Concerned about climate change? We are, too! Pastured animals are an essential part of regenerating our soil. Soil regeneration combats climate change. This new year we resolve to educate our friends and customers about the virtues of pasture-raised animal husbandry.
—Monica & Aaron Rocchino & The Local Butcher Shop Team
These days we’re all trying to walk a little more lightly on the earth. Whether it’s switching to a hybrid car or instituting a new recycling program at work, every little bit helps. But when it comes to what we put in our mouths, it’s hard to know how best to contribute. After all, you can’t just stop eating. And most of us probably aren’t going to be heading back to the land or raising a hundred percent of our own calories in backyard gardens.
Eating meat, in particular, has a lot of people talking. And let’s be honest: Big Beef—the kind that arrives on freezer trucks from Nebraska , wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam trays—well, that stuff isn’t great. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: local beef, the kind that comes from right near here, wrapped in paper, raised chemical-free on nothing but grass and California sunshine.
Understanding the true environmental impact of meat production requires a quick—we promise!—return to high school biology. Let’s start with the basics: cows eat grass, and grass is a green plant. Even cattle that are “finished” on grain at feedlots spend 95% of their lives eating grass. (The Local Butcher Shop sells only 100% grass-fed beef, by the way. More on that later.) Using sunlight for fuel, green plants take carbon out of the atmosphere, mix it up with hydrogen and oxygen and convert all that into more plant matter. Too much free carbon in the atmosphere, as you’ll remember, is the villain in the global warming story. Not only do grasses take carbon out of the atmosphere to build themselves up, but their long roots also trap carbon deep in the soil.
We’ve all heard that forests are the solution to global warming. So just think of grasslands as forests that don’t grow quite as tall. To be sure, an Amazonian jungle can sequester more carbon per acre that a Marin hillside. But grass gets grazed year after year, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into meat, and then greening up again to feed next year’s cattle. And no matter how much we might want it to be true, not every bit of land is capable of growing up to be a lush rain forest. In fact, over one quarter of the land on earth is classified as grazing land: too dry for forests, too rocky for agriculture, but just right for free-roaming livestock.
Most environmental discussions of meat only consider the outputs of the production process, without factoring in the mitigating impacts of how much carbon good rangeland actually removes from the environment. Many well-managed pasture lands—including land grazed by cows and sheep—are actually carbon negative; the carbon costs of ranching can actually more than offset the amount of carbon being trapped in the earth by healthy grasses. Moreover, when people talk about transitioning away from grazing in the western US, that “repurposed” land is likely to just become more urban sprawl, which really isn’t doing the world any favors on the climate change front.
When you factor in both inputs and outputs, the impact of animal agriculture are much smaller than you’d expect. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if we stopped ALL meat production in the US—chicken, pork, lamb, feedlot beef and grass-fed local beef—the total amount of greenhouse gasses produced in this country would be reduced by just 2.6%. When you consider that almost 40% of all meat and produce grown in the US ends up in the trash as food waste, vegetarianism as a solution to global warming pales in comparison to simply buying what you need and then actually eating it.
Within that 2.6%, of course, some processes for producing meat are better than others. One in particular that gets high marks is known as Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing, and it’s the strategy employed by our providers like Magruder Ranch and Stemple Creek. The basic idea is to fence your land into lots of different pastures, taking care to protect sensitive riparian areas. By moving cows quickly and in large numbers from pasture to pasture, each part of the land gets grazed fully and then allowed to rest, mimicking the migrating herds of grazers like buffalo and antelope that roamed the US before European settlement. A study by researchers from Michigan State and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, compared to continuously-grazed steers, AMP steers finished 99 kilograms heavier and 150 days earlier. A wide-ranging literature review by the Obama-era Department of the Interior found that well-managed grazing protected watersheds, reduced erosion, provided wildlife habitat, and was a major driver of carbon sequestration.
More good news can be found in the Congressional testimony given earlier this year by Frank Mitloehner, Air Quality Specialist and Professor of Animal Science at UC Davis. “In 1970 there were 140 million head of beef cattle in the United States,” he told the Senate. “There are 90 million today, but we are nevertheless producing the same amount of beef.” During that time, Mitloehner said, direct greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by over 11%. Similar technical advances have benefitted the pork industry as well, he said, where a three-fold increase in production has been accompanied by a 25% reduction in water use and an 8% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
Every choice we make in our daily lives comes with consequences. You can ride a bike instead of driving around town, but one flight to visit grandma in Los Angeles will more than override any emissions your pedaling may have saved. Similarly, you can be a vegetarian but mostly consume products that are heavily processed, genetically engineered, and overpackaged and trucked for enormous distances.
One of the frustrating truisms about life is that the people who counsel moderation in all things are mostly right. Mass-market meat at every meal probably isn’t the best thing you can do for the world. But going vegetarian isn’t necessary either. If you choose wisely—organic meat, grown locally, with minimal waste—animal products can be an environmentally sensitive, even beneficial, part of a balanced lifestyle. Thinking carefully about where your meat comes from and how it’s raised is an essential component of reducing your personal carbon footprint.