Actually, Raising Beef Is Good for the Planet

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Despite envi­ron­men­tal­ists’ wor­ries, cat­tle don’t guz­zle water or cause hunger—and can help fight cli­mate change

Peo­ple who advo­cate eat­ing less beef often argue that pro­duc­ing it hurts the envi­ron­ment. Cat­tle, we are told, have an out­size eco­log­i­cal foot­print: They guz­zle water, tram­ple plants and soils, and con­sume pre­cious grains that should be nour­ish­ing hun­gry humans. Late­ly, crit­ics have blamed bovine burps, flat­u­lence and even breath for cli­mate change.

As a long­time veg­e­tar­i­an and envi­ron­men­tal lawyer, I once bought into these claims. But now, after more than a decade of liv­ing and work­ing in the business—my hus­band, Bill, found­ed Niman Ranch but left the com­pa­ny in 2007, and we now have a grass-fed beef company—I’ve come to the oppo­site view. It isn’t just that the alarm over the envi­ron­men­tal effects of beef are over­stat­ed. It’s that rais­ing beef cat­tle, espe­cial­ly on grass, is an envi­ron­men­tal gain for the planet.

Let’s start with cli­mate change. Accord­ing to the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, all of U.S. agri­cul­ture accounts for just 8% of our green­house emis­sions, with by far the largest share owing to soil management—that is, crop farm­ing. A Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists report con­clud­ed that about 2% of U.S. green­house gas­es can be linked to cat­tle and that good man­age­ment would dimin­ish it fur­ther. The pri­ma­ry con­cern is methane, a potent green­house gas.

But methane from cat­tle, now under vig­or­ous study by agri­cul­tur­al col­leges around the world, can be mit­i­gat­ed in sev­er­al ways. Aus­tralian research shows that cer­tain nutri­tion­al sup­ple­ments can cut methane from cat­tle by half. Things as intu­itive as good pas­ture man­age­ment and as obscure as robust dung bee­tle pop­u­la­tions have all been shown to reduce methane.

At the same time, cat­tle are key to the world’s most promis­ing strat­e­gy to counter glob­al warm­ing: restor­ing car­bon to the soil. One-tenth of all human-caused car­bon emis­sions since 1850 have come from soil, accord­ing to ecol­o­gist Richard Houghton of the Woods Hole Research Cen­ter. This is due to tillage, which releas­es car­bon and strips the earth of pro­tec­tive veg­e­ta­tion, and to farm­ing prac­tices that fail to return nutri­ents and organ­ic mat­ter to the earth. Plant-cov­ered land that is nev­er plowed is ide­al for recap­tur­ing car­bon through pho­to­syn­the­sis and for hold­ing it in sta­ble forms.

Most of the world’s beef cat­tle are raised on grass. Their prun­ing mouths stim­u­late veg­e­ta­tive growth as their tram­pling hoofs and diges­tive tracts fos­ter seed ger­mi­na­tion and nutri­ent recy­cling. These ben­e­fi­cial dis­tur­bances, like those once caused by wild graz­ing herds, pre­vent the encroach­ment of woody shrubs and are nec­es­sary for the func­tion­ing of grass­land ecosystems.

Research by the Soil Asso­ci­a­tion in the U.K. shows that if cat­tle are raised pri­mar­i­ly on grass and if good farm­ing prac­tices are fol­lowed, enough car­bon could be sequestered to off­set the methane emis­sions of all U.K. beef cat­tle and half its dairy herd. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the U.S., the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists esti­mates that as much as 2% of all green­house gas­es (slight­ly less than what’s attrib­uted to cat­tle) could be elim­i­nat­ed by seques­ter­ing car­bon in the soils of graz­ing operations.

Grass is also one of the best ways to gen­er­ate and safe­guard soil and to pro­tect water. Grass blades shield soil from ero­sive wind and water, while its roots form a mat that holds soil and water in place. Soil experts have found that ero­sion rates from con­ven­tion­al­ly tilled agri­cul­tur­al fields aver­age one to two orders of mag­ni­tude greater than ero­sion under native veg­e­ta­tion, such as what’s typ­i­cal­ly found on well-man­aged graz­ing lands.

Nor are cat­tle vora­cious con­sumers of water. Some envi­ron­men­tal crit­ics of cat­tle assert that 2,500 gal­lons of water are required for every pound of beef. But this fig­ure (or the even high­er ones often cit­ed by advo­cates of veg­an­ism) are based on the most water-inten­sive sit­u­a­tions. Research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, shows that pro­duc­ing a typ­i­cal pound of U.S. beef takes about 441 gal­lons of water per pound—only slight­ly more water than for a pound of rice—and beef is far more nutritious.

Eat­ing beef also stands accused of aggra­vat­ing world hunger. This is iron­ic since a bil­lion of the world’s poor­est peo­ple depend on live­stock. Most of the world’s cat­tle live on land that can­not be used for crop cul­ti­va­tion, and in the U.S., 85% of the land grazed by cat­tle can­not be farmed, accord­ing to the U.S. Beef Board.

The bovine’s most strik­ing attribute is that it can live on a sim­ple diet of grass, which it for­ages for itself. And for pro­tect­ing land, water, soil and cli­mate, there is noth­ing bet­ter than dense grass. As we con­sid­er the long-term prospects for feed­ing the human race, cat­tle will right­ly remain an essen­tial element.