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Should we be eating more beef in order to slow global warming? It sounds counterintuitive, but it may be so: Cattle could be part of the whole ecological equation to solving climate change and restoring healthy, bio-diverse ecosystems. I am a vegetarian, but I maintain there is a place for grass-fed beef on family menus--and pasture-raised cattle in global warming solutions. Cows can help more than harm if they are sustainably raised. What's the Beef About Beef?
When it comes to global warming, a growing number of people are pointing fingers at our meat consumption. This perspective is reflected by Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who reported in the Observer:
"Diet change [is] important because of the huge greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems - including habitat destruction - associated with rearing cattle and other animals." The article goes on to indicate that, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, "Meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. These are generated during the production of animal feeds, for example, while ruminants, particularly cows, emit methane, which is 23 times more effective as a global warming agent than carbon dioxide."
It's true: cattle, sheep, and goats can all decimate an environment if not properly managed. Furthermore, cattle emit huge amounts of methane, especially if corn-fed. Because methane is a denser greenhouse gas than CO2, it has a larger overall negative effect on the earth. But to eliminate ruminants entirely from our diets deeply disrupts our capacity to sequester CO2 and produce water in grassland watersheds.
Here is why:
Photo via stock.xchng by lcumings
When the first plows turned the rich soils of the Midwest grasslands, some soils were 20% carbon. Now, after years of chemical farming and cultivation, many soils are 5% carbon or even less-some as low as 1%. As a result, that "lost" carbon now lives in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). Furthermore, the loss of soil carbon can deplete the soil's ability to manage water.
Prior to our cultivation of the Midwest, ruminants played an important role in healthy soil ecology. These former grasslands were historically populated by the American bison, which numbered at about 60 million. In contrast, there are about 96 million beef and dairy cattle in the US alone. As a ruminant, the bison grazed the plains for thousands of years. Moving in expansive herds, the bison ate the grasses down as they traveled in search of greener pastures. While migrating to new grazing areas, each ruminant would leave natural fertilizer: animal waste and plant litter. This natural process helped to build the rich and fertile soils of the Midwest.
Grass Grazers: More Than Your Average Hamburger
Similarly, well-managed cattle can greatly enhance the growth and propagation of grasses. These grasses can sequester huge amounts of carbon annually, especially when grazing practices include high density, short-term exposure efforts with the cattle eating the grasses down and moving on to let the grasses grow back. This sustainable grazing technique causes some root shedding below the soil line, leaving lots of organic matter, and thus, carbon. On just one acre of biologically healthy grassland soil, there can be between 0.5 - 1.5 tons of carbon deposited in the soil annually. This is equivalent to taking up to 5.5 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere and sinking it into an acre of soil.
While this impressive level of carbon sequestration is impossible in the high desert of New Mexico with little rainfall, it is absolutely viable in Florida, the East and Midwest, as well as the North West where there is rain or available water to grow pasture. With proper management, ruminants can once again contribute to the life and water cycle supporting ecology of our biological system, where cattle may be absolutely critical to the health of our soils. This amazing ecological interaction on 11 billion global acres of grazed land would equate to sequestering 60% of human-caused CO2.
Furthermore, let's not throw stones at cattle as methane culprits, when we have larger human-caused methane problems--namely from fossil fuel use and landfills. Our unrestrained use of coal, natural gas, oil, and petroleum products combined with our over-consumption of just-plain-stuff that ends up in landfills produces over three times the methane emissions as ruminants in this country. Cattle must be saying, "Stop pointing fingers! You single-stomached humans are contributing more methane emissions than our digestive systems could ever hope to!"
Well-managed beef and dairy cattle living on pasture are not only an asset to us all, but also to a bio-diverse earth.
More on Sustainable Grazing Techniques:
Ranching for Profit
Carbon Farmers of America
Holistic Management International
Rodale Institute Organic Transition Course-Livestock
More on Cattle and Global Warming:
Ranchers Could Earn Carbon Credits, Save the World Through Better Grazing Practices
All On the Table: Cows, Corn, Gasoline, Spinach, E. Coli, and Grass
Scientists Sniff Out Cure for Bovine Farting