The Environmental Impact of Raising Organic Meat

August 2nd, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Environmental Impact of Raising Organic Meat

I’ll begin on a personal note. I don’t eat red meat, and haven’t since 1973 . . . except for occasionally nibbling on our Grateful Harvest organic jerky. So, I’m not exactly what you would describe as an apologist for the red meat industry. I don’t suddenly see myself moving in the direction of eating meat (not eating it suits me just fine), but I have had an attitude adjustment recently after doing some very intensive research on how raising cattle impacts our entire agricultural system. My understanding of sustainability now involves a much broader perspective.

Many environmental groups and countless studies suggest going vegetarian is one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions. The math behind their thinking is simple: it takes more energy to produce animal products than it does to produce plant products. The claim is that eating meat harms the planet and contributes to global warming. Most of these studies, however, assume only conventional methods of cattle-raising, done by restricting cattle to feedlots. Cows raised on grasslands and using organic methods have a much better effect on the environment, one which can truly be sustainable. Here are some ways in which raising organic, pasture fed beef can have a positive impact on our environment:

– Farm animals can often make use of land that is unsuitable for growing crops, but just fine for grazing. If you think of our ecological carbon footprint as being determined by the amount of land needed to produce enough energy and resources to support a person’s consumption habits, then actually using land that is deemed unusable for crops actually helps the equation.

– Cows eat grass and other “weeds” and they aerate the ground, which helps produce more grass, which puts more clean oxygen into the atmosphere. When the ground is covered with greens all year round, it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact, grazed pasture is better at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other land use, including ungrazed pastures and forestland. Researchers who study the impact of grazing on the land have found that moderately grazed land has more carbon stored in the soil than grassland that has been undisturbed. Stored carbon increases the fertility of the soil and slows global warming. This is completely different from the confined feedlot grain-fed method of conventional farming, where the animals are crowded into sheds and all their feed requires fossil fuel to be shipped in. And, the grain that these animals are fed is treated with fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides.

– Farm animals on a well-managed farm can help fertilize crops. Animals reared on organic pasture have a different climate equation from those raised in confinement on imported feed. In confinement systems manure has nowhere to go. Managed in man-made lagoons, the decomposed poop produces millions of tons of methane and nitrous oxide every year. In pastures, that same manure is just assimilated back into the soil with a carbon cost close to zero.

– Pasture-raised organic pigs can eat whey (a dairy byproduct), leftovers, and agriculture waste. They turn waste into food.

– Plowed fields shed rainwater very quickly; the soil absorbs about 11⁄2 inches of rain in an hour. On the other hand, permanent pasture can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain in an hour. This can easily be the difference between floods and no floods.

According to Jason Mann, who grows produce and raises chickens, hogs, and cattle on pasture outside Athens, Georgia, his farm is a very intricate system, where all parts are vital for sustainability. He could truck in compost from 250 miles away, or apply synthetic fertilizers to make the vegetables grow. But by his calculation the best option is to create fertile soil by using livestock, particularly cows. They do more than keep his soil rich. When managed properly, cattle can boost soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Their manure adds organic matter to the soil, while their grazing encourages plant growth. Some have even argued that highly managed, intensive grazing can shift cattle’s carbon count so dramatically that the animals actually help reduce greenhouse gases.

There is no doubt that if we continue with conventional practices for raising beef, it will be a contributing factor to climate change. Americans eat 8 ounces of meat each day, twice the amount of what the rest of the world consumes. It doesn’t look like we’ll be weaning ourselves off red meat anytime soon. However, if we move towards a more ecological and sustainable farming practice involving pasture-fed and organic methods, then eating meat and raising farm animals can actually prove to be a benefit in our battle against a warming planet and moving towards a more sustainable agricultural system.