With the increasing popularity of meat-based diets like keto and paleo, many plant-based advocates and environmentalists are raising a red flag around animal production and its effect on the environment.
Reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and FAO (Food Agriculture Organization) claim that domestic livestock farming is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and driving climate change[*].
On the other hand, reports assessing regenerative farming show that the symbiotic relationship between animals and the land they live on can effectively reduce greenhouse emissions and protect the environment[*].
Is it possible that the government’s oversight concerning the benefits of pasture-raised animals could be further contributing to environmental issues? Read on to learn more.
Before we dig into the details, let’s take a brief overview of greenhouse gases(GHG).
GHGs are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap the sun’s heat — much like a greenhouse. They absorb the energy of the sun, allowing less heat to escape back into space.
When it comes to greenhouse gas production and animal farming, the primary gases discussed are:
- Carbon (Co2)
- Methane (CH4)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
Over the last few centuries, concentrations of greenhouse gases have been increasing, resulting in more heat being trapped. This is sometimes referred to as the “greenhouse effect,” where gases from the earth remain in the planet’s atmosphere, trapping heat and resulting in increased temperatures — AKA global warming.
The well-accepted storyline is that the greenhouse gases coming from livestock emissions and other manmade sources result in a warming of the planet’s surface.
While there may be some truth to this, as is true for most things in life, there’s more to the story.
In an in-depth review of the literature concerning livestock emissions and climate change, researchers have found that the effect of greenhouse gasses is largely overblown. This is particularly true in the case of regenerative farming, where livestock are allowed to graze on the land[*].
Furthermore, it should be mentioned that agriculture in general gets way more scrutiny than other sources of GHG emissions. For example, many people like to compare the GHGs from agriculture with those from transportation, claiming that agriculture emits far greater GHGs.
Here’s the problem with that claim; when calculating GHG emissions from transportation, the only thing that’s taken into account are tailpipe emissions.
On the other hand, when calculating GHG emissions from agriculture they include feed production, fertilizers, animal waste and gas, power generation for the farm, and transportation of the animals and meat products[*].
If the transportation industry were given the same scrutiny they would have to include the GHG emissions starting from the manufacturing of the car parts. And of course, the emissions that it takes to get the materials for those car parts to the car manufacturer. And what about the food that the people running the car manufacturing plant eat for lunch to fuel them so they can make cars?
The point is; simply using tailpipe emissions as the only source of GHGs for transportation while taking into account every aspect of agriculture is a bogus comparison.
Now, let’s take a look at each greenhouse gas individually.
Contrary to popular belief, the CO2 emitted by both humans and animals as part of digestion does not increase atmospheric CO2 levels.
The natural carbon cycle is the process by which carbon travels from the atmosphere into living organisms and the earth, and then back into the atmosphere. The same carbon atoms are recycled over and over again.
For example, a carbon atom in the atmosphere may be pulled into a process of photosynthesis from a plant in your backyard. Therefore, the carbon moves from the atmosphere into plant life. If you go ahead and consume that plant, the carbon then becomes a part of you, moving from the plant life into your body. You now take a deep inhale and exhale and release carbon through your respiration. Where does carbon go? Back into the atmosphere.
The natural carbon cycle does not create or destroy any atoms of carbon; it’s a recycling process[*]. Therefore, any carbon emissions coming from animals or humans are offset by photosynthesis or is released back into the atmosphere where it came from[*].
So, where is the additional CO2 in the atmosphere coming from? Processes like burning fossil fuels and deforestation have shifted the balance of carbon. However, research shows that as more carbon is released into the atmosphere, vegetation on the earth responds by capturing more carbon for photosynthesis[*][*].
In fact, in 2013, 36% more CO2 was captured in the spring and summer and then released again in the winter than in 1968 (45 years earlier). This underlines both the importance and integrity of the natural carbon cycle, and its ability to maintain the balance of carbon in the atmosphere as well as the earth’s surface[*].
While many people like to point the finger at animal emissions for the increased level of methane in the atmosphere, there are some significant details that have been left out of the equation.
Most notably, the amount of methane that’s naturally occurring on a given piece of land. For instance, methane is naturally emitted from resources like peat bogs, wetlands, and rainforests. Not to mention manmade sources like landfills, burning biomass, fossil fuels, and compost piles.
When quantifying the amount of methane that comes from manmade sources, it’s essential that the native ecosystem’s methane production be subtracted from overall current methane emission. However, scientific publications rarely take this into account. The result? A massive overestimation of the effect of cattle on methane emissions[*].
Just like carbon has a natural cycle, nitrogen follows a similar path from the atmosphere back to the land, and then back into the atmosphere once again. On land where animals are being raised, there may be an increased turnover rate of nitrogen, with animals consuming and emitting nitrogen at a higher rate.
However, the net nitrogen balance of the land remains the same. In fact, research shows that there is no significant difference between nitrogen emissions from patches of animal feces and the rest of the pasture. This means that the same amount of nitrous oxide is emitted from the land, whether it passes through the livestock digestion or not[*].
One exception to this nitrogen cycle balance is in the case where farmers use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. However, on pasture-raised farms, this practice is rarely used[*].
With an understanding of the natural flow of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon in our environment, it begs the question — where are the excess greenhouse gases coming from if not from the animals themselves?
The difference comes down to farming techniques. There’s a massive chasm between conventional farming where animals are fed grains and have no space to roam free and pasture-raised cows that eat off the land.
Where conventional farming calls for synthetic fertilizers, water-draining crops like corn and soy, and higher rates of fossil fuels, regenerative farming (pasture-raising) enhances soil quality, omits the need for grain crops, and requires fewer fossil fuels.
As you can see, the benefits of pasture-raised meat reach far beyond the welfare of the animals, so let’s dive into the details.
Enhanced Carbon Sequestering
As mentioned above, carbon follows a natural cycle where it moves from the atmosphere to plants, humans, and then back up to the atmosphere. Part of this cycle involves something called “carbon sequestering,” where healthy soil is able to capture and store carbon.
Carbon sequestering reduces the amount of CO2 that’s sent back up into the atmosphere, thereby reducing the number of greenhouse gases produced by that particular ecosystem.
Research shows that allowing animals to graze on the land significantly enhances the carbon sequestering capacity of the soil. In fact, one study found that the carbon emissions from an animal grazing farm were completely offset by soil carbon sequestering[*].
Decreased Carbon Footprint
Along with carbon sequestering, the overall carbon footprint of conventional vs. pastured beef is wildly different.
When Quantis, a Life Cycle Analysis company, assessed the LCA of a farm using regenerative agriculture practices like animal grazing, they found that the carbon footprint of the land was 111% lower than a conventional US beef system.
In addition, the total net emissions of the farm were negative, meaning that the amount of carbon sequestering outpaced the emissions. This could mean that allowing animals to graze could actually decrease the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere[*].
Reduced Methane Emissions
The common belief is that methane produced by animal farming goes directly into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. While it’s true that some methane does escape the ecosystem in which it comes from, in healthy soil conditions methane is converted into CO2 before it can reach the atmosphere.
A type of bacteria found in healthy soil known as methanotrophs oxidize methane, resulting in CO2 that can rejoin the natural carbon cycle. Research shows that when the soil contains higher levels of methanotrophs, it significantly reduces atmospheric uptake of methane[*].
The manipulation of soil that takes place with these practices has a direct effect on the microbial diversity of the land — leading to larger rates of methane emissions.
In contrast, when animals are allowed to graze they provide a natural source of fertilization to the ecosystem, which results in increased microbial diversity[*].
Fewer Fossil Fuel Emissions
The burning of fossil fuels for energy is said to be one of the main culprits for the greenhouse effect and subsequent global warming. As you learned earlier, CO2 emissions from animals and humans are part of the natural carbon cycle. Burning fossil fuels, however, causes a disruption to the cycle.
Since the 1960s, industrial agriculture has increasingly tapped into fossil fuels as a source of energy. Everything from pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to the operation of heavy machinery on farms contributes to the use of fossil fuels.
In fact, nitrogen fertilizer alone can account for up to 50% of the energy used in commercial agriculture[*].
When animals are allowed to graze and defecate on the land, they provide a natural source fertilization. This not only enhances the health of the soil, but it cuts down on the need for fossil fuel-depleting synthetic fertilizers[*].
All animals, just like humans, require water for proper metabolic functioning. For instance, a 1250 pound beef steer will drink about ten gallons of water a day[*]. While this certainly adds up, the real water-drain that comes from animal production actually shows up in the form of animal feed production.
While grass-fed beef is fed…well…grass. Conventional beef is fed crops like soy and corn. In order for the crops to grow and supply fruitful resources of food for the cows, they require a great deal of water.
For instance, about 36% of the corn grown in the US is used to feed livestock, and about 10-15% of all the corn that’s grown needs to be irrigated due to water-stress. This results not only in a water drain, but an energy drain as farmers need to move water from areas of abundance to areas of drought. All in the name of feeding livestock.
In addition, when farms use fertilizers and pesticides to ensure the growth of their crops, it can result in run-off that pollutes water sources. In fact, synthetic fertilizers are one of the primary causes of “dead zones” — a body of water that cannot sustain animal life due to low levels of oxygen[*][*].
Conventional herding methods erode the health of soil by impacting its ability to hold carbon and water and reducing biodiversity. By compacting the soil, overgrazing can cause conditions where it becomes nearly impossible for new plant life to sprout.
Proper livestock grazing, however, can produce several beneficial outcomes to the soil. These include enhanced soil structure and density, optimal root and water penetration, and a growth in diverse plant life.
Rotation grazing, in particular, reduces compaction of soil which can result in better growing conditions for plants. In addition, rotational grazing can enhance the capacity of soil to store carbon (carbon sequestering), and therefore contributes to the mitigation of greenhouse emissions[*].
One study even stated that rotational grazing “may have long-term benefits with respect to erosion control, nutrient cycling, hydrological function and the stability of animal production[*].”
While the government searches for answers to global warming, it’s quite possible that the benefits of pasture-raised meat are getting swept under the rug as livestock takes the role of scapegoat.
If you’re concerned about the health of the environment, seek out farmers that practice regenerative and responsible farming techniques. Consuming grass-fed beef not only provides an excellent source of nutrition for your body, but it nourishes the land and mitigates environmental issues like greenhouse emissions.
The anti-meat approach to environmentalism is really just turning a blind eye to larger issues like factory farming and the burning of fossil fuels. Keep in mind that high-quality for your body means high-quality for the planet.