This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.
In my previous article on the environmental impact of red meat, I explained how grazing livestock can be an environmentally friendly farming technique, helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere and consume less water resources than has been estimated.
While all large-scale food production, even organic food, has some level of impact on the environment, it’s clear that red meat has borne the brunt of most claims of negative environmental impact. The major claim I want to address today is the claim that grazing livestock leads to soil erosion and desertification, which is far from the truth. In fact, grazing cattle could even be a factor that restores the environment if used intelligently and responsibly.
I’m sure many of you have already heard Allan Savory’s TED talk on the subject, but if you haven’t, it’s worth a listen. He argues that despite the popular assertion that livestock cause desertification, cattle and other livestock can actually reverse desertification when their grazing patterns are managed closely. He goes so far as to say that livestock may actually be our best hope for restoring land that is currently unusable. He has spent quite a few years in Africa testing different grazing methods, and has achieved some impressive results. In his talk, he shows pictures of land that used to be barren and infertile, but has been completely restored using intensive grazing methods.
As you can imagine, his claims are highly controversial, and there’s no clear consensus in the literature about whether livestock are detrimental or helpful to the land. Some studies seem to corroborate Savory’s claims; for example, this study found that a specific grazing pattern increased the water content of the soil. However, there are other studies that show no benefits whatsoever from intensive grazing, and some even show harm. But this really shouldn’t surprise us; it’s illogical to assume that the methods used to restore land in Africa will also work in every other part of the world. Climates are different, soil is different, plants are different, and the type of livestock is different, so what works well in one area might not work in another area. The good news is that, as Savory’s talk shows us, livestock aren’t always harmful to the land, and can even be highly beneficial when managed responsibly. But we can’t say that livestock is always helpful, either. This highlights yet again the importance of finding a farmer you trust, because a responsible farmer will know how to manage their livestock in a way that preserves the land.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain Fed
I’ve hinted at this throughout the post, but I want to directly address the difference in environmental impact between grass-fed and grain-fed red meat. Believe it or not, it’s controversial as to whether or not pasture-raised animals are better for the environment. In fact, many researchers have argued that grass-fed livestock is far worse for the environment! They claim that because it takes longer for animals to mature on pasture than in a feedlot, they consume more resources over their lifespan, making them a bigger burden on the environment. Ruminants on pasture also produce more methane than ruminants on concentrate because of the higher fiber content of their food. (9)
However, most of these researchers haven’t considered the big picture. As I mentioned earlier, cattle on pasture can be carbon negative by enhancing carbon sequestration, while cows cooped up in a building are completely detached from the natural carbon cycle. Pastured cattle are also friendlier to water resources, as we saw by the comparison in water use between mostly pastured cattle in Australia and mostly grain-fed cattle in the US. Further, it’s important to consider the other environmental hazards of feedlots, including pollution from manure, antibiotics, and pesticides. Researchers that look at the big picture find that when all factors accounted for, pastured cattle are much more environmentally friendly than their feedlot counterparts. (10) (11) (12) So, if you weren’t already convinced, this is another great reason to choose grass-fed beef when possible!
It’s safe to say that ruminants, especially when raised on natural pasture, are not nearly as harmful to the environment as they’re made out to be by the media and conventional wisdom. They don’t use inordinate amounts of water, and although they do produce methane, they also remove carbon from the environment through grazing and can be carbon negative under the right circumstances. And although irresponsible grazing can lead to desertification in some circumstances, the proper management of livestock can actually enhance the health of the land.
As I’ve said many times before, it’s important to purchase red meat from a farmer you trust when at all possible. It’s evident that responsibly raised, grass-fed animals are kinder to the environment than those raised in a feedlot, not to mention that the animal itself has a better life. But I’d also encourage you to keep things in perspective. Red meat might not be the most ‘environmentally friendly’ food out there, but I highly doubt it’s the worst. But even if red meat were as terrible for the environment as conventional wisdom claims it is, please remember that eating isn’t the only activity you do that impacts the environment. Yes, livestock produces a lot of methane. You know what else produces a lot of methane? Landfills. (And wetlands and rice paddies, interestingly enough.) Food waste is also a pretty big problem. Some researchers attribute 25% of total freshwater use and about 300 million barrels of oil per year to food waste. (13) Now, I’m not telling you this so you can try to calculate how many cans you’d need to recycle to ‘make up for’ the environmental impact of your 6oz grass-fed steak. I just think it’s important that we don’t forget all the other things we can do to help the environment that don’t require eliminating an excellent source of nutrition from our diet.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Did any of this surprise you? Have you ever changed your eating habits to be more environmentally friendly? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!