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There exists a popular and dangerous misconception today that organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock is better for the environment than factory-farmed livestock. However, the truth is that grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock actually is less sustainable than its factory-farmed counterparts.

First … What is Sustainability?

There are many definitions of sustainability. To me, it means the ability for human society to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition is based on the Brundtland Commission’s report, which refers to sustainable development, but also can refer to environmental sustainability, sustainable production, or any sustainable system.

So here’s why your “sustainable” grass-fed meat may not be as eco-friendly as you once thought.

Cattle are Ruminant Animals 

Cattle are considered “ruminants,” meaning their specialized digestive system enables them to process poorly digestible plant material (in other words, cellulose-rich roughage). Known as “cud” chewing, cattle create the cud by regurgitating and re-chewing their food for a second time. The cud is then re-swallowed and digested in the rumen by microorganisms.

That Means … 4 Times More Methane

The problem with this complex digestive process, called enteric fermentation, is that it releases exorbitant amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, primarily from eructation but also from flatulence. Therefore, since feedlot animals mostly consume grains – simple sugars that require no rumination to digest – grass-fed ruminant animals emit up to 4 times more methane than factory-farmed ones, or 400 percent as much methane as factory farmed animals, according to conservative sources cited by Environmental Specialist Dr. Robert Goodland.

This is a big deal, considering that methane is approximately 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year timeframe, and 34 times more potent over a 100 year timeframe!

Planet Earth: Land of the Livestock

Grass-fed cattle occupy much more land. More than a quarter of the entire United States is used as pasture and grazing land for livestock. Globally, 45 percent of all land on earth is used for livestock and feed production, with the majority of this allocated for grass-fed livestock. This means much less forest and much more carbon in the atmosphere that otherwise would be absorbed by trees. With 70 billion land animals raised for food each year globally, the carbon footprint is enormous.

More Water and More Greenhouse Gases

When taking into account the longer, more active lives of the free-range, sun-exposed animals as opposed to their confined, factory-dwelling brothers, it makes sense that grass-fed animals consume much more water. In drought-stricken California, this fact is especially troublesome. What’s more, grass-fed livestock take longer to make slaughterhouse ready in the absence of growth hormones that fatten them up in a less amount of time. Thus, longer life spans mean more methane and more animals respiring carbon dioxide.

Your “Sustainable” Cheeseburger Is Killing Native Species

Land grazing livestock are major threats to wildlife and native carnivores. Rather than preserving a quarter of U.S. land in its natural state to serve as crucial habitat for countless animal and plant species, this same land is being used for the needless activity of meat and dairy production.

Conflict inevitably ensues between native carnivores and the ranchers who want to protect their herds from predators. As a result, the Wildlife Services agency kills tens of thousands of carnivores every year. The endangered Gray Wolf is one of these imperiled species.

Factory-Farmed Meat is Unsustainable Too!

While this post has been arguing that grass-fed livestock is less sustainable than factory-farmed livestock, at the end of the day all livestock products are unsustainable. This is because the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products is responsible for at least 51 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas.

Factory farms also cause major environmental degradation. As we speak, the Amazon rainforest (aka the Lungs of Our Planet) is being deforested at an alarming rate for cattle grazing and cattle feed. Many other reasons besides deforestation make factory farming grossly unsustainable.

Good News! Changing Your Diet Will Reverse Climate Change

Ultimately, the single greenest action you can take is to alter your diet. Shifting to a largely plant-based diet is the most powerful way to reverse climate change and begin healing the planet. To learn more about how you can start to heal the damage being done to the planet at every meal, check out One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign! 

Image source: Express.co.uk

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107 comments on “Why Organic, Grass-Fed Livestock is Not as ‘Sustainable’ as You Might Think”

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Steve Timmermans
4 Years Ago

Agreed that replacing a majority of once-forested ag. lands back to forested environments would be ideal. But its not only forested lands that have been lost to industrial annual agriculture, but also a whole lot of grasslands and savannas. And we have to be realistic and admit that is highly unlikely that these native forests and grasslands, savannas will be replaced soon enough to reduce excessive atmospheric carbon levels. The term - Sustainable - in itself is a bit of a misnomer. Almost empty. Regenerative is what matters. As long as soils are lively, thriving, and able to burst with primary production (which leads to various states of maturity or re-booting back to healthy primary production) -- essentially, regenerative -- that is what is important. Disrupting any of that through excessive compaction, killing or preventing normal soil life processes (i.e., X - icides, X - osphates), depriving soils of natural hydration, mineral mobilization, etc., that is non-regenerative. Managing and mimicing the most natural, constantly moving, bovine and other herbivorous grazing and browsing processes -- and even more importantly, predator-prey occurrences -- on the landscape is the main ingredient of healthy, living, thriving soils. And its the best and maybe only thing that is going to save our butts. Continuous, non-managed, extensive over-grazing of domestic herbivores gives all this a bad name. The vegan misinformed suppressant aspects only distract from the sheer importance and necessity of the biology inherent in regenerative food production, nutrient cycling, and associated land management. And suffice to say that limiting the Eukaryote portion of the nutrient cycling equation with respect to where Homo sapiens fits in, to only Kingdom Plantae (or at least to exclude Kingdom Animalia from human diet) is neither consistent with natural biological processes, nor with much of human past cultural and natural practices. In general, humans are not strict herbivores by nature, although certainly it varies regionally and seasonally. As for the methane argument, all of the methane that a globally increased widespread regenerative grass-fed, HMed, replacement of destructive annual monocropping, could produce would be insignificant in comparison to the sheer amount of excessive fossil-derived atmospheric carbon that can (must) be recaptured by all that additional primary productivity and put back into the soils where it has ALWAYS belonged. Bringing back the once abundant herbivores can do that -- herbivores jumpstart and churn the broader integrated soil carbon pumps so desperately needed worldwide. But doing it (at least entirely or largely) with native herbivores almost certainly will not happen quick enough, so it has to be done largely with domesticated (maybe even naturalized) herbivores, where deemed practical (e.g., on a big chunk of the millions of acres of once natural lands now converted to intensive ag. that is bound to become desertified if we do not smarten-up). You state the threat of domestic grazing livestock to native species and biodiversity. True to an extent, if not managed in ways that many are beginning to embrace. But compared to the threat of billions of acres of intensive annual monocropping to native species and biodiversity, certainly nobody needs to explain to you what is worse. There are too many of us, yes, but it is not going away anytime soon. And that many people have to, and will continue to, eat and drink, whether any of us like it or not. Take the time to learn about Holistically managed planned grazing, how it integrates well with other regenerative plant-based food production, and how it can do a whole lot of environmental good, and perhaps you will at least understand how misinformed and misleading this article of yours is when one considers the globally increasing understanding and embracing of Regenerative agriculture, including regenerative grazing practices. Sincerely, Steve Timmermans

4 Years Ago

What a crock shit !

Justin Dolan
4 Years Ago

Never-mind, I see you get paid to choose sides, One Green Planet (FOR SALE bring lots of GREEN to pay?).

Justin Dolan
4 Years Ago

This article is wrong. It starts our with a sensational headline to grab your attention and then proceeds to lack and integrity. It attacks organic and forgets to mention that ways factory farms destroy our eco systems and are cruel to animals. One green planet you are fighting for the wrong team here.

The cattle in our community are a vital part of the generation of the soils. Thousands of trees have been planted to serve as living fences to rotate pastures (on a former golf course). We go out to other farms to collect waste from the corals of our neighboring farms. "Waste" is a great resource to our compost bins. We are an example of how to live simply with nature.

4 Years Ago

This is a very ignorant article that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of carbon sequestration, methane oxidation, and green water as it pertains to water foot prints. Understand the meaning of these just mentioned terms and you\'ll realize properly managed livestock on pasture are GHG neutral meaning whatever gases they emit are offset by gases being absorbed by healhier soils, plus in terms of water foot prints, the water to grow grasses comes from rainfall not irrigation from diverted rivers or pumped aquifers. Additonally 2/3 of the land on the planet is grasslands that aren\'t suitable for growing crops. Trying to till this land only releases more banked crbon into the atmophere worsening climate change

Annie Menna-Carrozza
4 Years Ago

Go see "cowspiracy"

Darlene Steinis
4 Years Ago

I don't like the title. It implies that organic grass-fed livestock is still sustainable (just not as sustainable as you think). Good article.

Jeff TwoOvens Rutabaga
4 Years Ago


Eileen Ahearn
4 Years Ago


4 Years Ago

i think you are ignorant!

i think this article is weird, it got some points but they not mentioned that if not grassfed/grazed, then it\'s the Amazonian forest being destroyed to plant corn and soy to feed those factory cattle! and this food will give methane because they are not biologically design to digest that! but they are design to digest grass (well not only as in a field or given grass, they cannot to choose the real food they need, which is bark, young tree leaves, branches and so on.

i think the person writing this article is ignorant!

i will add indeed that human are not made to eat dairy and meat, that\'s a biological fact! and they do destroy our environment! animals should be free anyway!

and add more by saying that the blogging business is just about making money, creating Buzz and it works, look at all the 10 things you need to know article, or the 31 more greener of peeing, or whatever!

ben falloon
18 Oct 2014

ironically, there are soil micro-organism that rely on methane as a primary food source and in the process contribute significantly to the regeneration of pasture renewal. "Although most methane is inactivated by the hydroxyl (OH) free radical in the atmosphere (Quirk 2010), another source of inactivation is oxidisation in biologically active soils. Aerobic soils are net sinks for methane, due to the presence of methanotrophic bacteria, which utilise methane as their sole energy source (Dunfield 2007). In other works, methane is a compound that under pasture based grazing systems is a component of the natural biological ecosystem. http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s...

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