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.
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:
- groundwater and surface water polluted by pesticides and fertilizers;
- massive soil erosion;
- loss of soil carbon, organic matter, and soil fertility;
- destruction of grasslands, possibly our most endangered and least protected ecosystems;
- loss of insects, birds, and animals;
- a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.
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 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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