Can Cows Be Good for the Climate? by Margot Conover

a close-up of three beef cattle in an open pasture.
Beyond Vegetarianism

Get rid of meat, save the planet.” If you’ve been on the internet lately, you have probably heard claims that quitting meat is the number one way that you can help combat climate change. Dire articles, billion-dollar plant-based meat IPOs, Burger King serving Impossible Burgers. Needless to say, it’s not looking good for meat eaters.

 

Indeed, maybe these fake meat folks have a point: One-third of all human-driven greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system, and 80% of that is from agriculture.1 A 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock contribute at least 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Beef cattle represent 42% of those emissions.2 The main sources of livestock emissions come from animal feed production and processing (mostly driven by fertilizer applications on feed crops), enteric fermentation (how the animal digests the food), and manure management (yes, poop). An estimated 97% of cattle3 in the United States finish their days (the final four to six months of life) in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)4 where the cows live in close proximity to each other, eating grains and other crops and producing a lot of wastewhich ends up in manure lagoons that release potent greenhouse gasses and pollute local waterways.3

 

And yet, the answer isn’t to delete cows. IN fact, we probably couldn’t, even if we wanted to: the FAO also projects global meat consumption to increase by at least 70% by 2050.5

 

With that in mind, we need a new regenerative paradigm for how animals are raised. EPIC producers are leading the way.

 

 

White Oak Pastures is Raising Animals Differently

Will Harris, a fifth generation beef farmer, believes regenerative agriculture can transform our food system from an industrial commodity system to a living ecosystem. Will began as a conventional beef farmer, but over the past 25 years, he has overhauled White Oak Pastures’ production system. Today, he operates his farm like an ecosystem.

 

I visited White Oak Pastures, one of EPIC’s flagship producers, this past August, and ecosystem is the only word that does the farm justice. Just by looking down the fence line, it’s easy to see the difference between the perennial regenerative pasture system on one side and the degraded conventional crop land on the other. In a neighboring field of conventional corn are rows and rows of tall shiny green stalks. The corn looks healthy enough, but otherwise the field is silent and motionless. The soil between the rows—kept bare with herbicide—has dried and cracked between rains. Monoculture.

 

 

Contrast that with White Oak Pastures’ side of the fence: Cows graze belly-deep in a diverse mix of grasses, forbs, and wildflowers. They are accompanied by innumerable creatures—invertebrates like butterflies, grasshoppers, and ants (which I met when I stepped in a fire ant pile!), along with birds like eagles, cattle egrets, and curlews. The pastures are visibly, as Will likes to say, “teeming with life.” Here, the ground is about six inches higher, and the soil is moist and dark.

 

At White Oak, cattle, sheep, and poultry graze fields in multi-species rotations, using the Savory Institute’s holistic planned grazing model. The animals are frequently moved between paddocks with time between grazings built in for plant recovery. This process mimics the way that wild herds of ruminants move across grasslands.

 

Far more than a pastoral idyll, White Oak Pastures’ combination of rotational grazing with other regenerative practices (like composting and maintaining perennial pastures) has rejuvenated its red Georgia clay into rich topsoil. This matters for climate impact because soil has the capacity to sequester carbon—0.4-1.2 tons per hectare (or 0.2-0.5 tons per acre), depending on the soil type.6 Cows can be important partners in making that happen.

 

 

Properly Raised Cows Can Reduce Greenhouse Gases

White Oak Pastures’ story of soil regeneration can be told in a way that resonates not only with the people who can visit the farm to experience it with all five senses, but also to scientists and business decision makers.

 

Working with a third party called Quantis, a life cycle assessment (LCA) was conducted on the farm using both soil sampling and modeled data from 2017. The LCA analyzed White Oak Pastures’ overall greenhouse gas footprint, including enteric emissions (burps and farts, to put it bluntly) from cattle, manure emissions, farm activities, slaughter and transport, and carbon sequestration through soil and plant matter.

 

The final results turn conventional wisdom about cows on its head: LCA data shows that White Oak Pastures is offsetting as much as 85% of the farm’s total carbon emissions and at least 100% of the beef emissions. For every pound of beef produced, 3.5 pounds of carbon are sequestered in the farm’s plants and soil. In other words, the study indicates that—unlike a conventional beef operation—White Oak Pastures’ beef operation is a carbon sink.7

 

How Cows Help Sequester Carbon

This may sound like magic, but it’s grounded in science. How exactly does it work? Plants “breathe” in carbon dioxide (one of those greenhouse gases) and “breathe” out oxygen as their waste product. Plants use photosynthesis to combine carbon and water to make sugars (carbohydrates), which they use to build their structures. Organic carbon atoms move from the atmosphere, to living tissue, to soil through the carbon cycle.

Grazing animals make this process more efficient. As herds graze, dung, urine, and old plant matter are trampled into the ground where they can decompose and enrich the soil’s network of microbial life. Dung beetles and other beneficial insects aerate and move resources into the soil. Grazer’s bites stimulate the grass to suck stored resources up from its roots and slough off used roots (made of carbon) into the soil—one of the most powerful ways grass helps store carbon underground even more efficiently than other plants.

A lot of climate change reporting makes it sounds like carbon is bad. It’s not bad; it’s just out of balance. We have released too much of it into the air and are not collaborating with the plants and animals that can move it back into the soil where it belongs, thus restoring the cycle’s balance.

 

Animals are Critical to Healthy Ecosystems

The results from the White Oak Pastures’ LCA defy conventional wisdom about beef. Not only is their beef lower in carbon emissions than conventional beef, the LCA also shows that converting cropland to perennial pasture combined with regenerative management can produce a smaller carbon footprint than other non-beef protein sources. That includes Impossible Burger8 and Beyond Meat9 (both net carbon emitters according to their own public LCAs).

 

This is not to discount that plant-based meat does produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat, nor to minimize the climate impact of conventional meat. Indeed, it’s important to recognize the severity of conventional meat’s climate impact, or the alternative we’re offering is meaningless. Current conventional practices—both from the factory farmed meat and plant-based meat side—are different faces of the same problem: a system that aims at best for inflicting less harm, rather than creating a net positive.

 

Currently, most efforts to make climate-friendly beef (if they don’t involve getting rid of cows altogether) focus on using less land, shorter lived cows, or feeding them supplements that make them less gassy. Interestingly, White Oak Pastures’ climate impact is not driven by more efficient cows or less land. Rather, cows from White Oak Pastures live longer and they eat grass, so they are actually gassier than grain-fed cows fattened on CAFOs. The carbon sequestered in the soil though converting cropland to perennial pastures, composting and holistic planned grazing makes the difference in the emissions impact. Converting annual cropland to perennial pasture, applying compost, and incorporating regenerative agriculture practices makes a vast difference in the net emissions of the cow—even when it  has more emissions to begin with.

 

As previously stated, a lot of climate action efforts focus on doing less harm. While necessary, this approach only prolongs the inevitable decline of our natural resources and compounds the effects of climate change. This approach doesn’t address the degradation that already exists. Regenerative agriculture, as practiced by farmers like Will Harris, can actually start to fix the broken cycles and help restore and regenerate the landscape. This changes the paradigm: animal agriculture can be part of the solution.

 

Getting rid of cows and replacing them with more monoculture cropping is not the answer to climate change. Healthy ecosystems include animals10, and to address the climate crisis, we need to start thinking about humans as part of, and dependent on, a larger ecological system. The results from White Oak Pastures demonstrate the power of positive animal impact and regenerative practices, and of treating a farm like a diverse, thriving ecosystem.

 

The White Oak Pastures LCA represents a huge opportunity to change the face of agriculture and a hopeful solution to address climate change. In 2017, there were over 30 million beef cattle in the United States, 11 million of which were on CAFOs. Over half of the contiguous US is estimated to be agricultural land12 13, and an estimated 40% of the world’s land is grassland.14 With only 3055 cows, White Oak Pastures’ net soil sequestration from their beef operation was over 919 imperial tons of carbon. That’s the equivalent climate impact of changing 31,671 incandescent light bulbs to LEDs.15

 

Our Responsibility as Land Stewards

Regenerative animal management is a big mindset shift for the industry, and farmers like Will are leading the change. In the current paradigm, a farm is a machine that we need to make more efficient. If a conventional beef producer wants to lower their carbon footprint, they usually aim for shorter, more productive animal life, more meat per animal, and less land mass used. In the regenerative paradigm shift, a farm is an ecosystem that we can restore. People working the land guide animals, plants, soil bacteria, and fungi toward interactions that support healthy soil, biodiversity, and farmer economic resilience. Instead of maximizing efficiency, it aims to maximize beneficial outcomes for all members of the farm ecosystem. Regenerative agriculture goes beyond aiming for net zero; it aims to grow and replace resources over time.

 

The White Oak Pastures LCA shows that an alternative to current agricultural norms—and indeed all human consumption—is possible. We have very few human examples of production systems that actually benefit the environment. Most of our current ecological solutions follow the net zero model (be thrifty, don’t do too much harm) or the conservation model (do nothing, and stay away from nature whenever possible). The LCA shows that it is possible for people to positively contribute to the environment through what we make and do. This is a rare example of how it could be more beneficial to the environment to make something than to not make it. The LCA not only gives evidence that animal agriculture can work to restore ecosystems and benefit the climate, it gives a positive example of the world that we want to work toward.

 

With so many systems set up to exploit and harm, we need people working to heal the planet and support resilient communities. There are huge opportunities in nature-based solutions like holistic grazing management—and tracking the data to prove that it works. Plants, animals, and farmers are experts at what they do, but they need advocates to articulate their impact through data and storytelling so that businesses feel safe investing in regenerative practices. To paraphrase another regenerative meat visionary, Joel Salatin, we won’t get anywhere until we stop investing in systems that harm and start investing in systems that heal. Regeneration means changing the way we interact with our ecosystem: every one of us is part of nature, not separate from it.

 

While this is just one study, we hope it will be useful to encourage more research in regenerative animal agriculture and generate more interest among the industry, retailers, and consumers in supporting animal agriculture with positive climate impact. That way, we can live on a healthy planet we can be proud of—cows and all

1 Vermeulen, et al. “Climate Change and Food Systems.” Annual Review of Environmental Resources. (2012)

2 Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.

3 Cheung, R., and McMahon P. 2017. Back to Grass: The Market Potential for US Grassfed Beef. Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.

4 “Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.”USDA National Resources Conservation Service. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/livestock/afo/. Accessed August 8, 2019.

5 Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO.

6 Lal, Rattan. “Degradation and Resilience of Soils.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 352, no. 1356 (1997): 997-1010; Uri, Noel D. “Agriculture and the Environment—The Problem of Soil Erosion.” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 16, no. 4 (2000): 71-94.

7 Carbon Footprint Evaluation of Regenerative Grazing at White Oak Pastures. 2019. Quantis. https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/hubfs/WOP-LCA-Quantis-2019.pdf  Accessed August 21, 2019.

8  Sustainability Is Our Main Ingredient. 2017. Impossible Foods. http://www.ift.org/~/media/Food%20Technology/Weekly/IF_SustainabilityReport2017.pdf Accessed August 21, 2019.

9 “A Burger with Benefits.” 2018. Beyond Meat. https://www.beyondmeat.com/whats-new/a-burger-with-benefits/ Accessed August 21, 2019.

10 Kubota, T. 2017. “Stanford research finds that diversity of large animals plays an important role in carbon cycle.” Stanford News. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/10/09/animal-biodiversity-important-part-carbon-cycle/ Accessed August 21, 2019.

11  USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Cattle Inventory (2018).

12  Bureau of Land Management, “Livestock Grazing on Public Lands,” (accessed August 30, 2019.

13  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service: Major Uses of Land in the United States, (2017)

14 White, R. et al. “Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems; Grassland Ecosystems.” World Resources Institute, 2000.

15  EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator (April, 2019).

Margot Conover supports EPIC Provisions’ commitment to regenerative agriculture as a senior sustainability analyst. Ten years ago, she moved to Ecuador to work with farmer co-ops and has worked in sustainable development ever since. Prior to joining the EPIC team, Margot worked for the Fairtrade certification and at PSI, an international public health NGO. She has a BA in political science from Christopher Newport University and an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago. Margot lives in Oakland, California, where she spends her free time growing and making food, knitting sweaters, and running and hiking in California’s great outdoors.

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