Food production represents 26% global greenhouse gas emissions. For Americans, meat is about 80% of our food footprint. Among meats, beef is second only to lamb in terms of carbon emissions per kilogram. But we eat a lot more beef than lamb. Eating beef is bad for the environment, but is it mandatory? A different approach to raising cattle is slowly taking hold, and it could lower your burger’s carbon emissions.
Oversized Ox Hoof Print
Unlike other meat production systems, beef is not vertically integratedand practices can vary widely, even in the United States. beef production consists of four phases: raising, growing, finishing and slaughtering. Beef cattle live in a breeding herd for 6-10 months until they are weaned. Then they move to another herd on rangelands where they graze until they are 12 to 16 months old. “Finishing” takes place for three to six months on a feedlot. These can range in size from a dozen animals to industrial CAFOs. In the feedlot, cattle are fed grain before being sent to the slaughterhouse.
Consumer concerns about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), combined with an increased interest in lean meat, have encouraged some producers to eliminate the feedlot in favor of a longer grazing period. Cattle produced in this way are called grass-fed or grass-fed.
The environment impacts of CAFOs are significant. Feedlots concentrate and store manure, generating high levels of local air and water pollution. Nitrogen-rich manure runoff can contribute to algal blooms and coastal “dead zones.” CAFOs are associated with the spread of pathogens such as E. coli, as well as exposure to growth hormones, antibiotics, and a host of facility chemicals. Further, feedlots contribute to deforestation by converting land to agriculture to produce silage. Some people argue that finishing feedlots is more sustainable that grass finish, quoting a reduced impact on industry during the period when feedlots came to dominate production. However, many other changes have taken place during the same periodincluding a major change in grazing practices on public lands.
Beef has an outsized impact even before it reaches the finishing stage. All cattle spend most of their life grazing. And even if the pasture is better regulated than it was in past generations, there is still much to be done.
Pasture, or journeyis the only one greater land use in the United States, occupying about a third of the contiguous states. About a quarter of this land, mostly in the western states, is owned by the federal government. Rangelands include grasslands, as well as savannahs, wetlands, some deserts, tundra, and scrub dominated by shrubs like chaparral. The latter constitutes a large part of the courses in the western United States. It is very different from the agricultural pastures and grasslands that once supported huge populations of grazing buffaloes. Drier ecosystems are more fragile and subject to desertification due to overgrazing, which was widespread from the period of western expansion until the end of the 20e century.
Today at least half of grazing operations still practice continuous grazing, in which livestock remain in the same low-density area for an entire year or growing season. There are several different approaches to rotational grazing, which allows pastures a certain period of rest. But variations in herd density, rotation frequency and length of fallow period can make a big difference in the sustainability of a grazing operation.
Many in agriculture industry resists even weak rules and regulations protecting natural ecosystems. But some conservation-minded ranchers and academics are applying a regenerative agriculture philosophy to rangeland management. Regenerative grazing systems can be called adaptive grazing, managed grazing or holistic management. Whatever the nomenclature, sustainable grazing mimics natural grazing patterns of native migratory herds. This involves carefully controlling stocking density and rotation schedules in response to local conditions rather than proscribed guidelines.
When properly managed, regenerative grazing can enhance soil health and reduce nutrient loss. In March 2018, BLM selected 11 demonstration projects in six states to test regenerative grazing. These projects have helped to inform the new BLM rule guide course management which is open for public comment until June 20, 2023. This is BLM’s first real attempt to use the rule-making process to put conservation on a “good footing.” equality” with other land uses.
Buy better beef
Buying sustainably grown meat is not easy and unfortunately the introduction of regenerative grazing adds a new layer of consumer research. Organic and human certifications are compatible with regenerative grazing but may not require it. THE American Weed Association requires beef producers to take a regenerative approach to farm/ranch management. In 2018, the Regenerative Organic Alliance led by the Rodale Institute, Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, introduced the Regenerative Organic Certification.
As always, whenever possible, it is best to buy directly from the farmer. If you can’t find beef at your local farmer’s market, the website eat wild maintains a state-by-state directory of local farmers who sell their pasture products directly to consumers. Find one near you and call them. Farmers who work to leave the land better than they found it are happy to explain their practices to food-conscious people.