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Environmental health has been at the forefront of the public consciousness in recent years. The disastrous and increasingly negative consequences of global warming and the continued impact that we’re having on our planet have made climate change a cause that many are rallying behind, with good reason. 

In our search for solutions to the climate change crisis, there are a number of ways we have devised to help reduce our global carbon footprint (ie. decrease the generation of greenhouse gases). If you’re someone who pays close attention to your dietary habits and cares for the environment, you have probably already heard of one: grass-fed meat! 

I discussed the health benefits of grass-fed meat over grain-fed meat in last week’s blog post; now let’s evaluate the claims being made about grass-fed meat’s benefits for the environment. 

How Is Grain-Fed Meat Contributing To Greenhouse Gases?

When you read the term “greenhouse gases”, what is the first source that comes to your mind?

If you said vehicles, you’re in the majority. Most of us associate greenhouse gases primarily with cars, trucks, and airplanes. And with good reason – 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the transportation sector, the single largest contributor.

However, the agricultural industry plays a major role in the climate change crisis, too.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the agricultural industry is responsible for producing 7 gigatons per year of greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. (To get a sense of what that crazy-big number means, check out this article.) 

Breaking this down further, it’s estimated that: 

  • Cattle are responsible for approximately 65 percent of the livestock sector’s GHG emissions. 
  • Feed production and processing, and enteric fermentation (gasses produced by livestock), represent 45 percent and 39 percent of total emissions, respectively. 
  • 10% of the livestock sector’s emissions are from manure storage and processing.

And the vast majority of those 7 gigatons per year of ghg emissions is generated by CAFOs – concentrated area feeding operations – which is where most supermarket meats come from.

On the bright side, the FAO states that better livestock management would reduce ghg emissions, and proper management of grazing lands to create carbon sinks helps to offset livestock emissions. In fact, grasslands and forests already act as a carbon sink that removes approximately 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. And more healthy pasturelands would increase that positive effect.

How does this work? The answer lies in the many problems posed by grain-fed meat production, and how grass-fed meat effectively addresses them. 

Why Grain-Fed Meat Is Such A Problematic Practice

Grain-fed meat is problematic for many reasons. Beyond the appalling conditions in CAFOs that the majority of grain-fed livestock are raised in, the health problems that they experience as a result of those conditions, and the various chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics found in them, grain-fed livestock can have an immense negative impact on the environment (and our health).

One report produced by the CDC titled Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities covers the environmental impact of CAFOs quite extensively, providing us with insights into just how these operations can damage the environment and, in turn, our health.  

According to the CDC, CAFOs: 

  • Produce a massive amount of waste.
    • CAFOs produce up to 1.6 million tons of waste – mostly dead animals and manure – per year. CAFOs do not typically have (nor are they required to have) dedicated sewage treatment plants, which can lead to ineffective and frequently dangerous manure and dead animal storage methods. 
  • Contaminate local water sources.
    • These huge piles of manure (which contain pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, and antibiotics) sit on the soil and decompose, leaching their contents into the ground and contaminating groundwater and nearby streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs for miles around.
  • Pollute the air.
    • CAFO-produced gasses such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfate, and methane, as well as airborne particles of manure and the chemicals found in animal waste, pollute the air for many miles around CAFOs. The smell alone can travel as far as 6 miles away, and the health risks of these emissions include chemical burns, respiratory irritation, inflammation of the eyes, and chronic lung disease. 
  • Cause infections.
    • Dangerous, antibiotic-resistant microbes have developed as a result of the major health issues in feedlot animals, which come from the unhealthy conditions in which they are raised. These antibiotic-resistant microbes are causing an increase in the frequency and severity of infections, and threatening the health of millions of people.
  • Produce GHGs.
    • Beyond enteric fermentation, the fossil fuels and nitrogen-based fertilizers used to grow feed for livestock, the removal and burning of vegetation to make more space for feedlots and for growing feed demands, and the machines needed to achieve such goals, all contribute to the increasing release of greenhouse gases.

So, what do we do about it?

Given the many disadvantages of feedlot practices, one answer lies in regenerative agriculture.

How Grass-Fed Meat Can Offset The Environmental Impact Of Grain-Fed Meat

Regenerative agriculture is the practice of producing food in a way that reduces or reverses the environmental and social impacts of today’s agricultural practices. Specifically, in regards to grass-fed meat, farmers seeking to reduce their impact on their environment allow their livestock to forage and graze in pastures throughout their entire lifetime.

But how does switching to this model of raising livestock benefit the environment?

In comparison to the damage caused by the feedlot system we discussed above, allowing livestock to graze on well-managed grasslands instead of confining them in CAFOs has been shown to

  • Increase Carbon Sequestration.
    • The continued plowing and unproductive use of vegetation make it impossible for the environment to capture carbon from the atmosphere and trap it in the soil. With vast grasslands catering to the needs of grazing cattle, increased carbon sequestration can serve to offset the emissions produced via enteric fermentation. We’ll evaluate this further in the section below. 
  • Regenerate Soil, Grasslands, and the Environment.
    • Silvopasture, tree intercropping, and managed grazing can improve the quality of the soil and the surrounding environment. How? Managed grazing encourages plants to grow and spread their roots further and deeper, adding organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure, and feeding beneficial soil microorganisms. Grazing also helps to make the soil more porous to absorb and hold water more efficiently, reducing runoff and erosion. And manure and plant wastes that are naturally spread around on the ground by roaming animals make the soil more nutrient-dense (which in turn makes the forage more nutritious, which makes for more nutritious meat = even more benefits!) The restoration of more natural, resilient grasslands can also provide more and better habitat for a diverse population of animals (such as birds, bees, and beneficial insects, which are also good for the environment), and defend against destructive drought and wildfires.
  • Reduce Pollution Overall.
    • Meat, especially beef, is a resource-intensive food. But changes in agricultural practices can serve to benefit the environment rather than dramatically damage it. By reducing the number of cattle grazing per acre, and eliminating the use of harmful herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, hormones and antibiotics, we can reduce pollution overall. (And buying local helps minimize negative environmental effects even more!)

This means reducing the number of animals per acre, eliminating the use of toxic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics, and not allowing animals to overgraze any particular area – these are all critical to the success of regenerative farming in improving our environment.

So, Is Grass-Fed Meat Better For The Environment?

Raising livestock on well-managed pastures can offset, drastically reduce and even reverse many of the negative environmental impacts of CAFOs, and actually help improve the health of our global environment in many ways, including rebuilding the health of the soils, providing healthier and more resilient habitats for a wide diversity of creatures, reducing runoff, erosion, and water and air pollution, and acting as a significant carbon sink to offset large quantities of greenhouse gases.

And, in addition to the environmental impact, grass-fed meats are much better for your overall health, and being raised on pasture is significantly better for the health and well-being of the animals, too.

In my next post, I talk about the top sources for sustainably raised, health-enhancing pastured meats in the U.S.

Now’s the time to make the switch! Use your food dollars to vote for and help create better health, for you and the environment!

Wondering what else you can do to achieve and maintain outstanding health for yourself and your family, naturally?

Start with my roadmap to optimal health, then check out my other articles, podcast episodes and recipes to help guide you further on your natural health journey!