Save the Planet by Eating More Meat

A cattle ranch in Island Park, Idaho

In August of 2019, the United Nations encouraged the world to turn away from meat consumption and towards a more plant-based diet. Curious meat-eaters across the globe have questioned the UN’s grounds for making such a dietary claim. A further analysis of the UN’s IPCC report reveals that their plea to mitigate climate change is rooted in a call for better, more sustainable land management practices which promote greater food security and less waste. Such recommendations include more responsible use of synthetic fertilizers, cover crops, and agroforestry initiatives.

Unfortunately for human health and environmental sustainability, bovine and swine got the short end of the stick. This essay will address why the UN’s recommendations are unsound and how livestock have — and can continue — to provide a solution to the climate crisis.

The IPCC report addressed the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of agriculture. GHGs such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (NO2) warm the atmosphere by creating a greenhouse effect (IPCC, 2019). As global GHG emissions have increased, so has the global average temperature, leading to changing climate. The EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (1990–2017) identifies that Transportation, Electricity, and Industry, all of which rely on fossil fuel combustion engines, make up 79% of U.S. GHG emissions (2019). The Agriculture Sector makes up 8.4% of emissions (2019). Though this 8.4% includes emissions from all food growing processes, only 3% of U.S. GHG come directly from livestock (EPA, 2019). The IPCC report estimates that when the transportation, distribution, packaging, and commercial sale of food products is tallied, it accounts for about 23% of all emissions, globally (IPCC, 2019).

Basically, this comprehensive report calls for more sustainable land management practices.

To better understand these initiatives, we have to talk about dirt. Generally speaking, there’s two soil levels: topsoil and subsoil. Topsoil contains about 4–8 inches of soil organic matter (SOM), a complex amalgam of decaying organisms, fecal matter, soil microorganisms, and fungi that is rich in essential plant nutrients (Olson, et. al., 2016). When topsoil is thick and rich, roots grow deep, crops are robust, and harvests are plentiful; however, when topsoil is used and SOM isn’t replenished, the loss of SOM causes loose, dry soil, a phenomenon known as soil erosion (Montgomery, 2012). After rain and winds carry remaining topsoil away, the remaining subsoil, with about 2 inches of SOM, is often insufficient for bountiful harvests (Olson, et. al., 2016).

You probably learned about soil erosion while studying American history in sixth grade. At the end of the 19th century, legislation like the Homestead Act made settling the Midwest appealing. At this time, the Great Plains were covered with topsoil, making them the richest farmland in the country (Merchant, 2012). As attitudes of “Manifest Destiny” and “rain follows the plow” took hold, the Plains were seen as land to be subdued by settlers. After all, this was virgin soil, waiting to be used for a purpose greater than buffalo grazing and indigenous livelihood.

The only problem with the Great Plains was the dense, root-tangled topsoil. To make room for cash crops like wheat, corn, and soy these complex root systems were tilled by moldboard plows and, eventually, large tractors (Montgomery, 2012). After decades of conquering the fertile grasslands, drought and winds came upon the Midwest in the 1930s. The previously abundant wet years spurred by land tillage and healthy soil gave way to dead soil, scorched and dried by the sun. Wind storms called Black Blizzards swept across the Plains, darkening the sky for days (Merchant, 2012). This Dust Bowl lasted from 1932 to 1940, displacing tens of thousands of settlers.

Why discuss past incidents of soil erosion? Because the poor soil management practices that caused the Dust Bowl led to the creation of several government programs which still affect agriculture today.

To prevent further catastrophic soil erosion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into existence the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) and the Soil Conservation Act (1935) (Merchant, 2012). Not only did these programs call for the “wise use” of land to avoid erosion, but they allowed the government to control agricultural markets. By requesting farmers to produce less crops and providing subsidies to alleviate lost profits, the plan to save soil was in full-effect.

While this payday seemed promising, the institution of subsidies set a dangerous precedent for future relationships between farmers and the government. Today, it’s difficult for farmers to receive a subsidy if they aren’t following “best practice” management protocols, which include the use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides (Olson, et. al., 2016). Though these chemicals increase crop yields, they deplete soil microbiota which is responsible for decomposing dead organisms and creating SOM (Olson et. al., 2016). Basically, these chemicals destroy topsoil.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has reported that we have 60 harvests left with the current topsoil erosion rates (FAO, 2015). This should be front page news, every day. More than anything, even more than limiting emissions, we need to replenish topsoil. A proven way to do this carbon sequestrating, a process that increases SOM which traps atmospheric carbon. This would create a carbon sink, allowing excess carbon to be trapped and soils to be regenerated.

A proven method of regenerating soil and sequestering carbon is called holistic livestock management. Spoiler Alert! This isn’t new. In fact, buffalo have been doing it for 200,000 years (Montgomery, 2012). Before European settlement in the New World, 20–40 million American buffalo, or bison, roamed across North America. As they grazed on grasses, their hooves dug up soil, their feces fertilized barren land, and topsoil was created. Then the herd (thousands of bison) moved to another prairie, and the process repeated itself (O’Brien, 2017). This continued until nearly all bison were killed, leaving less than 1,000 alive in 1884 (O’Brien, 2017). Conservation efforts have repopulated bison to around 400,000, still a fraction of the once massive herds.

Though topsoil develops slowly under natural conditions, human efforts can expedite this process. Holistic management of livestock has shown that net carbon sinks can be created by implementing planned grazing, a system which mimics that of the bison. Through this method, a herd of cattle grazes on one plot of land and then, altogether, moves to the next plot (Teague, et. al., 2016). The soil on this grazed land now has time to replenish and regenerate. This approach has been shown to sequester atmospheric carbon, regenerate healthy topsoil, and minimize the damage caused by tillage and synthetic fertilizers (Teague, et. al., 2016).

Likewise, a study performed at White Oak Pastures shows that the amount of carbon put back in the soil through holistic management exceeded the emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management (White Oak Pastures, 2019). It took about 100 years to undo 200,000 years of soil cultivation from bison roaming, but these studies point towards a hopeful future of rapid topsoil regeneration.

The UN wants to mitigate climate change through more sustainable land management, thereby will saving soils and reducing food waste. Their solution — encouraging humanity to eat more plants — does not address the inevitable problem of soil loss, but postpones it. Maybe striking a difference between livestock feed lots (which emit far more GHGs) and holistically managed practices that sequester carbon would be helpful for public interest. Perhaps encouraging consumers to buy local meat and produce would be a more feasible way to lower GHG emissions from food transportation, one with far fewer health implications than avoiding meat.

This report was an ideal chance for the UN to hold ill-managed livestock practices accountable, but it failed to do so. Instead, the solution was to avoid meat consumption altogether, a temporary fix that only delays further climate and agricultural crises.

As for consumers, perhaps buying local, holistically managed meat can actually mitigate climate change instead of postponing it. And maybe, just maybe, learning from the once-disgraced buffalo can lead the United States out of this crisis we dug ourselves into.

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015, December 4). Soils are endangered, but the degradation can be rolled back. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/357059/icode/.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations (2019). IPCC, 2019: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.

[3] Merchant, C. (2012). Major problems in American environmental history: Documents and essays. Boston, Mass: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

[4] Montgomery, D. R. (2012). Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press. Retrieved from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05549a&AN=palci.ocn793510880&site=eds-live

[5] O’Brien, D. (2017). Great Plains Bison. Lincoln: Bison Books. Retrieved from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1568622&site=eds-live

[6] Olson, K.R., M.A. Al-Kaisi, R. Lal, and L. Cihacek (2016). Impact of soil erosion on soil organic carbon stocks. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 71(3):61A-67A, doi:10.2489/jswc.71.3.61A. Retrieved from http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/3/61A.full.pdf

[7] Dettling, J., Thorbecke, M. (2019, February 25). Carbon Footprint Evaluation of Regenerative Grazing at White Oak Pastures — Results Presentation. Retrieved from https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/hubfs/WOP-LCA-Quantis-2019.pdf

[8] Teague, W.R. & Apfelbaum, Steven & Lal, Rattan & Kreuter, Urs & Rowntree, Jason & Davies, C. & Conser, Russ & Rasmussen, Mark & Hatfield, Jerry & Wang, Tong & Wang, F. & Byck, P.. (2016). The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 71. 156–164. 10.2489/jswc.71.2.156. Retrieved from http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/2/156.full.pdf

[9] United States Environmental Protection Agency (2019). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gases and Sinks (1990–2017) (Report No. EPA 430-R-19–01). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-04/documents/us-ghg-inventory-2019-main-text.pdf

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