Climate change: How eating steak and hamburgers can make a difference
According to conventional wisdom, cattle are bad for the planet because they release methane, causing global warming. So it comes as a surprise that via regenerative agriculture, cattle are the best solution for mitigating climate change.
Two leading farmers in this effort are Peter Allen and Maureen Carlson Allen of Mastodon Valley Farm near Viola, WI. Neither came from a farming background, but in 2014 they decided to put theory into practice. Now, they manage 220 acres to raise “pastured meats for a cooler planet,” as they say on their website, mastodonvalleyfarm.com.
In Outdoor Wisconsin episode No. 3404 (available online), Peter tells host Dan Small that grazers on pasture can build one quarter to an inch of new topsoil per growing season. This soil is created straight out of carbon that just months ago was in the atmosphere upping global temperatures.
Before European settlement, the great grasslands and savannas of North America built some of the deepest and richest topsoil in the world. It was precisely because of grazers, not in spite of them.
According to ecologist Stephen L. Thomforde, “the relationship between savanna vegetation and the herbivore is a 35 million year co-evolutionary process.” Grasses are willing to sacrifice leaves to grazers. Grazers keep out taller plants, giving grasses a monopoly. This is how a short plant became a dominant vegetation of Earth.
The relationship builds soil faster than forests do. Grasses accumulate resources below ground, out of reach of grazers. They take carbon out of the atmosphere to build their bodies. Grazers eat leaves, causing roots to die back. Soil microbes decompose dead roots into pieces. Other microbes break the pieces down to molecular level. Everything re-emerges as new soil.
To achieve this effect, Maureen and Peter recreate the savanna ecosystem, where predators kept prey bunched and moving, by quickly rotating stock through small paddocks. In contrast, keeping animals in one big area and letting them chew down plants indefinitely doesn’t allow grass to cycle through the natural growth and die-back phases needed to sequester carbon.
Engineered, non-biological solutions to warming are insufficient. Swiss company Climeworks uses direct-air capture to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, removing one-third of global yearly carbon production would use more than one-quarter of global yearly energy demand while producing little else of worth and solving none of the other issues surrounding warming. It would also cost a lot and creates more problems than it solves.
On the other hand, in regenerative agroecosystems, biological processes sequester carbon for free and without apparent effort. They also create high-quality environments for our descendants.
To support regenerative agriculture, buy a chest freezer. Find a local pasture-based producer or drive to Mastodon Valley Farm once a year to buy bulk. At 35 pounds per cubic foot, frozen meat doesn’t take up much space. Go when it is cold so the temperatures keep it frozen on the return trip. If prices seem high, it is only because we have been spoiled by artificially low prices from unsustainable practices.
Some would say the solution is to avoid meat, but if your plant foods are coming from bare soil cultivation (and they are), then your diet is more destructive than eating meat from pasture.
It is heartening to see a path toward redeeming humans’ existence on the planet. All it requires is economic support by many and regenerative farming by a few.
Join me in saying, “for the environment, it is my duty to eat this steak!” Or hamburger, as the case may be.
Enos is a Manitowoc resident.