Under perfect circumstances, grazing cattle do sequester carbon, but most of the time that's not the case.
Sourcing grassfed beef for your dinner table will not fight climate change. There is a belief held by some farmers and environmentally-conscious shoppers that grazing ruminants can "suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil, reducing or even reversing global warming" (Monbiot). They do this by nibbling plants, stimulating new root growth, and creating leaf litter.
But a new report from the Food Climate Research Network, called 'Grazed and Confused,' has put a definite end to this idea. Two years of research, 300 sources, and 127 pages of detailed information have concluded that, no, grazing animals add more carbon to the atmosphere than they take out.
There are certain circumstances in which carbon sequestration does take place, if the grazing is well-managed, but the conditions have to be right. From the report:
"Critical variables include climate, terrain, soil quality, grass species composition, past land use and management and more, as well as the present management approach. Sequestration is not possible everywhere and gains in one season can also be reversed in another."
It's an 'inconvenient truth' that animals raised in feedlots are easier on the environment than those raised outdoors; their life span is shorter, creating less of an impact, and the environmental devastation is contained within a much smaller physical space, but obviously it raises a host of ethical questions.
Intriguingly, allowing a pasture to 'rewild' and return to a state of forestation would be far more effective for carbon sequestration than any amount of well-managed livestock grazing; so if absorbing carbon were really a priority, that is where our focus should lie.
The report contends that it's our consumption of large ruminants that should be questioned, rather than the way in which meat is produced. It acknowledges the important role animals have played in survival and age-old traditions, but says their role is now diminishing. Their inefficiency is problematic because productivity is low in relation to the land and the amount feed required, and the volume of gases cows emit per unit of meat or milk output is great.
"The emissions generated by these grazing systems still outweigh the removals and even assuming improvements in productivity, they simply cannot supply us with all the animal protein we currently eat... Land constraints and population growth mean we can no longer rear animals in traditional ways while also continuing to fulfill an ever-growing demand for animal products." (italics original)
Read the full report here.