In 2006 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a report that attributed 18% of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions to livestock. That is more than what’s produced by transportation! According to Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., cows produce 13 to 30 lb. of carbon dioxide per pound of meat. It is not surprising that after these reports not only vegetarian groups, but also many environmentalist have been calling for an end to eating meat.
In this context, it is quite surprising to hear that two of the most highly regarded organic-vegetable farmers in the country –Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch- have started growing cattle themselves. What do they know that the others don’t?
“Conventional cattle raising is like mining,” cattleman Ridge Shinn explains. “It’s unsustainable, because you’re just taking without putting anything back. But when you rotate cattle on grass, you change the equation. You put back more than you take.”
So, even though it is true that of all the animals that humans eat, none are held more responsible for climate change than the ones that moo, it looks like grass-fed cows may have the opposite effect. Grass is a perennial. If cattle and other ruminants are rotated across pastures full of it, the animals’ grazing will cut the blades, spurring new growth, while their trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.
“Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed the animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, transportation,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Grass-fed beef has a much lighter carbon footprint.” Indeed, although grass-fed cattle may produce more methane than conventional ones (high-fiber plants are harder to digest than cereals, as anyone who has felt the gastric effects of eating broccoli or cabbage can attest), their net emissions are lower because they help the soil sequester carbon.
Allan Savory, a former wildlife conservationist in Zimbabwe, confesses that a while ago he “was prepared to shoot every bloody rancher in the country.” But through rotational grazing of large herds of ruminants, he found he could reverse land degradation, turning dead soil into thriving grassland.
Like him, Coleman now scoffs at the environmentalist vogue for vilifying meat eating. “The idea that giving up meat is the solution for the world’s ills is ridiculous,” he says at his Maine farm. “A vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO2 than I am.” A lifetime raising vegetables year-round has taught him to value the elegance of natural systems. Once he and Damrosch have brought in their livestock, they’ll “be able to use the manure to feed the plants, and the plant waste to feed the animals,” he says. “And even though we can’t eat the grass, we’ll be turning it into something we can.”
So, grass-fed cows could save the planet. And not only that. The meat coming from grass-fed cows is much healthier that that coming from grains and hormones fed cows. Unfortunately, most of the beef available for us today does not come from a farm, but from a factory.
Grass-fed cows have radically different nutritional benefits. Gras-fed animal products are a great source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Studies suggest that CLA:
- Increases metabolic rate
- Decreases abdominal fat
- Enhances muscle growth
- Lowers cholesterol and triglycerides
- Lowers insulin resistance
- Reduces food-induced allergic reactions
- Enhances your immune system
Feeding cows what they are supposed to eat –grass- would make a big difference both for our health and for our planet.