The “eat less meat” movement is growing. Does it distort science? (Part 2 of 3)

20 Dec 2019

Why ranches, cattle, and meat-eating may play a role in fighting climate change.

The following article by Lynne Curry originally appeared in The New Food Economy and is republished here with permission. Read Part 1 here.

The Future of Protein

Ryan Katz-Rosense and Sarah J. Martin, co-authors of the forthcoming book Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and the Planet, have identified three pathways for the future of protein—“re-modernization” “replacement” and “restoration.”

“The evidence suggests our planet is traveling in all three directions at once,” the authors write.

The meat industry, controlled by four transnational corporations—Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods—leads the “re-modernization” camp though increased efficiencies in factory farming to produce cheap and abundant protein. “Replacement” innovators are disrupting the meat industry with protein substitutes, from plant-based proteins to lab-grown meats. Both of these dominant pathways, proposing industrialization, commodity crops and concentration as the way forward, have attracted billions of dollars in investments.

The “restoration” pathway is a radical departure from modern food production. It promotes ecological and social health through a focus on soil health, a farming system called regenerative agriculture.

It has received the least media attention of the three, still slow to catch on 13 years after Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma introduced mainstream Americans to the concept. One-third of Americans may know about Meatless Monday, but less than a quarter of the population has heard of regenerative agriculture, according to the 2019 Food and Health Report.

That is beginning to change.

The “eat less meat” effort focuses on decreasing the demand for animal protein, based on the assumption that all meat is the same. “When it comes to resource use and environmental impacts,” WRI’s website states, “the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more than how that food is produced.”

But the organic community, which has insisted for years that production practices matter, is finding its voice. That chorus is chanting: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Livestock’s Carbon Footprint

In her work for Grass Nomads, Greenwood grazes animals using methods that stimulate plant growth, increase biodiversity, improve the water cycle, restore the soil, and store carbon, all while producing food on marginal lands that can’t be used for growing other food crops. It’s a system broadly known as holistic management.

“I’m part of a growing group of people who have committed our lives to restoring the health of environments directly, through exquisitely precise grazing on sensitive land, and who depend on the support of our communities to do this work,” she wrote, in a 2018 article for Civil Eats.

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Photo: 6381380 / iS
One-third of Americans may know about Meatless Monday, but less than a quarter of the population has heard the term “regenerative agriculture”

One obstacle to wider acceptance of restoration is the persistent belief that cows are bigger climate culprits than cars.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality scientist from the University of California Davis, combats this myth on the lecture circuit and on Twitter from the handle @GHGguru. In a recent article titled “Yes, eating meat affects the environment, but cows are not killing the climate,” Mitloehner identified the source of the misunderstanding—a 2006 United Nations (UN) report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which found that global animal agriculture, mostly cattle, contributes more GHG emissions than all the automobiles, trucks and planes in the world. Although the authors later retracted the comparison, it has stuck.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that agriculture contributes 9 percent total U.S. GHG emissions, with a significant share from emitted by cattle, who belch up methane as part of their digestive process. Transportation in the U.S., by comparison, contributes 29 percent. Mitloehner testified to Congress in May that the direct contribution from livestock is even lower, at 3.9 percent. But neither figure supports the 14.5 percent figure from the U.N. report.

“That is dangerous, in my opinion, because it is clearly fossil fuel use in the U.S. and globally that is the number one cause of greenhouse gases,” Mitloehner says. Methane from ruminant livestock, a greenhouse gas profoundly misunderstood by the public, is not the major driver of global warming—yet the current obsession over meat lulls people into thinking that if they just give up red meat, they can drive and fly with a clear conscience.

Or that we can eat our way out of climate change. “You can’t say eat less meat, period,” says Gunther, a small-scale farmer based in Oregon in addition to his work for A Greener World. “Eat a balanced diet that is nutritionally appropriate from systems that don’t use fossil fuel fertilizers.”

Many critics of reduced consumption messaging confirm that there are good reasons for “high-carbon individuals” to consume fewer animal products in order to share the world’s fixed supply of natural resources without increasing the demand on the global meat supply. But according to Mitloehner’s calculations, if everyone in America skipped meat once a week, it would reduce total GHG emissions by only .5 percent. Even if it’s a worthy notion on social justice principles, it’s not the single solution to the climate crisis.

Yet regenerative agriculture could be, according to farming organizations worldwide, including The Sustainable Food Trust. On July 4th, while Americans celebrated with hotdogs and hamburgers, Nicolette Hahn Niman attended “Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions,” a Sustainable Food Trust conference hosted on a farm in the United Kingdom. The group’s mission is “to accelerate the transition toward more sustainable food and farming systems.”

The author of Defending Beef, Niman champions the role of livestock to draw down carbon emissions and store them in healthy soils, called carbon sinks. “Farmers and ranchers are indispensable allies in the fight against climate change,” Niman says. “In fact, they may be our most important allies, so making them feel under siege is wildly counterproductive.”

Farmers like Greenwood, who manage their animal operations holistically, are potential agents of change, hoping to recruit more of America’s ranchers to the carbon cause.

“I’m seeing a growing trend of landowners valuing highly-skilled grazing as they face fires or erratic flood and drought cycles that characterize poorly-managed landscapes,” says Greenwood. “This work has “Green New Deal” written all over it.”

 

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