Cattle versus climate: Where’s the beef?

Livestock production’s environmental impact is complicated but if done right,
 it’s good for the planet, says author

Conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited Canada are concerned about the pandemic's effect on beef producers and the long-term implications for the wildlife habitat those producers protect.

It’s become accepted wisdom that cattle production is worse for the environment than gas-guzzling SUVs — but it’s not true.

photo: Laura Rance

“We’re told over and over again that cattle are bad for the environment and, therefore, everybody should eat less beef,” said Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.

“We’re being bombarded with this message every day, but this is an issue that has become dramatically oversimplified. The facts are often lost in the conversation.”

The ‘beef is bad for the planet’ message came to the forefront about a decade ago — but it didn’t arise out of the work of environmentalists or scientists, said Hahn Niman. Rather, it came from animal rights activists who found their ‘meat is murder’ message wasn’t persuading meat eaters to become vegetarians, she told attendees at Organic Alberta’s annual conference earlier this month.

Since then, the mainstream media — outlets like CNN, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and Maclean’s — have also picked up this message, sharing this ‘fake news’ as though it’s fact, she said.

The truth is a little more complicated.

“It’s reductionism,” she said. “It’s about taking a really complex issue and simplifying it to the point where it’s minimized, obscured, and most especially distorted.”

Hahn Niman has been one of the most prominent — and unlikely — advocates for the cattle sector.

First, she’s a vegetarian — and became one out of concern that livestock production was indeed bad for the planet. She’s also a rancher and married to the founder of Niman Ranch, an iconic American brand of naturally raised, sustainable livestock production.

Greenhouse gases

While agriculture is a contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions, “it’s a relatively small piece,” Hahn Niman told conference attendees.

In Canada, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015 was mostly due to a 76 per cent increase in emissions from the oil and gas industry along with a 42 per cent increase in the transportation sector, she said. In comparison, the total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 were sitting at 8.1 per cent. The projection for 2030 is 8.0 per cent.

“It’s not increasing. It’s actually slightly decreasing.”

However, carbon emissions from farming are going up, and are expected to rise to 2.5 per cent in 2030 (versus 1.7 per cent in 1990), mostly as a result of increased mechanization and higher use of commercial fertilizers.

“It’s projected to increase, and it’s an important increase — but not huge,” she said.

In 1990, methane accounted for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s projected to rise by only one per cent in 2030.

Nitrous oxide emissions, on the other hand, are a cause for concern.

In 1990, 52 per cent of nitrous oxide emissions came from agriculture. That’s projected to shoot up to 70 per cent in 2030.

“I suspect the vast majority of that 70 per cent is about fertilizer use in crops,” said Hahn Niman.

“We need to be thinking about the amount of fertilizer we use in our crop production. This is where the focus should really be in terms of climate work in agriculture.”

‘Positive opportunities’

Still, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock.

However, in the U.S., domesticated ruminants contribute about two to three per cent of that, she said. And a National Academy of Scientists study concluded that eliminating all farm animals would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2.6 per cent.

But you also have to factor in what would happen if pastures were plowed under so crops could be grown, she added. A University of Wisconsin study estimates that 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gases are released each year when grasslands are converted to crop production.

The current conversations around cattle and climate change ignore that.

“Agriculture across the world has been practised in problematic ways, including grazing,” said Hahn Niman. “This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. But when it comes to grazing, there are some really positive opportunities there.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity is the growing trend toward holistic agriculture, she added.

“Problems need to be looked at holistically, especially this question of livestock management,” she said. “You can’t look at a problem in isolation. You can’t just reduce it down to one component. You really have to think about how everything is connected.”

Graze well

In nature, nothing works in a vacuum — everything is part of a system, said Hahn Niman. That can be seen in the nutrient and water cycles, and in microbial populations in the soil.

“You can’t take cattle and talk about them like they’re human-made machines,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way in nature. Everything is part of a system.”

People are just starting to understand those connections, particularly the importance of grazing management on soil health, and vice versa.

“The understanding of the importance of the microbiome of the soil is really new. All of modern agriculture has focused on the physical and chemical properties of soil and has almost ignored the biological properties up until very recently. But that is by far the most important of those pieces.”

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, livestock producers need to move away from current high-input practices to ones that regenerate ecosystems and build more resilient soil biology, she argued.

“Cattle play an essential role on the Earth because they graze,” she said, adding grazing protects and improves the soil by keeping a permanent cover of forage plants, which increases water retention and soil fertility while decreasing soil erosion.

“If it’s a well-managed animal, it’s actually benefiting the ecosystem by being there,” she said. “If you graze badly, you degrade the soils. If you graze well, you build the soils. It’s that simple.”

But there’s not nearly as much focus on soil health as there should be, she added.

“The answer is well-managed soils. If you’re going to be addressing climate change, that should be at the very top of the list.”

This article was originally published on the Alberta Farmer Express.

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