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Over the years, many people have started to wake up to the environmental consequences of eating beef. But, instead of reducing or eliminating beef altogether, people are opting for grass-fed beef, hoping this “sustainably raised” meat will have a lower environmental impact. Proponents of grass-fed beef posit that having cows out in green pastures actually helps the environment by naturally mitigating greenhouse gases. It’s proposed that carefully managed grazing lands can sequester carbon in the soil, reducing the amount that’s released into the atmosphere.

And not only do supporters of grass-fed beef see it as a more environmentally friendly, they see it as a humane alternative to factory farming. They point to the resources saved by not producing and transporting grain as feed, lower fossil fuel use, lower pesticide and antibiotic use, less pollution, and less suffering for animals (while the cows are being raised). But unfortunately, there is no evidence that grass-fed beef is better for the environment, and now we have yet another study to prove it.

Tara Garnett, a food systems analyst and the founder of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), wondered if grass-fed beef really was all that better for the environment and decided to conduct a study. In 300 academic peer-reviewed research papers, Tara and her co-researchers conclude that – surprise, surprise – the carbon that is sequestered by raising grass-fed cattle does NOT balance out the methane released. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has a global warming factor far higher than carbon dioxide and traps 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a five year period. Cows release methane in the form of their gas (plainly, burps and farts). Grass-fed cows produce 40 to 60 percent more methane gas than grain-fed ones and also use more water and land over their lifetimes.

“It has been interpreted as though we’re claiming intensive production,” basically, the landless feedlot systems decried by animal welfare groups, “‘is preferable’ to grass-fed. All we’re saying is that grass-fed doesn’t constitute a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Garnett states about the research. Garnett included that eating less meat is truly the solution.

While there are still discussions on how to incorporate grass-fed beef as a way to reduce the climate impact of our food choices, the bottom lone is grass-fed beef is pseudo-sustainability. Climate scientists are continually demonstrating the connections between raising livestock and global warming. A report published by the World Watch Institute in 2009 revealed that greenhouse gases produced by livestock comprise 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And even if people choose to ignore that it’s just as bad for the environment as grain-fed, they reality is grass-fed beef is produced too inefficiently to feed the world given the amount of meat the developing world consumes.

Not to mention, an additional consequence of raising free-range, grazing animals is the significant loss of wildlife and native species, which are often culled or “rounded up” in order to protect livestock interests. And while to some, grass-fed has become synonymous with humane, in reality, the grass-fed label itself offers no guarantee of humane treatment. While open-grazing animals will avoid some of the horrors of factory farming, particularly those associated with confinement, they are still subject to some degree of inhumane treatment.

Ready to make a real difference? 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. You can start eating for the planet by doing nothing more than choosing a delicious plant-based meal over one laden with animal products. If you look at it from a personal perspective, you can cut your own carbon footprint in half just by leaving meat off your plate for one year. (Plus save a lot of water, redirect grain for people to eat, and help protect endangered species…)

We all have the power to create a better future for our children, and the countless animals we share the planet with, by making one easy swap. If you’re ready to start doing this in your own life, check out One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign.

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27 comments on “Sorry, Meat Lovers – Another Study Shows That Eating Grass-Fed Beef Isn’t Helping the Planet”

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Chekoya Dreamhawk
11 Months Ago

Save the wild horses that cattle ranchers say there are too many of so they can graze their cattle.

Ted C
11 Months Ago

Sorry grass fed loons, cows are part of the food chain and I, as a life form which evolved to eat both plants and meat, will continue to eat beef. As soon as you get Lions to stop eating antelopes and Whales to stop eating krill and birds to stop eating insects we\'ll talk.

14 Nov 2017

You apparently need to do your research. I know it\'s hard to admit that what you eat is wrong, but you need to stop spreading lies on this site. Cows are NOT part of the food chain. We breed them for the sole purpose of exploitation. It\'s not healthy, sustainable or ethical. With out factory farming most humans wouldn\'t be able to eat the amount of meat people eat now. It\'s called over consumption.

Stefhan Gordon
11 Months Ago

In reply to Tara Garnett:

Your response further points out the even larger problem with your report which is that it doesn’t make the connection between increased soil carbon and other ecosystem benefits, for example like drought resistance, and enhanced soil ecosystems that further mitigate climate change. Your report appears to only see the ecosystem as a one way linear street where soil carbon is only impacted by these “agro-ecological variables.” The reality is that increased soil carbon (and the resulting improved/regenerated soil ecosystem health) is a two way street where increased soil carbon directly alters those agro-ecological variables especially the hydrology. So the benefits of increasing soil carbon on the large amount of land that’s been degraded, especially by both traditional and more recent chemically intensive agricultural practices for the past 10,000 years, isn’t so definitive and limited as you’d like to represent it.

When you increase soil carbon, don’t till, plus keep the ground covered, you improve drought resistance since soil carbon increases water retention SIGNIFICANTLY. (per high figures from the USDA/NRSC every 1% increase in soil carbon increases water retention in the top 6 inches of an acre of soil by 27,000 gallons of water). With improved hydrology via evapotranspiration, you actually impact the local micro-climate increasing rainfall and decreasing temperatures especially ground temperatures. Water vapor is a huge green house gas as well.

So again unlike your FCRN’s report’s findings , which failed to make these connections, soil health beneficially impacts climate, rather than solely being the other way around.

Additionally healthier soils with increased methanotrophic activity increases the amount of methane oxidation which in part helps mitigate CH4 in that ecosystem offsetting the enteric methane from cattle. Though there really is no discussion of soil science in your study …or soil loss …The terms “soil ecosystem” or “soil microbiology” are never mentioned even while discussing methane and nitrogen. I’m not sure how you can even have a discussion about the nitrogen cycle and more specifically nitrification without discussing soil microbes that determine how nitrogen is utilized. Most urea is broken down to plant accessible NH4 not n2o. Do you know what type of nitrogen isn’t largely utilized by plants? Synthetic nitrogen especially after ground becomes more compacted. Without integrated livestock systems like those used by Gabe Brown and Colin Seis how are you going to provide the soil fertility, remove the cover crops and crop residues without rotating through grazers and without tillage? Do you propose using more chemical inputs for fertility and burning everything down with herbicides? You do realize this isn’t sustainable, and that you can’t continuously farm land without restoring its fertility, don’t you? Or have you never actually been on a farm?

Plus a large argument against intensification is manure management. Intensification takes an asset fertilizer and turns its into an environmental toxin (look up how many antibiotics end up in slurries) . Unlike manure distributed on the land, lagoons at intensified operations are large emitters of methane gases that aren’t in anyway whatsoever mitigated by soil microbes.

What always amazes me is how vegetarians like yourself borrow heavily from industrialists pushing for intensification to further your own agendas. It’s incredibly ironic plus super reductive. So in conclusion I’m quite amazed by how weak your report is. You should actually spend some time in the field with ranchers and farmers using regenerative methods to regenerate degraded land. This is something Dr. David Montgomery has done. Maybe if you got out of your ivory tower more often, you’d understand how everything is interconnected and not just numerical stats in studies.

Stefhan Gordon
11 Months Ago

Let\'s be blunt. Garnett and her FCRN report fails at a fundamental level...specifically in regards to how the report completely ignores soil science.


Garnett/FCRN\'s 127 report basically states the following:
Carbon sequestration/storage levels don\'t offset enteric methane and nitrous oxide emissions. There is some carbon sequestration/storage, but higher levels reported aren\'t true. Moreover carbon sequestration levels are limited. That sequestration/storage caps out so there are diminishing returns as carbon is sequestered. Thus as this occurs, even more methane and nitrous oxide are omitted because there is less of a carbon offset. Since grass finished cattle live longer, they emit more methane and therefore are less environmentally friendly than feedlot finished cattle from strictly a GHG point of view. Though there are other significant issues with intensified operations for feedlot finished cattle, and other meats. Therefore we should eat more vegetables and vat-meats because this takes up less land and emits fewer GHG’s. Additionally, grasslands should be allowed to all become forests or used for bio-energy production


During the entire 127 page report the terms "soil health", "soil ecosystem", soil microbes" and "topsoil loss" aren\'t mentioned at all even though soil carbon capture and respiration rates are completely dependent on the soil\'s health and microbiology as many of the more progressive soil scientists like Dr. David C Johnson, Dr. Christine Jones, Dr. Elaine Ingham as well as geologist Dr. David Montgomery and author Graeme Sait have pointed out in their research and or writings.

Here\'s a brief discussion about this impact of soil health on carbon capture from Dr. Johnson in this video https://youtu.be/Fdh_j_KOmrY and more at length discussion in these presentations https://youtu.be/XlB4QSEMzdg and https://youtu.be/18FVVYKU9gs

Basically Johnson notes that with healthier soils that have more fungi than bacteria, there is significantly more carbon capture (10+ times) and less carbon respiration. Long rooted perennial systems also pull carbon down deeper into the soil where the carbon is less volatile. Additionally, Johnson notes that, while there is a limit to how much carbon soil can store/sequester, there is no limit to how much soil that can be built. So more soil equals more carbon sequestration.

Given how rapidly soil is being lost (some projections note the planet will lose all of its top soil in 60 years), building new top soil is incredibly important. Relying solely on geology, building new topsoil takes over 100 years to build from the bottom up. But with composting, soil can be built more quickly from the top down. What do ruminants do? They are nature\'s mowers, composters and spreaders. Well managed ruminants, especially in more arid brittle environments with seasonal humidity are the best way to build more healthy topsoil the most rapidly as Gabe Brown points out in this video, Keys to Building Healthy Soil, https://youtu.be/9yPjoh9YJMk Soils with animals manures have the most and greatest microbial diversity and soil is made largely from dead microbes, not deteriorating organic matter. So the greater and more diverse the soil microbial mix the better for building soil.

Now what else do healthy soils do? They increase water infiltration and retention. So healthy soil ecosystems improve drought resistance and therefore increases plant growth. With more plant growth, there is more evapotranspiration, and thus healthy soils actually increase rainfall. With no-till systems and continuous cover, more moisture in the soil improves the soil ecosystem for methantrophic activity. With more rain, and moisture, some of those methanotrophs become airborne. So methanotrophs in the soils, mitigate CH4 emissions from manure and airborne methanotrophs mitigate enteric methane in the atmosphere. Moreover, other soil microbes make sure more of the nitrogen (urea) in the manure is broken down into forms of nitrogen that plants can use like NH4 rather than are emitted into the atmosphere like nitrous oxide N2O. This natural occurring nitrogen doesn\'t leech into the environment like synthetic nitrogen that plants only utilize a small fraction of for growth. Most synthetic N runs off compacted soils into waterways causing aquatic hypoxia (dead zones).

Healthy soils are the key to everything, so it was quite shocking that this report completely overlooked this topic. Holistic management is not simply another grazing system for moving cattle. No, holistic management is a systems approach to regenerating land/soil health, ecosystem function and economic well being.

The solutions to let grasslands all become forests was quite comical as well, since most of the planet\'s grasslands are in brittle environments with little rain fall or seasonal humidity, so unless you improve soil health, most trees will die. Moreover from an ecological history point of view, most grasslands weren\'t forests. Grasslands co-evolved with large megafauna , grazing ruminants, and apex predators. When mankind helped kill off the megafuana, he became the keystone species who used controlled burning to reduce plant succession. Converting grasslands to bioenergy crops is even more absurd....because this is what\'s actually happening and leading to the destruction of drought resistant biodiverse grasslands with monocrops of blue water dependent seed oil crops used for ethanol, biofuels, processed food ingredients, cooking oils, industrial products and CAFO feeds. FCRN\'s suggestions for alternative grassland uses, in other words, are just plain dumb.

There are many other shortcomings with FCRN\'s report, though the lack of discussion of soil science and soil health\'s role in GHG balances, as discussed above, is the most glaring and egregious one.

Donna Christine Matthews
15 Nov 2017

OF course everyone should stop eating meat, but I am worried, very concerned in fact, about what will happen to the cattle when it becomes law to stop eating meat. I hope we will treat the cattle humanely and kindly and take them to sanctuaries as opposed to killing the cows to get rid of the excess.

Kelly Plaas
11 Months Ago

Moderation is the key. If meat eaters would just cut down to once or twice a week, it would make a big difference.

E.z. May
11 Months Ago

Stop eating animals.

Ted C
14 Nov 2017

No. They are part of the food chain.

Lynne A. Deiter-Castro
11 Months Ago

Andrew Castro

Sue Boaman Diecidue
11 Months Ago

It's unsustainable anyway. There will never be enough land, hence grass to feed ALL the cows to encompass ALL the demand. Don't eat 'em. Problem solved

14 Nov 2017

Nah, they are part of the food chain so Im eating them.

Natalie Fiorito R
11 Months Ago

Oh snap...

John Pasqua
11 Months Ago


Ted C
14 Nov 2017

Tell that to all meat eaters on the planet.

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