Friends and acquaintances often ask me about what to eat (or not eat) if they are concerned about the impacts of their food choices on the world around them. One of the foods that comes up most frequently in this regard is beef, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
It is appropriate for thoughtful people to ask questions about beef production, because it is implicated in climate change, pollution, and deforestation. But it’s also true that well-managed grazing lands offer a lot of benefits for the environment and biodiversity. These include the opportunity for farmers to grow cattle feed as a part of healthy soil-building crop rotations, as well as the possibility that manure—rather than becoming a waste product to be managed—can be productively used on farms to recycle nutrients and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. With these factors in mind, if you choose to eat beef, it’s important to look at how and where it’s produced.
Better beef requires better farming systems, from the ground up
Let’s start by looking at some of the land management practices that are responsible for unsustainable beef production.
- Deforested areas. Millions of beef cattle are produced in the deforested tropics, and my colleagues have identified this as a key driver of deforestation, with devastating implications for climate change, biodiversity, and more. However, it’s also important to note that the factors causing deforestation are complex, and that most beef is consumed in the country where it is produced. This means that reducing beef consumption in the US may help alleviate deforestation by making a small dent in global demand, but directly confronting responsible companies is likely to be more effective.
- Degraded grasslands. It’s common to hear about grasslands destroyed by overgrazing. The exact meaning and utility of this term is often debated (read this interesting blog for one perspective, or this paper for an academic review), and there’s still uncertainty about what level of stocking rate is too high in any given ecosystem and management system. However, there is agreement that grazing mismanagement can be very destructive to ecosystems, leading to degraded landscapes. At the same time, good land management (including grazing management) has been shown to improve degraded areas, and there are many degraded lands with significant potential for improvement.
- Corn from ear to ear. Although most beef cattle spend the bulk of their lives grazing grass, the majority in this country are fattened on corn and other grains during their final months of life. Problematically, much of that corn comes from vast plantings that rely on lots of synthetic inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, fuel) and cause trouble for both farmers and the environment (e.g., water pollution, erosion, etc.). Yet, high-grain diets do reduce cattle methane emissions and time to slaughter (resulting in fewer inputs per pound of product), which are the main reasons why some studies have determined that intensive corn-based systems, while damaging, can be more climate-friendly than grass-based ones. However, many of these studies have not included the possible role of soil carbon.
Planting a superior steak
Fortunately, there are better ways to manage beef cattle. Of course, improvements within any category above would help (avoiding deforestation for pasturelands, avoiding overgrazing, sourcing animal feeds carefully to reduce damages linked to feed crops), but there are ways to design the total system better.
- Getting animals in the (crop) mix. Integrating cattle in diverse agroecosystems that include both crops and animals can be an ecologically balanced way to farm. This can mean simply having animals near crops, or actually having pastures included in cropping rotations. The manure from the animals can be used an alternative to synthetic fertilizers to keep nutrients in the ecosystem, and incorporating the animals into the farm can make soil-building crop rotations viable (by providing an additional use for soil-building crops) and serve as an additional source of income that can diversify economic risk and help keep sustainable farms afloat. While these “integrated crop-livestock systems” make a lot of sense, the trend in the US is in the opposite direction, toward increasingly separated and simplified crop and animal systems. As Wendell Berry put it: “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm—which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”
- Protecting the home on the range, with a bird’s eye view. There is a huge amount of land covered by grazing lands, which in itself offers a strong incentive to learn how to manage it best. But this case is strengthened even further by the fact that many US grasslands are actually at risk, with one of the biggest threats being conversion to cropland. As it turns out, biodiversity in grasslands usually exceeds croplands, supporting pollinators, bird species, and other wildlife. Also, the perennial grasses in grazing lands can actually reduce runoff and build soil health (and soil carbon, possibly even to balance animal emissions from the production system in the best cases). Other management techniques, like adding compost, have also been shown to increase soil carbon, bring other co-benefits, and could be scaled up. To learn about one ranch that’s figured out how to develop a healthy agroecosystem where beef cattle co-exist with other animals and wildlife on grazing lands, read this.
- Another silver lining, in silvopasture. Another thing to think about is that it’s not always essential to pick between cattle or trees—silvopasture systems actually have both! As Keefe Keeley of the Savanna Institute recently wrote, “Put most simply, silvopasture can be established in two ways: planting pasture in trees or planting trees in pasture.” The resulting systems enable food production while still including trees, which offer above-ground carbon and important habitat while also providing shade and shelter for animals. In some cases, the trees can be used for an additional source of food (and income). Here’s a neat photo guide to some examples of these systems in the northeast and just one example of a US farm that grazes cattle in their orchards part of the year. But there’s even better news: these systems can also be productive in the tropics, in regenerated forest areas.
A call for agroecology
Although there’s good evidence that conservation cropping and better grazing management can together address many of challenges with agriculture today (including its role in climate change), it remains uncertain exactly how much beef can be part of a sustainable future. The lingering uncertainties aren’t that surprising since agroecology – the science that can answer questions about ecological grazing and diverse farms—has been woefully underfunded. In notoriously heterogeneous grazing lands, the lack of funds for long-term and large-scale studies has been a particularly difficult obstacle. That’s why we’re not only advocating for more research funding for agroecology, but also working specifically to understand the role for ecologically managed grazing systems in sustainable agriculture.
So what can YOU do?
There are several things you can do—as a consumer and an engaged citizen—to help move the beef industry to a more sustainable model.
- Find a better burger. Support farmers to produce beef sustainably and demand that business leaders do too.
- Waste not. No matter what the food, the first step to minimizing consequences is avoiding waste.
- Everything in moderation. Even the best system can only be scaled up so much, but it also happens that moderation is a healthier choice.
- Vote to make food less complicated. Demand that leaders invest in and work towards a better food system.
A final thought about land stewardship from farm to table
Many years ago Aldo Leopold wrote: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” As I see it, the danger of disconnecting an understanding of the land from our experience of food goes far beyond the spiritual. So, if you are among the shrinking group of farmers (3.2 million and declining) or farm workers (~2.5 million) in the US, thank you. For the rest of us, I think the land behind our food may deserve a little more attention.