Is Grass-fed Beef Better for the Climate? It’s Complicated.

A new report suggests that grass-fed beef offers fewer climate benefits than promised, but the debate rages on.


For much of the past decade, it’s been widely reported that cattle are among the planet’s biggest climate-changing culprits. A 2010 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that cattle release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, greatly increasing the impact of meat on greenhouse gas emissions. Some ranchers and other experts, including ecologist Allan Savory, have countered that carefully managed grazing on certain land has the potential to sequester carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the amount that’s released into the atmosphere.

Tara Garnett, a food systems analyst and the founder of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford in England, decided to test this theory. “Savory has quite a following,” said Garnett. “We wanted to find out if he was right.”

This narrow question is the leaping-off point of a new report, two years in the compiling, that seeks to clear up confusion about what Garnett calls “inflated claims” concerning the impacts of grazed-livestock production.

In looking at 300 academic peer-reviewed research papers from the last 20-plus years, Garnett and her co-researchers concluded that the carbon sequestered by raising cattle exclusively on pasture, even if they’re sustainably managed, doesn’t balance out the methane released over the cow’s lifecycle. And although Garnett admits that the limited scope of the report makes it just “one small part of the puzzle” concerning the ecology of food systems, her team’s findings—and the accompanying assertion that reduced meat consumption is the only way for us to meet global climate goals—have nevertheless sparked strong responses, both positive and negative.

“It has been interpreted as though we’re claiming intensive production”—basically, the landless feedlot systems decried by animal welfare groups—“is preferable” to grass-fed, says Garnett, although the report does not reach this conclusion. “All we’re saying is that grass-fed doesn’t constitute a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”

Can grazing be at least part of the answer to the question of how to reduce the climate impact of our food systems? California-based rancher Nicolette Niman, the author of Defending Beef, thinks so. With a preponderance of ranching practices that result in deforestation, overgrazing, and desertification, Niman says the industry as a whole “has a lot of room for improvement.” But, she adds that “we need to focus on how we create sustainable food systems where livestock belong, because 40 percent of our land cannot be used for anything else.”

She’s referring to rangelands that support, and are supported by, ruminants as part of a dynamic ecosystem that’s unsuited to growing crops, which depletes these lands—possibly for good. “I think the biology of soils needs to become a cornerstone of our focus, rather than the amount of outputs, whether soy or grain or meat,” Niman said. And she maintains that grazing is critical to this process: “I don’t necessarily think we should produce more or less meat; we need to produce it better.”

Advancing better standards for beef production is an aim of environmental advocacy group, National Resources Defense Coalition (NRDC). Like Niman, Jonathan Kaplan, NRDC’s director of food and agriculture programs, sees a place in the greater equation for meat—with provisions. “There’s a huge contribution that sustainable grass-fed beef producers are making to the environment,” he said, citing increased grass production and water infiltration, among other benefits. “But at the end of the day, beef has a much bigger environmental footprint [than other foods]—30 times that of lentils, for example.”

Overall, said Kaplan, the FCRN report “authoritatively pokes a hole in arguments from some corners of the sustainable food community that [say] if we just manage cows on sustainable pasture, we can offset emissions with soil-based carbon.”

Michael Coe is a senior researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who studies land management systems in Brazil. The bigger issue for him regarding the FCRN report (which references some of his work) is not its conclusion, but the model it chose to analyze. “We already knew that meat in general is an expensive prospect,” he said.

By looking at ruminants grazing exclusively on grass, Coe said the report “provides a solution to a problem that didn’t exist,” since there’s not an abundance of grass-finished meat. In fact, according to the FCRN report, meat from global grazing systems account for only about 1 gram of protein per person, per day—just a small fraction of what we eat. He believes it’s more important to try to understand how the various parts of the large, complex system of meat production work in conjunction with one another.

On the one hand, Coe agrees with arguments for decreasing meat consumption, “since it will decrease one of the biggest pressures for land use.” On the other, he adds, “I don’t think it will be a panacea.” The looming question is whether cutting livestock production would actually result in decreased demand for land use. “Land is a means of making money,” he said. “Won’t the market simply incentivize some other use, like growing biofuels?”

FCRS’s Garnett maintains that the aim of the report wasn’t to address these broader implications, but simply to provide an answer to one simple question that other researchers can “layer” their work on top of, to create a more complete picture. She and her team also hope to complete similarly in-depth studies of other meat production systems, as well as of land use.

With the grazing report, “we wanted to follow through on one issue from start to finish,” Garnett said. But ultimately, she says,“There are a whole range of concerns: How does the grass-fed issue slot into the diets issue, then into sustainable consumption patterns, then into climate change? How do we define progress? Where do we want to go?”

Her conclusion in the aftermath of the report is that consumers who’ve banked on the positive climate effects of eating 100-percent pasture-raised beef will still need to consider eating less meat after all.

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  1. Stefhan Gordon
    Monday, November 13th, 2017
    Let's be blunt. Garnett and her FCRN report fails at a fundamental level...specifically in regards to how the report completely ignores soil science.

    =========================
    Garnett/FCRN's 127 report basically states the following:

    Carbon sequestration/storage levels don't offset enteric methane and nitrous oxide emissions. There is some carbon sequestration/storage, but higher levels reported aren't true. Moreover carbon sequestration levels are limited. That sequestration/storage caps out so there are diminishing returns as carbon is sequestered. Thus as this occurs, even more methane and nitrous oxide are omitted because there is less of a carbon offset. Since grass finished cattle live longer, they emit more methane and therefore are less environmentally friendly than feedlot finished cattle from strictly a GHG point of view. Though there are other significant issues with intensified operations for feedlot finished cattle, and other meats. Therefore we should eat more vegetables and vat-meats because this takes up less land and emits fewer GHG’s. Additionally, grasslands should be allowed to all become forests or used for bio-energy production
    =====================================================

    During the entire 127 page report the terms "soil health", "soil ecosystem", soil microbes" and "topsoil loss" aren't mentioned at all even though soil carbon capture and respiration rates are completely dependent on the soil's health and microbiology as many of the more progressive soil scientists like Dr. David C Johnson, Dr. Christine Jones, Dr. Elaine Ingham as well as geologist Dr. David Montgomery and author Graeme Sait have pointed out in their research and or writings.

    Here's a brief discussion about this impact of soil health on carbon capture from Dr. Johnson in this video https://youtu.be/Fdh_j_KOmrY and more at length discussion in these presentations https://youtu.be/XlB4QSEMzdg and https://youtu.be/18FVVYKU9gs

    Basically Johnson notes that with healthier soils that have more fungi than bacteria, there is significantly more carbon capture (10+ times) and less carbon respiration. Long rooted perennial systems also pull carbon down deeper into the soil where the carbon is less volatile. Additionally, Johnson notes that, while there is a limit to how much carbon soil can store/sequester, there is no limit to how much soil that can be built. So more soil equals more carbon sequestration.

    Given how rapidly soil is being lost (some projections note the planet will lose all of its top soil in 60 years), building new top soil is incredibly important. Relying solely on geology, building new topsoil takes over 100 years to build from the bottom up. But with composting, soil can be built more quickly from the top down. What do ruminants do? They are nature's mowers, composters and spreaders. Well managed ruminants, especially in more arid brittle environments with seasonal humidity are the best way to build more healthy topsoil the most rapidly as Gabe Brown points out in this video, Keys to Building Healthy Soil, https://youtu.be/9yPjoh9YJMk Soils with animals manures have the most and greatest microbial diversity and soil is made largely from dead microbes, not deteriorating organic matter. So the greater and more diverse the soil microbial mix the better for building soil.

    Now what else do healthy soils do? They increase water infiltration and retention. So healthy soil ecosystems improve drought resistance and therefore increases plant growth. With more plant growth, there is more evapotranspiration, and thus healthy soils actually increase rainfall. With no-till systems and continuous cover, more moisture in the soil improves the soil ecosystem for methantrophic activity. With more rain, and moisture, some of those methanotrophs become airborne. So methanotrophs in the soils, mitigate CH4 emissions from manure and airborne methanotrophs mitigate enteric methane in the atmosphere. Moreover, other soil microbes make sure more of the nitrogen (urea) in the manure is broken down into forms of nitrogen that plants can use like NH4 rather than are emitted into the atmosphere like nitrous oxide N2O. This natural occurring nitrogen doesn't leech into the environment like synthetic nitrogen that plants only utilize a small fraction of for growth. Most synthetic N runs off compacted soils into waterways causing aquatic hypoxia (dead zones).

    Healthy soils are the key to everything, so it was quite shocking that this report completely overlooked this topic. Holistic management is not simply another grazing system for moving cattle. No, holistic management is a systems approach to regenerating land/soil health, ecosystem function and economic well being.

    The solutions to let grasslands all become forests was quite comical as well, since most of the planet's grasslands are in brittle environments with little rain fall or seasonal humidity, so unless you improve soil health, most trees will die. Moreover from an ecological history point of view, most grasslands weren't forests. Grasslands co-evolved with large megafauna , grazing ruminants, and apex predators. When mankind helped kill off the megafuana, he became the keystone species who used controlled burning to reduce plant succession. Converting grasslands to bioenergy crops is even more absurd....because this is what's actually happening and leading to the destruction of drought resistant biodiverse grasslands with monocrops of blue water dependent seed oil crops used for ethanol, biofuels, processed food ingredients, cooking oils, industrial products and CAFO feeds. FCRN's suggestions for alternative grassland uses, in other words, are just plain dumb.

    There are many other shortcomings with FCRN's report, though the lack of discussion of soil science and soil health's role in GHG balances, as discussed above, is the most glaring and egregious one.
    • TGM
      Tuesday, November 14th, 2017
      Stefhan Gordon- Thanks for this incredibly illuminating response. i'm watching the Gabe Brown video as we speak and it is incredible. Please keep spreading the good word!

      Best,

      Tyler
    • Timmy
      Sunday, November 19th, 2017
      Your comment should be an entire piece on Civil Eats!!
  2. Richard
    Tuesday, November 14th, 2017
    Thanks for nuanced reporting on this and related issues. At our farmers market today, was encouraging our grass-only beef customers to try neck roasts, heart, tongue, kidney, broth bones, etc. Parts of the animal that many Americans have forgotten how to eat. When more of my customers eat more of each animal, the fewer animals I need to produce per year, to reach the same income goals from my land. The primary use for tillable land in my area is beef or houses. Still grassed either way, one mowed by animals, the other by combustion engines...
  3. Dudley Baker MD
    Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
    This report did not differentiate Cows grazing entirely on grasslands vs grain fed cows packed in stockyards. There IS a major difference in environmental effects. Methane gas pollutes our atmosphere much more than CO2. Cows standing in feces and mud and straw in confined stockyards release more methane gases and there is no opportunity for sequestration of carbon into the soil. Savory proved that soil microbiology and grasslands improved when cattle were added. Way before humans existed plants pulled carbon from the air and have us back live- sustaining oxygen. Adding meat protein to our plant diet changed our work from all-day foraging and advanced the human race. While evaluating cows as “contaminating” the environment how do we factor in all of the other flatus producing animals - deer, horses, pigs, wild and domesticated animals? Seems the answer is to mimic mom nature and move entirely to grass fed beef where the soil and grasses and animals work in concert to sustain the environment. There is already too much concrete replacing healthy grasslands and forests , and herbicide contamination that pollutes of our air , water and food. Remember , as quoted, “Mother Nature gets last at bat”.
  4. Nicolette Hahn Niman
    Thursday, November 16th, 2017
    I appreciate being interviewed, and for the title to this piece, "...It's Complicated." Well, it is. That's why so many of the massively over-simplified public messages (including the "eat less meat" mantra) are so unhelpful. Truly ecologically sustainable food producing requires systems thinking -- understanding how things are interrelated and where things do best and how plants and animals are connected. A huge amount of research shows that the presence of grazing animals not only keeps the land (essentially) in its natural state but also increases ecosystem diversity, starting at the soil micro-organism level. Anyone who thinks this report is the final word on this is wrong. There is much more to say. The Sustainable Food Trust, one of the world's most credible sustainable farming advocacy organizations, had this to say about the report: "The only practical way to produce human-edible food from grassland without releasing large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere is to graze it with ruminants, and with the increasing global population it would be highly irresponsible to stop producing meat, milk and animal fats from grassland, since this would cause even more rainforest to be destroyed to produce soyabean oil and meal, as well as palm oil." The problems are complex, so are the solutions. Animals are part of the solutions.
  5. Friday, November 17th, 2017
    There should not be any debate on this matter...it should be the cows well being first that matters and obviously grass fed means cows eating well and being outside...so no debate here