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There’s a better way to help the climate than abstaining from beef

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Julian Sellers
A Jan. 4 Community Voices commentary posed this question: “Why aren’t we all addressing climate change at each meal by skipping the meat?”

The campaign to fight climate change by avoiding eating meat is well-intentioned but not well-informed. In 2017, agriculture contributed 8.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and meat production was responsible for some part of that. But peer-reviewed studies show that even eliminating all of our cattle would have a relatively minor effect on climate change. In contrast, incorporating cattle into a regenerative agriculture system could sequester enough carbon to turn agriculture into a carbon sink, while also eliminating much other environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture.

The problem

About 97 percent of the beef produced in the United States comes from cattle that spend half their lives in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as feedlots, each of which might hold tens of thousands of animals. (Imagine the effect of that many animals on the groundwater, surface water, and air.) In a CAFO, the young steers are kept in a pen, standing or lying in manure, and eating mostly corn fortified with proteins. They are given growth hormones and antibiotics to add weight and keep them from dying from the unnatural diet and unsanitary conditions. (This promotes growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, caused at least 23,000 human deaths annually in the U.S. as of 2013.) The meat from these obese cattle is high in saturated fat with an unhealthful ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids).

Our industrial agriculture system of row crops and feedlots, subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $14 billion in 2017, has given us:

Farmers planted 86 million acres of corn in the U. S. in 2018. Big Ag would have us believe that this system is essential for us to “feed the world.” The facts tell a different story. The 2017 U. S. corn crop was used as follows:

  • 38.7 percent went to make ethanol.
  • 37.6 percent was fed to animals in the U.S.
  • 13.5 percent was exported, mostly for meat production.
  • 10.1 percent was used for domestic food products, more than half of which was high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.

This system is so entrenched that our elected representatives won’t consider anything more than tweaks around the edges lest they incur the wrath of agribusiness and the farmers who have become dependent upon the system.

The solution

The other 3 percent of U.S. beef comes from 100 percent grass-fed cattle. These cattle spend their entire lives foraging in pastures and grasslands, weather permitting. When weather prohibits outdoor foraging, they continue eating only harvested grasses and forbs. In other words, they live and eat pretty much the way evolution over millions of years has prepared them to live and eat.

The meat from 100 percent grass-fed cattle is a great source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. It is readily digestible by humans. It has the desired ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, and it is the best natural source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a probable anticarcinogen. It’s good for you and it’s good for our environment.

This research editorial in the March/April, 2016, issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation estimates the amount of carbon sequestration that various scenarios of grazing and improved row crop management could achieve in North America. It shows that eliminating cattle would cause only a modest reduction in agriculture’s contribution to climate change. It also shows that converting our current system of beef production to 100 percent grass feeding and well-managed grazing could sequester huge amounts of carbon in pastures and grasslands — much more carbon than is released into the atmosphere by the production of beef and milk from those cattle — in fact, much more than is released by all of North American agriculture.

Well-managed grazing also improves soil quality by increasing organic matter and the ability of soil to capture water. The enhanced soil is drought-resistant and helps prevent erosion and runoff.

The greatest climate benefit would come from well-managed grazing combined with improvements in row-crop farming such as no-till methods, cover cropping, and grazing of cover crops. In addition to the climate benefit, widespread adoption of this regenerative agriculture would increase wildlife habitat and greatly reduce the environmental harm caused by the current system.

Both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators are members of the Agriculture Committee. In the House, Collin Peterson chairs the Agriculture Committee, and Jim Hagedorn and Angie Craig are members. We should try to enlighten them on the topic of misguided agriculture subsidies.

In the absence of changes to federal farm policy, we can help by supporting the increasing number of farmers who practice sustainable, regenerative agriculture. The question we should ask is: Why aren’t we all addressing climate change by regularly enjoying a meal with 100 percent grass-fed beef?

Julian Sellers is a retired software engineer and a near-lifelong environmentalist and birder. He is a 40-year resident of St. Paul, an active member of the St. Paul Audubon Society, and a member of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union and the Land Stewardship Project.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 03/21/2019 - 12:24 pm.

    The above strikes me as a fine summary of the situation.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/21/2019 - 05:38 pm.

    Get a half or quarter beef from a farmer at the farmers market. You get the cuts you want, it keeps your money local, and the price is reasonable. T-bones, roasts, ground beef, for less than $5/pound.

    Don’t just ask if it’s grass fed. Ask if it’s 100% grass fed, not finished on corn.

    Then fire up the grill. (Here’s a tip: frozen burgers and steaks cook up great on the grill, no need to defrost.)

  3. Submitted by Andrea Cutting on 03/22/2019 - 09:38 am.

    This analysis ignores land and water as inputs to beef production. One estimate calculates that it takes three times as much land to raise a pound of pastured beef compared to feedlot beef. We do not have unlimited land. This argument implies that wealthy people should feel entitled to use even MORE acres per person for their food than we already do. The U.S. diet already uses more far acres per person than our global share. Ask yourself, will your pasture-raised beef come from forests converted to pasture or from cropland that currently feeds the world’s poor?

    • Submitted by janine groehler on 03/23/2019 - 11:55 am.

      There does seem to be a lot left out of this analysis. Granted, grass-fed beef is preferable to the feedlot, in that it requires anywhere from 13 to 19 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef flesh. I have read about the benefits of hooved animals grazing and the restorative impact that can have, so let them graze, rotate the herds through the fields for the soil enrichment benefits, and let them live out their lives. The benefits can be had without eating them. Animal product consumption at it’s current and projected future rates is not sustainable. The negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture as it is most commonly practiced are much higher than referenced in this article. It’s time to cut back or cut out animal products if you care about the future of our planet.

      • Submitted by janine groehler on 03/23/2019 - 12:00 pm.

        Correction: it takes anywhere from 13 to 19 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef flesh in the feedlot. Therefore, it is preferable to raise beef on grass in that less food that could alleviate human hunger goes into producing a product that so few have access to, or can afford.

      • Submitted by Julian Sellers on 03/25/2019 - 01:05 pm.

        The suggestion to restore grasslands by using animals that we don’t eat is not viable without a financial return for the owners of the land and animals.

    • Submitted by Jan Woods on 03/23/2019 - 05:46 pm.

      “Three times as much land as feedlot land” is not that much land. Feed lots are incredibly condensed operations. And the article does address the concern re “feeding the poor.” Massive corn crops don’t really do much of that, unless you consider feeding the poor HFCS as providing sustaining nourishment, rather than just straight up empty calories. From the article ” Farmers planted 86 million acres of corn in the U. S. in 2018. Big Ag would have us believe that this system is essential for us to “feed the world.” The facts tell a different story. The 2017 U. S. corn crop was used as follows:

      38.7 percent went to make ethanol.
      37.6 percent was fed to animals in the U.S.
      13.5 percent was exported, mostly for meat production.
      10.1 percent was used for domestic food products, more than half of which was high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.

      Of course much of that animal corn feed will be unnecessary as cattle ranching switches over to regenerative farming/ranching incorporating grazing only. If people are honest about wanting to help solve the problem of carbon emissions through managing livestock, the suggestions in this article seem to point to a highly beneficial path.

      • Submitted by Andrea Cutting on 04/08/2019 - 01:03 pm.

        By “feedlot land” I meant the land needed to support feedlot cattle, including cropland. It does not mean only the feedlot itself. I’m sorry I was unclear.

    • Submitted by Kaui Lucas on 03/24/2019 - 02:19 am.

      Re: Ask yourself, will your pasture-raised beef come from forests converted to pasture or from cropland that currently feeds the world’s poor?

      No, US cropland does not feed the world’s poor in any sustainable way. Mono-cropping, esp with GM seeds and fossil fuel inputs is not sustainable.

      Instead, it will incentivize landowners to keep land in agriculture rather than growing suburbs, which are far more environmentally degrading.

    • Submitted by Julian Sellers on 03/25/2019 - 01:01 pm.

      Roughly one-third of the 90 million cows present in the U.S. are slaughtered annually. Because grass-finished cattle take perhaps 30 to 50 percent longer than feedlot cattle to reach slaughter weight, more grass-fed cattle would need to be in the pipeline to maintain the same supply of beef that the feedlot system provides. The good news is that adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing, in addition to its environmental benefits, generally allows higher stocking rates of cattle than does traditional continuous grazing. How much higher depends on local conditions (that’s the adaptive part). Further good news is that the 20 million-plus acres of corn for cattle consumption could be restored to productive pastures. We could also talk about the 30 million-plus acres of U.S. corn grown for ethanol to feed internal combustion engines (with dubious environmental benefit). Or we could consider the following statement in the Teague et al research editorial commenting on global land use: “In addition, if crop production currently used for animal feed and other uses, such as biofuels, were instead used for human food products, supplies would be increased by 70%, thus providing sufficient resources for an additional four billion people (West et al. 2014).” What we know is that the current system is disastrous, and we need to replace it.

      https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/cattle-beef/statistics-information/

      https://e360.yale.edu/features/the_case_against_ethanol_bad_for_environment

      https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/110/10/4134.full.pdf?version=meter%20at%20null&module=meter-Links&pgtype=article&contentId=&mediaId=&referrer=&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click

  4. Submitted by Andrea Cutting on 04/08/2019 - 12:59 pm.

    These are all really well considered responses. However, I still don’t feel like global land constraints are taken seriously. Yes, of course we should end the foolish ethanol subsidies, but that doesn’t change the fact that a pound of grassfed beef requires a larger land investment than a pound of feedlot beef. Saying, “yes, but ethanol…” doesn’t refute my argument.
    Does anyone know if the estimate I found of three times as much land for grassfed beef relative to feedlot beef is correct? Are there other estimates out there? And how does adaptive multi-paddock grazing affect the acres-per-pound ratio?
    Certainly we would be better off if land for ethanol were converted to land for grassfed cows. But is that optimal? Wouldn’t it be even better (i.e. more sustainable) to convert it to crops that feed humans directly?
    Western Watersheds says 788 million acres (41% of the lower 48) are already used for grazing. That is land that probably is best suited to grazing (low rainfall, etc.). Less than half that (349 acres) are planted with crops. 78% of that cropland is primarily used for feeding livestock. We can certainly switch some of that cropland to pastureland, but we will get less nutrition (fewer pounds of beef) per acre as a result. We could also switch it to the direct production of human food, in which case we will get more nutrition per acre.

    The Teague citation has me perplexed. Leaving aside the reference to biofuels as an unwise use of land (with which we all seem to agree), it states that if crop production for animal feed were used directly for human food products, [food] supplies could be increased by 70%. My reading of this statement is that we should stop using land to feed animals. Land should be used for human food products directly. (It does NOT say that we should convert crop production to pasture.)
    Possible responses to my point are:
    A. There is plenty of land; we are facing no constraints. (This seems to be behind the ethanol argument as well as a misreading of the Teague quotation.)
    B. Who cares about land constraints. Land should be used to feed those who have the money to pay for it. If I have more money, I deserve to have more acres dedicated to my personal use. (This is implicit in the argument “we don’t feed the poor anyway.”)
    C. Grassfed beef does NOT take more land than feedlot beef. (Is anyone arguing this?)

    https://medium.com/center-for-biological-diversity/the-american-diet-is-eating-the-planet-b353727ab4d

    https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200781

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