The question ‘is it sustainable to eat meat?’ is one I address on a daily basis. I have talked and written about this extensively and pulled some top resources together for you to use below.
Here is a webinar that we did covering the topic.
Many of those who have watched the film ‘cowspiracy’ or other such ‘moc-documentaries’ may have had their belief system shaken. Please know that these are not truth-based films they’re vegan propaganda before you make your final judgement. I have covered the main problems with Cowspiracy in this ARTICLE
What is the ultimate ‘sustainable food?’
Imagine a wonder crop that has deep roots that tap into hard to reach nutrients underground, it’s drought resistant – when it rains the root system helps the water stay in the soil instead of running off. This crop can resist the highest winds or the wettest spells, it grows well all year round and on any type of soil. This crop could provide food security even in the most erratic rainfall caused by climate change.
Our wonder crop takes carbon and methane from the atmosphere and locks it out of harms way, it builds its own fertility so needs no artificial fertilisers – one of the most carbon-heavy and energy intensive inputs in modern agriculture. This crop requires minimal management; no machines, no pesticides, no irrigation, it does not need to be planted every year, and it can grow anywhere – even on mountainsides, arid plains, or wetlands – the places where no other food can grow.
Sounds great, but there is one HUGE problem. We can’t eat it! It’s called GRASS.
But as evolving humans we got around this issue – we ate the animals that ate the grass (along with seasonally available plants).
Ruminants such – like buffalo, elk, cows, and sheep – have clever digestive systems that can turn this wonder crop into meat and milk. The meat doesn’t need storage, can be moved from field to field, it doesn’t often spoil or rot, and we can harvest when we need it – regardless of the weather or time of year. As a happy ‘by-product’ it also tastes AMAZING and you can get nearly all the nutrients you need to thrive from the different parts of an animal.
‘BUT’ – I hear you say… “Cows burp and fart too much which is causing climate change and we can’t feed 8 billion people from this ‘out of date’ system – the world’s different now!”.
Once upon a time in the USA there used to be a vast area of prairie (pasture) called the Great Plains. This story can be replicated on any of the world’s grasslands. This vast grassland was a giant ‘carbon sink’ with deep soils of up to 15% organic matter and was a rich habitat for thousands of different species of flora and fauna. Even through severe droughts, the plains supported somewhere in the region of 110 million wild ruminants. 50-70 million of those were the giant one-tonne bison – the equivalent to about 2 small beef steers. We now, in the USA, have roughly the same number of domestic ruminants. 1
Wild animals burp and pump too! So how come pre-industrialisation these ‘evil’ ruminant beasts didn’t wreck our climate?
Healthy soils contain soil microbes called methanotrophs that reduce atmospheric methane. So the grassland on which the cattle are grazing can absorb a large amount of the methane they produce. The highest methane oxidation rate recorded in soil to date has been 13.7 mg/m2/day (Dunfield 2007) which, over one hectare, equates to the absorption of the methane produced by approximately 100 head of cattle! 2, 3
‘Methane sinks’ bank up to 15% of the earth’s methane. Converting pasture into arable production reduces the soil’s capacity to bank methane and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Fertilising and arable cropping reduce the soils methane oxidation capacity by 6 to 8 times compared to the undisturbed soils of pasture. The use of fertilisers makes it even worse, reducing the soils ability to take up methane even further.4, 5, 6
So to convert pasture to arable land in a ‘quick fix’ to try and grow more plant-based foods considerably accelerates the climate change situation.
And anyway let’s put enteric methane (cow burping methane) into context. According to the 2014 UN Climate Change Convention held in December in Lima, Peru, the analysis of GHG’s when converting other gases to CO2 equivalents found that in the US and EU enteric fermentation accounted for 2.17% of GHG emissions. (26.79% of agriculture emissions with all agricultural emissions in total being 8% of total GHG emissions).7
Have you looked into the methane output of rice paddies recently?
Allan Savory says “… only livestock can reverse desertification. There is no other known tool available to humans with which to address desertification that is contributing not only to climate change but also to much of the poverty, emigration, violence, etc. in the seriously affected regions of the world.”.
The largest increases in methane levels occurred in the 1960’s when we started using nearly ten times the natural gas.8 And contrary to common belief, cattle numbers have not increased. Even in the US they are the same as they were in the 1950’s while globally they have been static since the 1970’s. Our meat consumption has increased because we eat more intensively farmed poultry and farmed fish, but we don’t NEED to eat this much meat.
Eating beef can actually be a very sustainable option. In many cases, pasture-reared beef actually shows a carbon-equivalent net gain when carbon sequestration is taken into account.8, 9
So why are we focusing all of the attention onto farting cows instead of looking at how we can cut out the 73% of agricultural emissions that are created by farming that uses grains and fertilisers? Because there are a lot of people making a lot of money from their finger in this enormous agri-pie! They want you to believe that the answer is bigger more efficient farms and GMO!
But can we produce enough food this way and don’t grazing animals destroy important habitats?
1/3rd of the world surface is grassland and nearly 70% of these grasslands are now seriously degraded. We once ‘knew’ this was caused by overgrazing by animals. Thanks to the ground-breaking work of soil scientists over the last 5-10 years and the world renowned environmentalist Allan Savory, we have finally realised we were dead wrong!
Allan Savory says “… only livestock can reverse desertification. There is no other known tool available to humans with which to address desertification that is contributing not only to climate change but also to much of the poverty, emigration, violence, etc. in the seriously affected regions of the world.”.10
It is HOW a grassland is grazed that is critical, and by mimicking the natural behaviour of herds of wild ruminants we can restore desert back to productive land that holds water and grows food (animals) even in droughts. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that successfully restoring the world’s grasslands could reverse climate change.11
Rotating animals in groups to graze, fertilise (poop) and trample the ground, then allowing it a period of rest, turns out to be the answer to healthy pasture; building natural fertility and locking down atmospheric carbon.
This is pretty BIG news.
This approach shares many management ideals with organic mixed farming systems and permaculture approaches. Crops are grown in rotation with grazed grassland; the crops use the natural fertility of the ploughed pasture, then they are restored back to pasture again.
This is what farming was like pre-WW2! Before a time when petrochemicals ruled everything and agri-business dictated what we ate to suit the subsidy-fueled overproduction of grains. Nowadays most of the farmers in the UK and US operate grain-based finishing systems for livestock, apply fertiliser, use pesticides and create the demand for worldwide transportation and other carbon-heavy activities. Yes, even your local farmer down the road is highly dependent on ‘inputs’.
So why are more people not angry about this?
I ask my long suffering Partner Stephen the same question every day – usually with my hands flailing in the air!
Well, there is no money to be made for large companies in organic farming; there is nothing to patent and or sell, that’s why. The soil association and 100% grass-fed farming bodies like the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association don’t have giant media machines – they aren’t making enough money.
Most vegans and vegetarians are unlikely to campaign for a meat based solution to saving the planet and feeding the world, governments are often influenced by those corporations whose billions make the economy go round, and most people have got used to spending a quarter of what they spent on food a generation ago. But at what cost?!
What can you do?
Remember when talking about this issue it is actually two issues:
Should we be feeding the grains we produce to farm animals to inefficiently convert into meat? – My answer is NO – this is BONKERS.
Is the answer to label ALL meat bad, and ask people to stop eating this ‘evil’ substance? Err NO! Farming holistically and eating pasture-based foods could be the best and healthiest way to feed the world whilst reversing climate change.
If enough of us make the change to grain-free pastured meats and organic foods, then more farmers will be needed to supply us; more farmers will convert from chemical and grain farming to a more sustainable approach.
And a myriad of comprehensive studies from around the world show that overall we can produce the same amount of food from organic systems as we can using all the modern technology – including GMO – now available to us and at zero cost to the planet. The foods from grass-based organic systems taste great, and is more nutritious.12, 13
An increase of 1% of soil organic matter across 15 million hectares of arable land would ‘lock down’ the equivalent atmospheric carbon of the Earth’s total greenhouse gases. Considering 1.4 billion hectares of land worldwide is used for growing crops this would only require 1% to be converted to pasture to achieve the goal.14 And the animals reared in pasture-based systems don’t suffer the terrible inhumane conditions or diseases they do in housed systems – the animals are healthy; widespread antibiotic use to fight ‘superbugs’ simply isn’t required.
Yes, it could cost a little bit more, but to be blunt – eating grain-fed meats or sourcing all of our food from plants could cost the earth!
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Hristov, A. (2011). Wild Ruminants Burp Methane, too. In PennState Extension. Retrieved from http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/news/2011/wild-ruminants-burp-methane-too
Jones, C (2014). Ruminants and Methane. In The Natural Farmer, Summer 2014. Retrieved from http://www.nofamass.org/sites/default/files/2014_Summer_TNF_Jones_on_Ruminants_and_Methane.pdf
Jones, C. (2010). Soil carbon – can it save agriculture’s bacon?. In www.amazingcarbon.com. Retrieved from http://www.amazingcarbon.com/PDF/JONES-SoilCarbon&Agriculture%2818May10%29.pdf
Singh, J.S. (2011). Methanotrophs: the potential biological sink to mitigate the global methane load. In Scientific Correspondence, Current Science, VoL. 100, no. 1, 10 January 2011. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/259079734_Methanotrophs_the_potential_biological_sink_to_mitigate_the_global_methane_load
Singh, J., Shashank, T., Singh, D. P. (2015). Methanotrophs and CH4 sink: Effect of human activity and ecological perturbations. In Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability (April 2015) 3(1): 35-50. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/274573824_Methanotrophs_and_CH4_sink_Effect_of_human_activity_and_ecological_perturbations
Kremer, R.J., Means, N.E. (2009). Glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant crop interactions with rhizosphere microorganisms. In European Journal of Agronomy Europ. J. Agronomy 31 (2009) 153–16. Retrieved from http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/35795/PDF
(Anonymous). (2014.) Summary of GHG Emissions for United States of America. In United Nations: Climate Change Secretariat. Retrieved from https://unfccc.int/files/ghg_emissions_data/application/pdf/usa_ghg_profile.pdf
(Anonymous). (2013). Grass-fed beef is best. In National Trust. Retrieved from http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1356398465642/
Allan Savory: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change [Video]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/vpTHi7O66pI
Novak, R. (2015). Study: Great Plains agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated. In Colorado State University: Source. Retrieved from http://source.colostate.edu/study-great-plains-agricultural-greenhouse-gas-emissions-could-be-eliminated/
(Anonymous). (n.d.). Savory Institute: Evidence. In Savory Institute. Retrieved from http://savory.global/institute/#evidence
Halweil, B. (2006). Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? In WorldWatch Institute. Retrieved from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4060
Watson, C. (2015). Is Uk Meat Grass Fed? In Primal Eye Magazine. Retrieved from http://primaleye.uk/is-uk-meat-grass-fed/
(Anonymous). (2007). $90/Tonne for Carbon. In The Land. Retrieved from http://www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/agribusiness/general-news/90tonne-for-carbon/54723.aspx