Will eating less meat save the planet? Or instead, can we actually reduce the effects of climate change by changing the way that we raise meat? This debate introduces us to at least one of the big ideas in sustainable agriculture.
Last February, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) made history when it recommended to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Americans should consider eating “a diet higher in plant-based foods,” a diet that is “more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”
It’s that “less environmental impact” phrase that’s notable here. It’s the first time that the USDA has considered a diet advisory based on environmental health instead of strictly nutrition. At issue is the carbon footprint of raising animals for meat. But what’s rarely discussed outside of farming circles is the difference in environmental impacts between raising meat at feedlots and raising meat on pasture.
How Meat Is Raised
Feedlots are places where large numbers of animals are “finished” intensively in a small space. You’ll commonly hear them referred to CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations. Typically these animals are fed a high-protein diet, heavy in corn and grain, and are dependent on antibiotics to get them through the stresses of feedlot living. The antibiotics also help the animals grow muscle mass and fat more quickly, which is of course desirable in the market.
The livestock industry is responsible for an estimated 5% to 15% of total global carbon emissions, depending on who you talk to, and roughly two-thirds of that is the result of beef production. It’s generally recognized that the amount of meat and milk produced is expected to double over the next 35 years to match population demands.
But what if we changed the way we raised meat? What if we raised our meat on pasture, where the animals eat as their genetic ancestors the Aurochs did, munching grasses, clovers, herbs, weeds and flowers? Where their manure is dropped back into the field and broken down into the soil as fertilizer instead of concentrated into pits of toxic waste.
What if the earth could be restored by a different way of growing meat?
Carnivores in the U.S. are the third largest consumers of beef on the planet. Denis Hayes, esteemed environmental activist (he organized the first Earth Day in 1970) and co-author of Cowed, estimates that there are currently 93 million cows raised annually to fill our gaping maw. The DGACs response, and they aren’t alone in this, is to suggest that we should simply eat less meat. As Michael Pollan said in his bestselling book, Omnivores Dilemma, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Hayes estimates that by the time it lands on your plate, a pound of beef gives off more carbon dioxide than burning a gallon of gasoline. However, those estimates include the amount of carbon dioxide given off by making nitrogen fertilizer; fueling tractors, harvesters, and semi trucks that produce and deliver the grain to the animals; the carbon costs of transport and refrigeration of slaughtered meat, and so on. And, as scientists at the University of California–Davis have noted, those same standards aren’t applied in consideration of the gallon of gas.
Pasture-raised meat proponents, such as Allan Savory, who’s developed an intensive grazing method dubbed “Holistic Management” (which I’ve vastly oversimplified here), claim that even land that’s been desertified can be brought back to health by “mob” grazing a bit of pasture and then moving the animals to fresh grass, allowing the grass to regrow before returning the animals to it. The animals themselves “deposit” their own fertilizer on the pasture, minimizing mechanical inputs. The process sequesters carbon in the soil and, if properly done, can at least help minimize the effects of CO2 on the planet.
And, presumably, if consumers eat meat that’s been grown within several miles of their homes instead of on CAFOs hundreds and even thousands of miles away, the carbon footprint is arguably much smaller.
“The environmental benefits of pasture-based farming include reduced soil erosion, improved air and water quality, denser nutrients in the soil, and higher plant variety,” says Lisa Shirek, owner of Painted Rock Farms in Amherst Junction.
Conversely, the feedlot beef industry has funded or helped to fund studies arguing that grain is actually more digestible than grass, thereby reducing the methane output. They also cite studies showing that concentrated production combined with new efficiencies that grow meat and milk more quickly, and in greater quantities, reduces a CAFO cow’s footprint to well below that of a grass-fed cow.
It’s probably not surprising to anyone that there are studies asserting diametrically opposed claims, and these are not arguments that will be easily resolved. Meat production is big business, and there’s a lot at stake.
What is easier to measure are the health benefits of a cow raised on a lush pasture compared to CAFO cows.
According to the Mayo Clinic, grass-fed beef often has less total fat. It also has more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid (a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks), and more antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E. In short, it’s better for you.
And as a chef, I can tell you that it cooks up in an entirely different way than CAFO meat does. It browns much more easily, developing what the French call a “fond,” caramelizing and showcasing its flavor. Even something as simple as a hamburger made from a well-raised cow can be a revelation to the diner.
CAFO meat, on the other hand, exudes a dramatic amount of water before it browns, making it much more likely that it steams before it browns. And that’s not exactly the savory quality that we’re looking for. There’s often a note of ammonia in the flavor of CAFO meat, which is especially noticeable in pork. Grass-fed chicken has a silky quality to it that’s totally absent from CAFO chicken, and CAFO chicken is often referred to as “mushy” in comparison to grass-fed.
Grass-fed meat, because it tends to be leaner, should be cooked “fast and hot” or “low and slow,” depending on the cut. Stews and roasts tend to fall in the low-and-slow category. Ask your farmer about lesser utilized cuts, too, like shanks, short ribs, oxtails, tongue and heart, stewing chickens, lamb necks, and pork hocks. These cuts often are at a lower price point, and there are great meals to be had if you’re willing to learn how to cook them.
It takes longer to raise an animal on grass, and if you’re trying to maximize short-term profits, this isn’t exactly the most efficient way to raise meat.
As Chris Holman, co-owner of Nami Moon Farms in Custer, said, “There’s a minimal advantage when it comes to feed with poultry, but there are some savings involved, and it does diversify the animals’ diets. This is how we want to farm as well, so it’s important for that reason alone. We have the added goal of ensuring that we’re managing our pastures as well as we can.”
Shirek adds, “The biggest thing for us is that we believe animals should live a life closest to how they would live in nature. If we can give these creatures the ability to choose their food source, based on their own needs, we feel we can only produce the best products out there.”
The long-term profit of a healthier pasture, and a more pleasant life for both the farmer, their animals, and their customers, can’t be underestimated. And it may well provide for a healthier planet as well.
Bonni Miller is the manager of the Waupaca Saturday Farm Market, which operates year-round on the public square in Waupaca. She’s also the owner of Chez Marche Foodworks, which provides local food sourcing and personal chef services. She hates her phone, but she wants to hear from you. Your best bet for reaching her is to send her an email at email@example.com.