creating massive manure piles. The adverse environmental effects of CAFOs are well documented, including increased emissions, higher cattle mortality rates, and deplorable animal welfare conditions.
Managed Grazing Integrates Cows into the Environment
What about the cows that don't end up in CAFOs? It turns out that several alternatives are much more sustainable for the environment. While they may differ from region to region, every viable option has one thing in common – grazing management. In some areas of the world, ancient transhumance moves cattle herds around to feed and fertilize without overstressing the soil. Indeed, itinerant herds can even convert inedible scrub brush into high-quality protein.
The Savory Institute's planned grazing model (and similar initiatives) are innovating the cattle industry in more affluent areas. Cows dwell on small paddocks, frequently rotating to graze on varied feeds and allowing the plants to recover. As the herd moves, it tramples manure and plant remains into the ground, where they decompose and spawn billions of the microbes necessary for healthy soil.
In addition to cows, farms on this model also graze sheep, goats, and poultry in rotation. Each species prefers different plants and fertilizes the soil with other nutrient profiles. Moreover, the poultry feed on pests – as do the birds and predatory insects from border hedges and cultivated trees. The well-managed grazing patterns keep these farms well-fertilized and maintain high levels of biodiversity.
Happy Cows Are Part of a Carbon and Soil Solution
The bucolic scenes above are not only picturesque; they represent a significant shift in how cattle rearing can affect the environment. Healthy soil can sequester an enormous amount of carbon. And according to the FAO, the capacity may be more than 10% higher than our emissions. Moreover, studies have shown that farms using multi-paddock, well-managed grazing techniques can sequester enough carbon to offset all emissions on the farm. In one example, an American farm's life cycle assessment (LCA) showed that the operation sequestered 3.5kg of carbon for every kilogram of beef produced.
Many Alternatives Don't Have the Same Effects
Some scientists nevertheless maintain that grazing cattle cannot increase soil carbon sequestration more than allowing the land to remain completely cattle-free and produce human-edible crops like corn and soy. In addition, they point out that, per calorie of output, beef requires much more land and nutrient input and plant crops.
This objection is only relevant if you assume that we must produce more total calories to feed everyone – a mathematical falsehood. Furthermore, it ignores the terrible societal and ecological damage that accompanies the high-calorie production per unit of land approach.
Other alternatives to cattle farming include the production of non-beef protein sources. Famously, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have produced meat substitutes with much lower emissions than meat finished in CAFOs. Beyond Meat enlisted the University of Michigan researchers to conduct a 3rd party LCA on their production. The report found that emissions were substantially lower than most US beef production; however, as per the research, the Beyond Meat process is still a net carbon emitter.
Finally, non-beef protein sources typically harvest plant proteins from monoculture fields of soy or peas. These large, intensive farming operations have detrimental effects on the environment – effects that biodiversity (encouraged by cattle!) can help mitigate.
Cattle Can Play an Integral Role in Our Drive for Sustainability
Cows emit – in more ways than one. However, cattle in their natural habitat (or one that mimics it) integrate fully with the environment. When farmers manage their herd's grazing, they can increase the amount of carbon (and other nutrients) in the soil. With the right system, beef farms can even become carbon sinks, which artificial meat producers have not yet managed. By feeding the cows a healthy, varied diet and avoiding monoculture, cattle can help heal the environment and regenerate our soil.
Shop the Perimeter – Monocropping is terrible, and most processed foods involve it. The perimeter of your grocery store (meat, poultry, seafood, produce, etc.) has all the nutrition you need, and it's much healthier for your family and the environment than the stuff in the aisles.
Support the Little Guy – Most farms that closely manage cattle grazing are smaller operations selling locally. Try to find one in your area to buy from. The cows are happier and healthier than most, especially in the months leading up to processing.
Consider the Fake Stuff – Although faux meat has its critics, it is much better for the environment than CAFO-finished beef. As technology improves, so will the production methods, and non-beef protein sources are healthy choices for vegans, vegetarians, and people who want to reduce their meat intake.