Cows have (unfairly!) got a bad rap with environmentalists. Reports and news articles point accusingly at livestock as major contributors to climate change.
And with the way livestock are currently managed in most of North America – they are. Cows regularly belch potent methane gas into the atmosphere, and rainforests are destroyed to make way for grain crops grown to feed them.
So diligent eco-conscious consumers are urged to reduce or eliminate beef and dairy consumption.
But what if cows could actually help fight climate change?
What if, in fact, a grazing cow was a key fighter against climate change?
Carbon sequestering: When a plant is chomped on by a hungry animal, it ramps up photosynthesis so it can grow back the bits it lost. That means more carbon in the soil, and less in the atmosphere. In fact, a comprehensive 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that carbon sequestration from pastured livestock could offset agricultural emissions by 1.5 gigatons per year. That is a LOT of tons. (It is even possible that this carbon-sequestering could totally offset the unsavoury methane emissions!)
Nutrients: A grazing cow is also a mobile, pooping cow. That poop puts valuable nutrients right back where they came from – the soil; and those nutrients literally get trampled down into the critical top layer of soil that is responsible for a staggering majority of plant growth. There’s much less need for emission-heavy machine tilling, or chemical fertilizers.
Reducing emissions: A cow that is “start to finish” grass-fed is a cow that is not fed grain on a feedlot before being sent to slaughter. Feedlots can be huge sources of greenhouse gas emissions – both from the inefficiency of transporting grain grown elsewhere to cattle and the inefficiency of managing manure that isn’t trampled directly back into the soil.
Sequestering carbon and returning nutrients to the soil are key components of regenerative farming, which is a broad umbrella term for farming practices that improve, rather than destroy or replete, the resources it uses.
What does this mean for consumers?
“Regenerative” is not a term you’ll ever see on a label anytime soon – it is far too broad for that.
But eco-conscious consumers should look for terms such as “pasture-raised,” “pastured,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range”. These are all different grazing methods that approach the principles behind regenerative farming.