What if it’s not the cow we should be blaming but the how?

From meatless Mondays to meat alternatives, the narrative against meats has taken over the mainstream. However, The Savory Institute found that it’s not the livestock or its consumption that is a detriment to our environment, but rather the management of the industry that’s been the problem. Instead, if we stimulate nature through regenerative farming, we could actually achieve a carbon-neutral future of agriculture (and a system that could feed our growing populations and rebuild natural ecosystems).

What are regenerative and holistic grazing methods?

The health of our grassland ecosystems and the health of the human population are deeply interconnected. Grazing bison and elk were originally responsible for North America’s most fertile lands, as the nourishment provided to the soil by these animals is what decades of sustainable food production has relied upon.

Removing these large herds of animals and their predator species from landscapes and replacing them with farmed monoculture row crops resulted in confined animal feedlots, created an agricultural system focused on maximum extraction, and is largely responsible for the depletion of the once fertile grasslands that we have depended on.

Regenerative farming takes sustainability one step further and doesn’t just mitigate future deterioration of grasslands but helps to reverse the damage that has been done by rebuilding their soils.

White Oak Pastures, which was once a farm reliant on conventional practices, transformed its operation in 1996 into a pasture that raises animals humanely, revitalizes the rural community, and has created products that are better for our land and livestock. Another farm following suit is Force of Nature, where the focus is on regenerating land with bison and elk. They both rotate their animals side by side throughout the pastures, where the species free-roam, naturally fertilize the land through manure and urine, and begin the process of putting life and organic matter back into the soil.

Their practice of managed grazing simulates the effects wild herds once produced on the land. Animals would once migrate across lands, graze along the way and never stay in the same space for too long. Their hooves would aerate the soils, break up compact earth, and improve overall circulation along with fertilizing and feeding the microbes. Animals need to be bunched and moving often to provide plants and grasslands with enough time to fully recover between grazing. Nature does this by using predator pressure to keep the grazing animals constantly travelling and impacting new areas of land. Land managers mimic this by moving livestock manually, halting the impact of overgrazing on one area and preventing the spread of land desertification and the inevitable depletion of resources and food that comes with it.bisonPhoto by Bryce olsen on Unsplash

Managed grazing and carbon sequestration

Holistic-planned grazing helps to stimulate further grass growth; allowing these grasslands the proper time to regrow increases the strength of their root systems, which has a beneficial trickle effect for our climate.

Integrating livestock into a farming system rebuilds organic matter at a rate of 0.1 percent per year, which doesn’t seem like a large percentage, but with its added ability to help soil hold water by 2,000 gallons per acre, it allows for an additional 3.6 tons of atmospheric carbon to be sequestered.

Quantis, one of the world’s most respected environmental research and design firms took samples from regenerative farms along various parts of their journeys and found all across the board that treating pastures as complete ecosystems was how humans could positively contribute to the environment through our food system. They also found that regenerative farms store more carbon in their soils than their cows emit during their entire lives, with a net total emission of -3.5 compared to the +4 of Beyond Meat.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report that said carbon sequestration from pastured livestock could offset agricultural emissions by 1.5 gigatons per year. Some farms are known to sequester anywhere from 5 to 7.4 tons of carbon per acre annually. If applied on a large scale, this could make our agricultural sector carbon neutral within a matter of years.

The reason regenerative land management isn’t promoted throughout farming systems is because with the strengthening of ecosystems has come a successful management of pests and weeds without the need for agrochemicals. The decline in use of fertilizers, chemicals and feeds for animals decreases profit margins for shareholder corporations, making regenerative farming a threat to commercial agriculture’s method of growing cheap food for large profits.

Humans, animals and the planet are at an ultimate benefit here. Without the use of synthetic fertilizers, livestock hormones, agrochemicals and gas-powered equipment, we’ve eliminated the majority of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. The (regeneratively grown) cherry on top? By replacing commercial methods with rotational grazing, we’ve allowed the area to re-naturalize and capture CO2 from the atmosphere more effectively than any other functioning earth system, while also putting nutrients back into our soils and our food.cows grazingPhoto by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

Revitalizing soil’s health; impacting human well-being

Because of the use of chemical-heavy farming techniques used in monocropping, the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that we have 60 harvests left before the world’s topsoil is completely depleted, which means we are in a slow decline as of right now.

Even if we switched completely into a plant-based diet, as we lose the world’s healthy topsoil, mass-grown produce and goods completely lose their nutrient density. Many modern staple foods have lost up to 80 percent of their nutritional value and key vitamins and minerals in the last two generations. This has thrown us into one of the largest hidden human health crises, where we’re seemingly abundant in food but the most lacking in nutrients by comparison.

The solution for soil and human health is found not only in better managed meats, but better managed plants as well. We need to be looking towards a circular ecosystem of food production that is planet-based, restoring the balance and harmony that we once saw on Earth.

The more farmers we see acquire land and convert it using holistic practices, the more our soils, food and overall resources will be in abundance. These methods aren’t just productive short-term, but have been proven to be more globally scalable for communities to thrive while ensuring returns for the land and all those who depend on it.

Eliminating factory-farmed meat is absolutely essential in mitigating climate change, but so is eliminating monocrop produce. If we’re going to eat meat, let it be meat that is regenerative towards our land and brings nutrients back into our diets.

Regenerative labels don’t exist on store-bought foods yet, but you can look out for: pasture-raised, pastured, certified humane and carbon-neutral certified on packages. If you live in a community with small farms, ask them about their practices. Most will either show you their animals’ conditions or be able to answer questions without hesitation.

Supporting regenerative farmers is supporting those who genuinely care less about profit, and more about sequestering carbon, controlling erosion, and increasing organic matter in our soils to rebuild our ecosystems for the long run.