Foodprints Sustainability

Grass Fed Beef Can SOLVE Global Warming

Grass Fed Beef Can SOLVE Global Warming

150 years ago, much of the Midwest was still covered with chest-deep prairie grassland, providing valuable food and habitat for billions of plant and animal species, including millions of elk, bison and deer. These lands also supported natural environmental processes like carbon sequestration and seasonal flood control.

When Americans first settled the Midwestern prairies, they killed off the natural bison and other ruminants that lived there and began to farm highly fertile, virgin soil that was about 10 percent organic matter.

Today, 150 years of plowing the prairie into vast monocultures has cut that vital organic matter by more than half and released more carbon dioxide—the leading driver of global warming—into the air than any other source, including transportation or coal-fired power plants.

Yes, that’s right. Plowing fields is the leading cause of excess CO2 pollution and climate change.

In the spring of 2008, the upper Midwest experienced catastrophic flooding which caused dislocations, massive erosion of precious topsoil, and billions of dollars in property damage. This was mostly because plowed fields shed rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can only absorb, at most, about 1-1/2 inches of rain in an hour. A permanent pasture, however, can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain in an hour.

That’s the difference between flooding and no flooding.

Today nearly all of America’s original grasslands have been converted to vast monocultures of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, two crops that are enormously destructive to the environment because they require massive amounts of fresh water, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers to grow.

And sadly, these crops are mostly used to feed livestock: It takes about 15 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef.

Most U.S. beef is produced from cows living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where grain-fed cows become sick from eating a diet unnatural to them, and emit large amounts of methane into the air—further contributing to global warming.

The concentrated lagoons of manure that these feedlots produce are largely unregulated, and they pollute rivers, streams and other fresh water sources. Plus, their horrid stench destroys quality of life for every person who lives near them.

Additionally, the conditions in these feedlots are so poor that cows have to be treated with antibiotics and hormones simply in order to survive, which inadvertently creates the conditions whereby E. coli outbreaks, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and other health problems more easily emerge.

Plowing fields is the leading cause of excess CO2 pollution and climate change.
Vegetarians have their environmental argument against today’s mass-produced beef right: The highly industrialized way in which we raise most cattle is both unhealthy and extremely unsustainable.

The irony of all of this is that the very prairie we destroyed to grow grains to feed cattle was already the perfect, natural habitat for raising healthy, happy cows virtually for free.

But here’s where the vegetarian argument ends: Whether you feed the corn to livestock or people doesn’t matter. Plowing the soil is the problem; not who eats the crops.

A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a major source of greenhouse gases, air and water pollution either way. But a permanent pasture is a biodiverse, ever-cycling pump that continuously pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility and builds topsoil.

According to a recent Scientific American article “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?” production of high-input, annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rate.

Therefore, converting just half the U.S. corn and soy acreage back to pasture might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result.

Holy cow!

That’s enough carbon sequestration to offset the emissions from all the cars, trucks and other vehicles on the planet!

Carbon Farming

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enhancing the natural processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere is thought to be the most cost-effective means of reducing atmospheric levels of CO2.

Scientists agree that organic matter in topsoil is on average 50 percent carbon up to one foot in depth, and bumping that upward by as little as 1.6 percent across all the world’s agricultural land could potentially reverse the problem of global warming.

In other words: If we were to restore just some of the organic matter to the Great Plains that we strip-mined over the last 150 years of row-crop monoculture, we could significantly reduce atmospheric levels of carbon over the next decade.

Research from the Texas A&M University studied a group of holistically managed and conventional ranches in North Texas. The 10-year study showed that the holistic grazers’ lands were accruing three tons of carbon per hectare per year more than their conventional neighbors.

There are approximately 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land on earth. If—and this is a big if—we could store just one ton of additional carbon per hectare annually over all 3.5 billion hectares, then we would be able to draw down just about the same amount of carbon we emit each year that doesn’t get absorbed by the oceans, trees, plants and soils—potentially canceling out the leftover carbon that’s causing climate change.

Yes, you read that right. Simply by boosting the organic matter of our depleted industrial soils through restoring pasture ecosystems, we could make a huge dent our carbon pollution problem within one generation.

Maximizing Grassland Ecology Can Make the Difference

Whether it’s from cattle, gnu, bison, sheep or antelope, grasses require regular destruction of their top leaves to promote root growth. Grassland ecology requires grazers to chomp and stomp down trees and shrubs so it won’t be overshaded, and it further requires significant amounts of their manure to fertilize the soil.

This symbiotic system, which evolved over millions of years, is what sequesters carbon naturally and keeps the planet habitable for all creatures, including us. In fact, destroying grassland ecosystems, and the planetary carbon sequestration cycle they sustain, is arguably as damaging to life on the planet as is clearcutting the Amazon Rainforest. Maybe even worse.

Here’s a brilliant 3-minute synopsis of how we can harness grassland ecology to intentionally sequester carbon and stop desertification:

The central idea of carbon farming and holistic grazing is to cluster and move the animals frequently—as once happened with wild herds chased by predators—so grasses are not gnawed beyond the point of natural recovery and plant cover remains to fertilize the land and sequester carbon.

The sequestration process works like this: The grasses, forbs and herbs in a field take in carbon from the atmosphere. The animals eat, fertilize and trample them into the soil, where the carbon is decomposed and absorbed, feeding the roots of the plants. New plants sprout, and the process is repeated over and over again, absorbing more and more carbon, building more and more topsoil.

Carbon farming is, simply put, an attempt to recreate and imitate the natural, evolutionary conditions of a grassland commons within the structure of modern life and private property, in order to reverse the effects of global climate disruption.

But what about the argument that meat-eating is a major cause of global warming due to massive emissions of nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from livestock operations?

What may be true of CAFO feedlots is absolutely wrong about grass-fed livestock. Raising cattle (or other ruminants) on polycultural, permanent pasture mimics a natural system wherein the methane and other gas emissions are mitigated by the carbon sequestration in the soil and the ecological services provided by healthy land, just as occurred across grasslands and savannahs for hundreds of thousands of years before human interference.

Let’s be clear where the responsibility truly lies: The elimination of grazing animals (and their predators) from the Earth’s grassland ecosystems and plowing them into industrial monocultures is a huge part of what got us into this global warming mess in the first place.

Naturally grazing animals, as part of a predator-prey ecosystem, provide fertilizer, root stimulation, pest control, flood control, organic matter improvements and nutrient capture services to soils and plants in grassland ecosystems—they’re supposed to be there by the billions. They are part of a healthy ecosystem.

If humans had better control over our own emissions, or were managing the planet’s plant cover better, the animals wouldn’t be a problem.

Crafting Carbon Sinks

Scientists and ranchers alike, including the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), see carbon farming through managed intensive grazing as a way to phase out feedlots and all of the environmental and health problems they cause.

As Wendell Berry said (and I paraphrase), by taking farm animals off pasture, we have taken a perfect, natural solution to nutrient cycling and divided it neatly into two problems.

If we were to restore just some of the organic matter to the Great Plains that we strip-mined over the last 150 years of row-crop monoculture, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide could be reduced to pre-industrial levels within 10-15 years.
The solution to these problems is very simple: If we convert from producing grain-fed cattle back to raising pasture-raised cattle, and use managed intensive rotational grazing methods to maintain healthy, high-quality prairie, we can turn millions of acres of carbon-polluting, genetically engineered, heavily sprayed, fossil fuel- and water-guzzling row crops into carbon sinks. 

This conversion to permanent pasture will pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as improve our air, soil and water quality, prevent flooding, and even recharge aquifers.

By converting corn and soybean fields to permanent pasture—permaculture modeled on the tallgrass prairie species that were the native cover a century ago—grassfed beef producers have found they can make more profit than the corn and soybeans yielded before.

Part of this is a result of lower or no costs for inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, GMO seeds, pesticides, tractors and machinery. Additionally, farmers that create successful carbon sinks through their grazing operations can also qualify for payments under “cap and trade” programs and other offset and conservation subsidies.

And on properly recovered land, most graziers can finish about two steers per acre. That is almost precisely the acreage it takes to grow the grain to finish those same steers in a feedlot. This whole system makes good economic sense, acre by acre.

More than half of our total grain crop goes to feed livestock, so it follows that we can convert the same percentage of the 150 million acres used to grow corn and soy back into permanent pasture and lose no meat production.

At the same time, we can produce healthier meat, clean up our air and water, and shift the massive federal subsidies for corn and soybean production to a better use.

Humans Working With Nature

Sequestration is not a fringe idea, but rather potentially a major tactic keep the planet from tipping into ecological uncertainty. The idea is so promising that several major universities are studying its effectiveness, and even Shell Oil is giving grants to research its potential.

One reason why carbon farming and other sequestration methods have gotten so little media attention in the fight against global warming is because they represent a new idea in environmental policy—the idea that solving our ecological crisis means not just stopping human interference with nature, but also on humans taking positive steps to undo the damage already done.

And, let’s face it, grazing just isn’t sexy, even if it is being used to restore dead rivers and transform deserts.

We are slowly beginning to understand that human enterprises work best when they imitate and participate in enhancing Nature’s diversity—a basic tenet of Permaculture.

Early in the rise of organic farming, we mistakenly thought we could sustain ecological diversity by raising a dozen or so different tilled crops on a small farm—forgetting that an acre of grassland is the most diverse biome on the planet, containing hundreds of species of plants and animals that work cooperatively to sustain the ecosystem and the planet.

Many modern organic farmers learned from these early mistakes and brought animals and wild plants back into the farming ecosystem. Managed properly, ruminants and fowl help control weeds and insects, cycle nutrients, build soil, and provide a use for waste and failed crops. 

They can also produce food from land where crops cannot grow. Healthy ecosystems—both wild and cultivated—must include these animals (whether or not we choose to eat them!).

We now understand that working with natural systems is vital to the very life of our planet. Humans are part of nature, we are part of ecosystems. We can be blind and arrogant to our interdependence on this planet, or we can be part of the solution.

This is not your usual type of grazing at all. This is a revolution in biomimicry.

Here’s how it works:

If the best solution to global warming, topsoil loss, water shortages and safe food production involves sending large herds of hoofed animals back to tromping through the landscape in a way that takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it into the soil naturally, then it would “behoove” us to start right away.

Even if you don’t eat meat, returning ruminants like buffalo, cattle, goats, sheep and fowl to a holistically managed, natural grassland ecosystem where they belong could effectively help SOLVE our global warming problem.

Good Models Can Move Us Forward

Solving our ecological crisis means not just stopping human interference with nature, but also on humans taking positive steps to undo the damage already done. Carbon farming can do just that.
The good news is that many pioneering farmers and ranchers (like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms or African environmentalist Allan Savory or these Southwest ranchers) are already working to heal the land by successfully raising bison, cattle and fowl on polycultural grassland—an enterprise that can scale up quickly because the prototypes prove the model works.

In fact, in Africa, holistic managed grazing is beating back the creeping Sahara desert and restoring dead rivers to the communities that depend on them.

Carbon farming is nothing short of a true MIRACLE. (Please don’t miss the 3 minute video above.)

And according to Mother Earth News, “…it is not unrealistic to think that we could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the process.”

Doing so would give us:

  • a more humane livestock system,
  • a healthier human diet,
  • less deadly E. coli,
  • elimination of feedlots and the manure lagoons they produce,
  • a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide,
  • enormous savings in energy,
  • virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on grazing lands,
  • massive reduction of the catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin,
  • more vibrant rural communities where farmers and ranchers can earn a decent living with less work and fewer expensive inputs, and
  • a dramatic reduction in global warming gases, possibly reducing our carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions to pre-industrial levels.”

The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. Their label certifies that their beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots, received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed, and were humanely raised and handled.

This emerging marketing network has already placed grass-fed animal products in co-ops, health food stores and supermarkets across the nation.

This quiet revolution against industrial farming practices has been fueled entirely by growing consumer demand. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef, dairy and poultry simply because we know it’s significantly healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart, and because we don’t like the pollution, cruelty and antibiotics inherent in the concentrated feedlots that dominate the industry currently.

In a market economy driven by consumer demand, purchasing pasture-raised meat, dairy and eggs in lieu of their grain-fed counterparts is the ONLY way we are going to attain the many environmental benefits of carbon farming and reduce global warming.

A Return to Roots

It is no coincidence that in the past 75 years as our diets changed to include large quantities of industrial meat and refined carbohydrates, diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer have reached epidemic levels. Pasture-raised animal products are substantially cleaner, leaner and lower in the omega-6 fats that are linked to inflammation, obesity and heart disease.

Pasture-raised animal products also are much higher in Vitamins A, E and D as well as beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), both of which reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and promote weight loss. And, perhaps most importantly, grass-fed beef just tastes better to most people.

While it is true that much environmental good would come from significantly reducing the world’s consumption of industrially produced meat, the reality is that the number of people around the world who eat meat is only growing.

When living as an essential part of grassland ecosystems as they were meant to, animal foods are healthful and traditional parts of the human diet that we have relied on and enjoyed for our entire existence on this planet.

So if we hope to avert climate change and enjoy a good steak in the future, it is incumbent upon us to restore our prairies and raise our animals in the most humane and environmentally beneficial way possible, which, it turns out, is the way nature had been doing it all along.

Here’s an amazing TED talk by Allan Savory, the inventor of holistic managed grazing, that explains things even further. 

Where to Find Pasture-Raised Beef

Pasture-raised beef is enjoying explosive demand, thanks to informed people like you who want a cleaner, healthier, environmentally sustainable product. You can find local grass farmers raising beef, pork and poultry in your area by checking out U.S. Wellness MeatsEat Wild or your local Weston A Price chapter.

Sources and More Information

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  • A lot of your data (and arguments) are wrong here, it’d be enormously long to mention all the things u got wrong here, and I don’t mean to be rude cuz I’m sure you meant well (u seem perfectly nice). But the info and arguments here are overall not supported by scientists or researchers at all.

    So I’d suggest you look at valid scientific sources instead (not just a couple of books or false experts opinions online instead). Like in scientific ‘journals’ (and research that is peer reviewed by other researchers), not just from pseudoscience (policy or special interest) advocates who confuse normal people w/ their “truthiness” (false experts) or impressive sounding facts that are completely flat out wrong, or that are totally taken out of context to further an argument– even when the cumulative data altogether may not support that argument at all.

    Anyhow though seriously, this Allan Savory who you said is a savior and cited many, many times here, once counseled Zimbabwe to massively exterminate 40,000 elephants because he blamed desertification in the area on them. The government followed his advice and killed these elephants, while seeing no improvements (shocker as many ecologists and researchers greatly advised against this) on the desertification. Also the claim here that grazing tons of animals more sustainably could solve climate change is dead wrong as:
    Approximately 8 Petagrams (Pg; trillion kilograms) of CO2 are added to the atmosphere/ year from fossil fuel burning and cement production alone. This will increase in the future at a rate that depends largely on global use of fossil fuels. To put these emissions in perspective, the amount of CO2 taken up by vegetation is about 2.6 Pg per year. To a very rough approximation then, the net carbon uptake by all of the planet’s vegetation would need to triple (assuming similar transfers to stable C pools like soil organic matter) just to offset current carbon emissions every year.

    However, the claim was not that holistic management would maintain current atmospheric CO2 levels, but that it would return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Based on IPCC estimates, there are now approx. 240 more Petagrams (Pg) of carbon in the atmosphere than in pre-industrial times. To put this value in perspective, the amount of carbon in vegetation is currently estimated at around 450 Pg, most of that in the wood of trees. The amount of carbon that would need to be removed from the atmosphere and stabilized in soils, in addition to the amount required to compensate for ongoing emissions, to attain pre-industrial levels is equivalent to approx. one half of the total carbon in all of Earth’s vegetation.
    Recall that annual uptake of carbon is about two orders of magnitude smaller than the total carbon amount stored in vegetation) – See more at:

    (while also the #1 cause of climate change is livestock in all it’s forms, and the brunt of emissions come from manure waste and habitats, rainforests, and forests all around the globe being cleared to raise more livestock etc.) which also is not offset by new grasslands as you suggest it would be.

    Anywhho I’ll stop typing as you probably get the idea. Anyhow though you should check this resource out, as it’s the easiest sum up, debunking what Allan Savory claims (though you can also pick apart his arguments piece by piece from other credible sources, but it takes a great deal more time…..but is also totally possible):

    You can also go to:
    –Which is 1 of the most trusted climate change sites online, run by real climatologists that also debunks this argument you’re presenting here.

    Anyhow I hate to rag on you, but this argument is simply invalid. As to even keep up meat consumption even just at current rates would be impossible to do more Ethically, much less more sustainably. As grass fed, free range cows create 50-60% more GHG’s than factory farmed feedlot cows do, and require a Great deal more land, water, carnivore protection, and waste disposal among other things. (though don’t get me wrong I still don’t promote or at all approve of feedlots or factory farms either).

    Anywwhoo….most of the data Allan Savory used is not supported in the peer literature, and his claim that grass-fed free range livestock is even more sustainable than factory farms is not even supported either……Much less that it can reverse climate change that’s just dead wrong and outrageous to say (even though he very compellingly fools people using pseudoscience and logical arguments that sound true, but that don’t stand up to observations, research, and have no hard evidence supporting them up). As logic and rational arguments alone don’t make a science, you need hard data, evidence, facts, studies, and research supporting them up, to know what is valid science and research and what is not. And in this case Allan’s delusional or pulling a fast one on people….either way this is wrong.

    Though you guys can look for yourselves to see his arguments aren’t supported w/ research. Though I feel sorry he’s fooling so many people and wasting their time believing that somehow livestock can reverse C.C. as this is simply false. Though ironically it is vastly supported w/ research that greatly and even somewhat reducing livestock can greatly reduce C.C. (and Many other environmental ills), that is hugely supported.

    Anyhow ahhhh the internet ain’t it grand, having the power to both confuse the crap out of all of us sometimes, and also sometimes actually educating us too…..ahhh…..sigh. Critical thinking skills people this is why we need them, lol.

    • Many of the sources cited at the end of the article are indeed scientific, and my critical thinking is quite intact. I have worked in sustainable agriculture most of my adult life. I’ve seen the increases in organic matter that holistic managed grazing and polycultural perennial pasture can create firsthand. I have also attended many sustainable agriculture conferences with, gasp, scientists presenting. Much of the evidence for carbon farming and shifting livestock to perennial polyculture is only synopsized on the internet, most of it is buried in the soil science and agronomy journals no one ever sees unless they need to.

      That said, I encourage you to actually read all of the sources cited at the end of the article.

      There is substantial evidence that holistic, biomimicking management of livestock can stop desertification and restore grassland ecological services, including carbon sequestration. The same thing happens when we return predators to national parks, for example. Changing the destructive behavior of grazers like deer, elk, etc. by re-introducing (or biomimicking) predators can protect and restore degraded land. This is a well-established fact about grassland ecosystems.

      Is holistic management a panacea for climate change? Probably not, especially since the polluting engine of industrialization keeps grinding on unless we create a paradigm shift away from growth economy. But that’s another subject…

      But using figures for annual and perennial crops reported in the Land Institute’s extensive research into the subject, “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?” we can get a rough idea of what effect the grass farming revolution could have on global warming.

      To quote them (and in the article above): Production of high-input annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rates. This suggests that if we converted half the U.S. corn and soy acres to pasture, we might cut carbon emissions by roughly 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels that would also result. That would offset all the cars and trucks in the United States! And as we adopt less polluting transportation technology, those perennial polycultures could offset other things, like concrete production.

      And that’s just the United States. Imagine what would be possible if we stopped deforesting and using monocultures and feedlots for livestock, and instead restored the grazer-predator-grassland ecologies worldwide! Increasing soil carbon by as little as 1.6 percent across all the world’s agricultural land, according to people studying managed grazing, would solve the problem of global warming. Soil scientists studying the issue are more measured in their predictions, but still enthusiastic about the potential of soil sequestration of carbon to reduce the threat of global warming.

      Increasing the soil carbon just 1.6% would be relatively easy to do and very cost effective as well. And there would be tons of ancillary benefits in doing so as well, including creating food on land that can’t be used for farming. While it might not solve the whole problem of carbon emissions, the full cost accounting of this technology cannot be overlooked or dismissed, particularly since removing carbon from the air has been the toughest nut to crack so far when tackling climate change. The IPCC agrees.

      To quote one of the sources for this article; “The idea of soil sequestration is still under the radar,” notes Soil Science Professor Chuck Rice of Kansas State University, a member of the IPCC panel who directs a joint project of nine American universities and the U.S. Department of Energy studying the potential for reducing greenhouse gases through agricultural practices. “There is more carbon stored in the soil than in the atmosphere. If we can make a small change in managing that carbon in the soil, it would make a big difference in the atmosphere.”

      Rice suggests adopting a wide range of carbon sequestration strategies, ranging from planting more trees to cultivating crops using no-till agriculture (which minimizes plowing) to raising animals on managed grasslands instead of feedlots.

      Research from Texas A&M University studied a group of holistic grazing and conventional ranches in North Texas. The 10-year study showed that the holistic grazers’ lands were accruing three tons of carbon per hectare per year more than their conventional neighbors.

      There are 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land on earth. If—and this is a big if—we could store just one ton of additional carbon per hectare annually over all 3.5 billion hectares, then we would be able to draw down just about the same amount of carbon we emit each year that doesn’t get absorbed by the oceans, trees, plants and soils—potentially canceling out the leftover carbon that’s causing climate change.

      Does carbon farming need more study? Absolutely. The work done by Savory, among dozens of others who have replicated his findings, is extremely promising, and further study is underway. We already know for certain that perennial polycultures are a substantially more sustainable way of farming than monocultures.

      And that’s really the point here: we can continue to destroy the land and release tons of carbon by growing monocultures (it doesn’t matter who eats them), or we can shift our farming to perennial polycultures, and move our livestock production to holistic managed grazing on polycultural prairie land that was never appropriate for farming in the first place. Plowing the soil is the problem, not who eats the crops. So lets quit plowing the soil for livestock who would be better off without all that corn and soy anyway.

      The methane issue is also a specious argument: First, I am not arguing for an increase in numbers of cattle, just moving the existing numbers from filthy feedlots to polycultural pastures. So the real question is, do cows produce more methane on grain or on grass?

      There are studies to suggest grain produces less methane, but those studies, by and large, compare conventional pastures with feedlots. However, conventional pastures contain high-fiber, low-quality forage, which produces more methane. On the other hand, studies of rotational grazing have shown decreases of as much as 45 percent in methane production, when compared with conventional pastures. All studies seem to agree cows produce less methane when nutrition is best, and the very reason for rotational grazing is to improve forage quality.

      Nor do those studies take into account such factors as methane produced by corn and soybean cultivation, which we know is significant, as well as releases from manure festering in feedlots, as opposed to manure cycling immediately into pasture soils.

      To further complicate matters, singling out cattle blames them for their position in nutrient cycle. Remove them from the food chain, and other methane-producing organisms — termites, deer, elk, grasshoppers, not to mention an unimaginable array of microbes — would assume the niche.

      The problem is not the animals; they are supposed to be here, and were here long before we were, and in greater numbers. The problem is humanity and our insistence on living as if we are somehow not members of the ecosystems we depend upon for survival.

      Can the world eat American levels of meat sustainably? No one said we could or should. But we can restore degraded and desertified grasslands and all the ecological services they provide by putting grazers back on polyculture pastures and managing them in a way that mimics the predator-prey behavior that kept those grasslands healthy and efficient before humans came along and mucked it all up.

      We went and killed the millions of native buffalo, elk, wolves and bobcats that were doing the job so nicely. So it behooves us to fix the mess we made with biomimicking permaculture techniques, using the creatures we do have around: cows and us.

    • This is a great movie on the evils of factory farming and the American overconsumption of industrial meat. However it doesn’t accurately look at the way in which pioneering ranchers around the world are using permaculture and biomimicry techniques with grazers to restore ecosystems and return carbon to the soil. Grazers and their predators have a natural and symbiotic relationship with grasslands, and yet we have removed them both from grasslands, much to the detriment of the land, animals, and people. Returning them using biomimicking permaculture techniques can not only set things right ecologically, but can also be of benefit for humans too.

  • You do realize that you said its 15lbs of grain to get 1 pound of beef, But then go on to say the vegetarian ‘argument ends’ because growing grains is still damaging?

    Like what, 15X less damaging?! So its 1500% better?, with nearly ZERO methane production inherit in the crop itself. Lets get real here. How about instead of converting those corn fields into “permaculture” pasture we let it return to forests if it was at one time or revert back to its natural state with a little help.

    The state of the world 200 years ago is of zero value to the problems we face at hand in our current reality, The millions strong herds of grazing animals can no longer roam the mid-west for what we’ve done with the land. At least not unabated like times of old. Maybe we can’t even let them return for sometime until we get climate change under control and back to pre industrial conditions.

    This is basically pro-meat propaganda, under the guise of saving the planet. There is nothing small footprinted about giving 1500% of the resources you create to livestock only to die of heart disease a decade before your time.

    • You have misread, entirely. If you raise cattle on grass (the whole point of the article), then you don’t need 15 lbs of grain (and all the problems with growing grain) to raise the cattle at all. Soil tillage is the biggest source of carbon in modern society, simply because opening the soil and using chemical fertilizer is so damaging on so many levels. It is entirely irrelevant whether you feed the grain to people (vegetarian) or to cattle (omnivore), industrial grain monocultures are the main problem—one that must stop no matter who eats them.

      The polycultural grassland I write about converting to is an important natural biome that was not only the native state of the land in the Midwest (it was never forested), but such a biome actually sequesters more carbon and provides habitat home to more species than forest.

      There are numerous cases around the world where returning grassland to its natural state, including the ruminants and the predators, not only improves the land greatly, and naturally sequesters carbon, but can also, if well managed, can provide a sustainable food source too.

      Lastly, the idea that consuming saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease has been thoroughly debunked.

  • there is no bad food, only bad eating. No pargrom or policy is out to end the beef industry or out to get people to stop eating beef. The truth (not hype) about poor nutritional choices is designed to improve health, saving lives and costs in the process. Having a Cheeseburger or steak a couple of times a month is not a poor nutritional choice. Having it every day is.

  • “Raising cattle (or other ruminants) on polycultural, permanent pasture mimics a natural system wherein the methane and other gas emissions are mitigated by the carbon sequestration in the soil, just as occurred across grasslands and savannahs for hundreds of thousands of years before human interference.”

    Don’t get me wrong here. I am against any kind of industrial animal rearing. And this is the exact opposite. What I don’t understand and what I think this Holistic Planned Grazing model fails to explain is the methane from belching of the ruminants. How is this carbon sequestered in any way? The carbon that has originally been taken by the plants, as CO2, is converted into methane in their bellies.This methane eventually is converted into C02 again, but the steady state level of methane in the atmosphere has risen, isn’t it so?

    • The Savory Institute addresses methane very well in this paper. We must remember that billions and billions of ruminants roamed the land long before industrial agriculture, belching and farting as they went. The problem is not the animals per se, it is all the human activities related to deforestation and fossil fuel combustion that are heating the planet (melting permafrost, releasing seabed methane, etc.), that represent our greatest methane emission threat.

      • Thank you for your reply. I think I now understand the problem better. In Pre-Historic times there was only few methane sources: ruminants (belching, manure), wetlands, melting of permafrost (in warmer interglacial periods)compared to present day. Additional sources are: burning of fossil fuels, land use change (deforestation),conventional livestock management (manure lagoons), cultivated land (rice paddies, use of inorganic fertilizers), landfills etc. Also soil as a sink (10%) is greatly under utilized, so the unbalance is evident. In my opinion, however, it is unwise to increase the amount of ruminants (read: belching) if we do not decrease other sources of methane in the same amount. No matter how small is the role of belching, the effect is still accumulative.

  • This is really wonderful information! I was already aware of some of the benefits to grass-fed meat farming but you’ve really provided a full explanation. Well done and thank you!!
    Clint and Aimee

  • Great post! The mention of the grasslands reminded me of a documentary I saw recently about how the Depression-era Dust Bowl was created, in part, by the widespread farming of the land for crops like wheat because the natural protection of the prairie grasses had been stripped away, leaving the land with no protection against drought. And it’s incredible to think that so much land is being devoted to creating GMO crops to feed cattle when the perfect food for those cows (grass) already grows on its own!

    Thanks for sharing with Old-Fashioned Friday! :)

  • Great post. We’ve been fortunate to have access to locally raised grass fed beef. Now that we’re on an acreage of our own we’re hoping to raise some ourselves some day. Thank you for sharing this on the HomeAcre Hop.

  • Have you thought of writing a petition? Maybe something about convincing the federal government to convert the corn and soybean subsidies to grassfed beef subsidies? I’d definitively sign and pass it on.

  • Very well written and informative. With the Midwest drought and the depletion of the Ogalalla aquefir this needs to be implemented soon. Since cattle can’t ‘follow the grass’ from Mexico into Canada in great herds as the buffalo did, managed grazing practices will need to be used; not so hard, just takes a bit of work, and the result is great meat, sequestration of carbon, and no new dust bowl. Where’s the down side? And, if we can bail out big banks, it seems to me that we, the people(taxpayers), could subsidize farmers for a few years while they navigate the change-over and the resulting loss of income in order to assure our a big part of our national meat supply.

  • Very interesting and well put together! Funny being a young college student I was taught the opposite all throughout my public school system education. Being an adult now it is nice to educate myself instead of being told what to learn.
    This new video on TED Talks is amazing if you have not already watched, Allan Savory delivers a jaw dropping presentation.

    • Glad you have taken “re-education” upon yourself. Most people don’t. That TED talk is one of my sources for this article, linked at the end. Allan Savory is simply amazing!

  • In addition to grass fed beef other animals can be pastured. We raise pastured pigs as our main farm product. Most of their diet comes from the pasture – we buy and feed no commercial hog feeds.

    We supplement our pig’s pasture/hay diet with whey from a butter and cheese maker on the other side of the mountain – the whey is a ‘waste’ of making their product and comes from pastured cows and goats. As available in season we also have a small amount of apples, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers and such that rounds out their diet. See:

    We also raise pastured ducks, geese and chickens and often sheep – all animals that can get all of their food from pasture in the warm months. The chickens are our natural, organic pest control. They follow our herds of grazers, the pigs and sheep, around the mountain pastures breaking up manure patties and catching insects, mice and snakes.

    In the winter our pigs, ducks and geese get hay to replace their pasture – think of it as canned pasture just like we can our garden produce for our family. In the winter our chickens eat pigs, that is to say the meat left over from slaughter of our pigs each week.

    Pasture’s not just for cattle.

  • Just curious, is there any research that says genetically engineered crops require more water than traditional crops?

    “Today nearly all of America’s original grasslands have been converted to genetically engineered corn and soybeans, two crops that are enormously destructive to the environment because they require massive amounts of fresh water, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers to grow.”

    Here’s a link to a publication from Utah State University, a land grant university who (through Utah State Extension) does research on topics like this.

    • The comparison is between conventionally grown monoculture GMOs and polycultural pasture or organically grown crops. The industrial monocultures require substantially more water than polycultures, or even organic monocultures. The difference is in the tilth of the soil.

  • Totally absorbing, thoroughly and beautifully written. This was truly enlightening and supports what we seem to hear more and more, that to go against nature costs us dearly, we are now beginning to realise the consequences of our actions and must start working with, and not against Earth’s natural cycles. Thank you so much for sharing this outstanding article at Seasonal Celebration Sunday! Rebecca x

  • Thank you so much for writing this! I have had this argument with my husband many times but you phrased it so well he finally came around. Very well put. Just another reason to make sure you are eating pastured meat!

    • My pleasure. And thank you for your kind words. I actually write with solving arguments in mind. :) Doesn’t always succeed, but I’m so glad it worked out for you. The way we spend our money is indeed a vote for how we want the world to be, and pasture raised meat is indeed a vote for true sustainability.

  • thank you for writing this. I’m so sick of seeing things written either about how organic farming can never feed the world (and so of course we need more chemicals and GMOs) or that eating less meat is “good for the environment”. Yes eating less (or no) CAFO meat is an excellent idea, but eating organically farmed meat is actually good for the environment as organic rules mean that farmers need to consider improving soil fertility and sustainability. Thank you for doing the research to reinforce my arguments :) Will be posting this page on my facebook. Cheers, Liz

  • I loved this article and video and the ideas it is trying to propagate. I tried to tell my friends about it and they brought up a question I couldn’t answer. My friend said that turning prairie back from crops to grazing land wouldn’t be feasible because steer are not wild like buffalo and need to be fed something (grain) in the winter. What would grazing cattle be fed in the winter. Would it just be harvested grasses or something else?
    Sometimes it really gets me down when intelligent friends just dismiss a thing in order to hold onto easy beliefs they feel are un-challengable.

    • Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing techniques (this is a specialized technique that mimics natural predator-prey-grazier patterns) are adaptable for each bioregion. For example, in Vermont, where grass-fed dairy is a major industry, severe winters mean that cows eat stored alfalfa, hay and other grasses during cold months. This has been the practice for centuries. However, in Texas or California, cattle can often overwinter outdoors and even graze through a thin snow cover. Additionally, some breeds of cow are better suited to colder or warmer climates, and should be raised in the appropriate region for their type. We also should not forget we can include sheep, bison and large foul where appropriate into some of these grassland ecosystems too. The more diverse, the better.

  • Thank you for an informative report of a variety of articles. The information is clear to understand and direct to key points.
    The information is a solution to a problem that I’ve not ever discovered or heard of. It makes sense to feed animals their natural diet and not food items that the animals would not normally eat, especially in large quantities.

    The only issue that you’ve not mentioned is that the giant beef coorperations are behind the corn and soy farming and beef productions. They get to control it all for the big bucks. Sending out your animals into green pastures means they won’t get their giant cuts in production, it means farmers have more say of their own farms and it means farmers will and can get out of debt and work in profit.

    I can only see this changing if the vast population of beef eaters in your country start demanding grass fed meat from the big companies.

    I am fortunate that I live and eat Australian produced beef which eats grass and harvested crops. Even their stored foods is grass bales. Whilst not perfect agriculture it sure beats solitude corn eating in mass productions that the states seem to have such issues over.

    Thanks for this article, my sheep are currently stomping manure into our grass fields and eating down the excess growing grasses, if only we could bring ourselves to killing and eating our little pet.

    • I indeed wrote this post in large part to help generate more demand for grass fed meat, dairy and eggs to do my little part to create the change you talk about. We do make a choice about how we want the world to be with the way we spend money.

      Imagine. Farmers getting out of debt while protecting and improving their land. Gasp! 😀

  • Last year my family split a side of beef from cattle that was grass fed !! Hands down best beef I have ever had!!! I agree with your views!

    • I’m not sure I understand your question. However, grass fed beef has been in the news lately, and so I have revamped and updated this post, including a nice little video on holistic managed grazing.

  • One item not addressed: Since most of the population in the US is a graet distance from the grasslands; What about the carbon emission from the processing, freezing, transportation, distribution, retail marketing , freezing and packaging, etc. I would really like to see the numbers on this externality. Thank you.

    • Hi, thanks for commenting!

      The carbon emissions you mention will continue to exist as long as we have centralized, industrial production of our food. The carbon emissions for producing, processing, freezing, transportation, distribution, retail, etc. exist for almost all the food we eat currently. In fact, the industrial production of inedible crops meant for processing—like soy, corn and palm oil—is more environmentally devastating than the production of any other food I can think of.

      The only way around this is to eat as locally as is possible, given the climate you live in. Local grassfed, rotationally-grazed meat, eggs and dairy can be produced anywhere there is grass. (It is increasingly common to find them at farm markets across the nation.) In fact, meat and dairy is the sometimes the only food that can be produced on Vermont’s steep, rocky land, and the state has a thriving dairy industry because of it.

      Dawn aka Small Footprint Mama

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I am seldom so direct, but I have to say that it is patently false that grassfed beef emits more greenhouse gases than corn-fed feedlot beef. The blog post you reference has omitted critical information in understanding how raising grassfed beef properly is not only greener than feedot beef, but if done using the best agroecological methods, can actually remediate global warming by sequestering tons of carbon. Even the commenters in your link point out this fact. Additionally grasslands need grazers for both to be healthy.

      For reference, please consult the sources listed at the bottom of my article, in particular the Scientific American article and the United Nations IPCC study. Also please see the recent op-ed in the New York Times called “The Carnivore’s Dilemma”.

      Each explains in different ways why the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef is not only significantly smaller than grain-fed, but can also often be smaller than that of the average vegetarian diet too.

      Dawn @ Small Footprint Family

    • Thanks for this link!! I look forward to learning more about this. I am so glad there are classes on this too so farmers who want to transition to grass farming with livestock can do so.

  • Excellent article Dawn! I’m in the middle of reading The Vegetarian Myth and she draws the same conclusions that you do here. Thanks so much for the fabulous work.

    • Thanks for your comment and the complement! I look forward to reading The Vegetarian Myth. My copy has been on backorder for some time. I guess it is very popular. I’ve heard amazing things about Keith’s writing, and interviews with her are excellent.

  • Are you CRAZY?

    Do you really think that if the concentrated beef farms distributed all those animals to large “grass” pasture land that it would solve the problems that they created?

    At least by concentrating the animals it allows for the majority of land to be more environmentally productive. Do the math.

    • Actually, the Nobel-prize winning IPCC and many other scientists and farmers have already done the math, which is enumerated and referenced in my article. I am merely reporting on their findings. The math works out strongly in favor of returning cows to pasture for multiple reasons. And since U.S. agriculture currently produces almost 4000 calories per person (twice what one needs), as long as we quit building townhouses on farmland, we will have plenty of food moving forward for us and for export to other countries.

      We would only need convert the land that is currently used to grow corn and soy to feed livestock anyway back to pasture, and feed cows and other animals their natural diet. It’s a one-for-one exchange and a win for the environment, the animals, the farmer, and human nutrition. As Wendell Berry said (and I paraphrase), by taking farm animals off pasture, we have taken a perfect, natural solution to nutrient cycling and divided it neatly into two problems.

      In Argentina, they use a clever 8 year rotation, grazing cattle and chickens on grassland for five years. Then they grow crops on those pastures on soil made so fertile by the cows that they don’t need to use any additional fertilizer for the next three years of rotation.

      Nature created a codependent, symbiotic system of grassland, ruminants, fowl and other animals that we have disrupted with industrial agriculture, releasing tons of greenhouse gases every year in the process. Monocrop, industrial agriculture accounts for a third of greenhouse gas production, no matter what you grow. The only reason cows were removed from pastures and into feedlots was because farm policies that favored food producers like Cargill made the price of corn worth less than it cost to produce, so commodity farmers had to grow as much as possible to make ends meet (plus receive subsidies). This also made corn and soy cheap for beef producers to feed their cows, despite the fact it is not a natural diet for them and causes harm to their rumens.

      In a world where cheap oil is gone and fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels will soon no longer be able to prop up industrial monocultures, transitioning our agriculture to a polycultural system that mimics natural ruminant/grassland systems is a way to solve multiple environmental and economic problems. It is crazy to think we can continue to farm industrially and not pay the price in human and environmental health.

    • Wow, Dawn was kind. How exactly do you mean, “environmentally productive?” Because I KNOW you don’t mean monocropping Corn and Soybeans. And I’m pretty sure you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

      If you had even TRIED to read any of this article or her sources, you would know that the numbers have been crunched many times over. We convert the portion of existing corn and soybean fields that produce livestock feed into pasture. Not all the fields, just those that produce feed. We put the existing number of cattle on those fields. The environment benefits because of carbon sequestering. We benefit from healthier meat. No one goes without food because we’re producing the same amount of meat and have in no way reduced the volume of food produced for people. I really truly fail to see how anyone has a problem with this system. I understand the logistical complications, as most cattle have been bred for decades to get fat on feed and no longer graze efficiently or produce palatable meat on pasture, so a transition would have to be gradual as we increased the numbers of traditional heritage breeds, decreased the number of cows bred for feedlots, and transitioned all the overfarmed fields into pasture. I understand the logistics. But I don’t understand the outright arguments against any of this. It absolutely baffles me. I’m pretty sure you’re all working for Monsanto (and I’m only partially kidding about that…).

      Anyway, brilliant post Dawn, well researched, well said, and I will be sharing it. Thanks!

  • This is an AWESOME article. Extremely well written, succinct and thoughtful. Thank you so much for writing this and phrasing it so eloquently.

    I’m assuming that other than being a vocal consumer on this issue- we can write our local political leaders? I have heard of urbanites joining farming associations in order to help support and educate themselves about their local agricultural practices.

    • Thanks for your comment! We are currently subsidizing corn and soy farmers to produce a surplus in order to keep prices low. However this surplus ends up as GMO high-fructose corn syrup and other corn and soy derivatives in almost all packaged foods. The environmental and health cost for this type of farming is vast.

      We should be subsidizing farmers for creating biodiversity and environmental stewardship on their land, for using best practices that support human, animal and ecosystem health. Anything anyone can do to let decision makers know that their constituents to do not support subsidizing environmental destruction for the sake of cheap junk food is a step forward.


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