The Truth About The “Eat Less Or No Beef” Movement
Updated: Oct 11, 2019
You might know someone who is reducing or halting his or her beef consumption due to environmental concerns. Often, these people are quick to cite studies (many of which are faulty) that show beef production has contributed greatly to the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions. To them, the answer seems simple: Eat less or no beef. Environmental concern is commendable and necessary to be sure, but reducing or removing beef from one’s diet is a knee-jerk reaction—hasty at best, harmful at worst—to an oversimplified problem. Cattle and beef consumption aren’t the problem; in fact, both are essential components to symbiotic, high-functioning ecosystems that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. It’s not the cow; it’s the how.
A Faulty Study
A study called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” released in 2006 by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)—a division of the United Nations—was the stimulus for eat less or no beef reactions around the world. The report claimed that 18% of greenhouse gas emissions were directly or indirectly related to livestock, and that cattle were the main culprit. The 18% figure gained notoriety for its shock value, and essentially, its inconceivability. Could livestock really be to blame for nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases? Many people accepted the report and its figures as truth and acted accordingly.
There are several issues with the 2006 FAO study, some glaring, some subtle. As Nicolette Hahn Niman notes in her book Defending Beef: The Case For Sustainable Meat Production, in American farming, carbon dioxide, which is produced when fuel is burned to operate equipment, constitutes the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2006 FAO study, however, considers worldwide agricultural carbon dioxide emissions, most of which are the result of clear-cutting forests for crop growing and grazing. In fact, Hahn Niman notes this deforestation—much of which takes place in Brazil and other developing countries to clear way for soybean production—comprised 15 to 35 percent of annual global fossil emissions. Those aren’t small numbers.
But, as Hahn Niman states, “…No one eating beef need be part of this scenario.” Here’s why: Beef cattle that are kept mostly on grass and fed local crops simply aren’t a part of this harmful equation. In other words, beef producers in America who are feeding their cattle the right way (with grass and local crops), and who have NO connection whatsoever to the massive deforestation in Brazil that constituted a majority of emissions in the 2006 FAO study, were blamed for something they simply didn’t do. Suddenly, the study’s statistics become grossly general. And, keep in mind, those soybeans the forests were cleared for aren’t only used for feed for industrial livestock operations; they’re also used as a foundational ingredient in many vegetarian meals.
This isn’t to say there’s no truth to the 2006 FAO study. Cutting swaths of forests to grow crops for feed and forcing herds of cattle into confined spaces and pumping them full of antibiotics is not good for the environment—or the cattle and people who consume the beef, for that matter. But there are producers who are dedicated to raising beef the right way. Unfortunately, these producers have become a scapegoat of the eco-conscious movement, disproportionately bearing the burden for climate change. Here’s the thing: If you consume beef from a responsible producer like Certified Piedmontese, you’re actually part of the solution.
Responsible beef producers are part of a larger movement called regenerative agriculture. Former Vice President Al Gore, a leader in the fight against climate change, recently wrote an article called “The Climate Crisis Is the Battle of Our Time, and We Can Win,” where he cites regenerative agriculture as a major avenue leading to climate restoration. He states: “A farmer-led regenerative agriculture revolution that is also underway avoids plowing and focuses on building soil health by sequestering carbon dioxide in the ground, making the land more fertile. The farmers are using rotational grazing and planting trees and diverse cover crops to enrich soil and protect against erosion.” First, it’s notable that one of the clearest, most persistent voices in the fight against climate change (Gore’s the founder and chairman of The Climate Reality Project—a nonprofit devoted to solving the climate crisis—and has written several national best-selling works over the topic) supports responsible agriculture, ranching, and beef consumption. In fact, he’s an omnivore himself.
Ranchers play a pivotal role in regenerative agriculture, especially when it comes to carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration takes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it into the soil, all while improving the soil’s fertility and functionality. Plants use the sunlight’s energy to fuse carbon in the atmosphere with hydrogen and oxygen to create carbohydrates, which are moved through the plant’s roots and fed to a sticky protein, called glomalin, that’s wrapped around the roots. More glomalin means more carbon sequestration, and numerous studies have shown that soils under well-managed native grasses have higher levels of glomalin.
This means massive potential for carbon sequestration lies in well-maintained native grasslands. When it comes to sustaining thriving grasslands capable of sequestering as much carbon as possible, cattle are key.
The Role Of Cattle
Cattle now stand where massive herds of bison—integral to maintaining our country’s undulating sea of grass—once stood. Land grazers are essential to maintaining healthy grasslands, and healthy grasslands are essential to sequestering carbon. Hahn Niman’s research cites a 1999 Kansas State University (among others) that determined large herbivores are essential for well-functioning prairie ecosystems. It’s a small link of a much longer chain that comprises a healthy ecosystem, and now, cattle are a fundamental part of it.
Take, for example, Certified Piedmontese cattle that graze thousands of acres of prairie across the Great Plains. On the surface, it looks like the cattle are simply eating grass, taking what they need from the land as they wander. But there’s much more happening. The cattle are intentionally rotated to different areas of pastureland, depending on both the needs of the land and the cattle. As cattle eat grass, they benefit the soil in various ways. They’re stimulating biological activity as they eat (also called the “lawn mower effect”). Their waste fertilizes the soil. Their hooves gently break the soil’s surface, pushing down plant matter, which is then acted upon by soil microorganisms. They’re pressing in seeds and encouraging regrowth. With the help of Certified Piedmontese ranchers, the cattle are maintaining the land they’re grazing, creating healthy grasslands that increase biodiversity, reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and supporting a sustainable food source on marginal lands that can’t be used for growing other food crops.
The potential for well-managed grasslands grazed by cattle to sequester carbon is significant. A 2017 report published in Global Change Biology notes that about 40 percent of ice-free land on earth is considered grazing land, and it sequesters about 30 percent of our planet’s carbon pool. What if those lands were well-managed with cattle? According to Project Drawdown—a global research organization that identifies, reviews, and analyzes the most viable solutions to climate change—they could sequester over 16 gigatons of carbon by 2050. Total global CO2 emissions for 2018 were around 37 gigatons—that’s an astronomical amount, but 16 gigatons is a dent, to be sure. And apart from carbon sequestration, well-managed grasslands also increase land yield, soil water retention, resilience to extreme weather, and nutrient retention—benefits that are hard to argue against.
For Certified Piedmontese, it’s about raising healthy animals the right way. It’s about producing a 100% traceable and source-verified product consumers can trust. It’s about doing things the right way, so that rather than causing harm, we’re part of the solution.
Those raising cattle the right way are making a difference, more so than those pleading for humans—who’ve been eating meat since their inception—to cut back or halt their meat consumption. In the end, it's a shared responsibility that starts with supply and ends with demand. Suppliers must have an environmental conscience when it comes to their processes; they must make choices that are better for people, the environment, and our world. When better options are available, people can begin choosing them. We know this first hand. We’re dedicated to providing consumers a wholesome beef option—one that’s healthier for people, for the environment, and for our world. And people everywhere are choosing it.