Grasslands and herbivores co-evolved as part of a perennial diverse ecosystem, supporting vast numbers of wildlife: from tiny micro-organisms to beetles, insects, birds and small and large mammals. The role of the large herbivore was to fertilise the ground with manure and urine, allow seeds to germinate by cutting divots in the ground that exposed the earth, and stimulate re-growth of the plants they grazed.
Fossil records show us that at the same time as ruminant livestock evolved there was also an explosion of a group of plants that could withstand hard grazing: grasses. They are packed with fibre, which makes them unpalatable to many other animals. Grasses swept the earth at the same time as ruminants.
Unlike trees, that store biomass (carbon) as they grow larger, vegetation like grasses, forbs, herbs and the like need to be grazed. Grazing stimulates re-growth and root growth and sequesters carbon below ground.
Vast herds of roaming wildebeest!
If left ungrazed, grasses quickly grow, flower, set seed and then senesce. But by being periodically grazed by vast herds of constantly moving herbivores, grass is repeatedly pushed back into its main growth phase.
During this growth phase, when grass produces lots of leaves in order to capture sunlight, carbon - in the form of CO2 - is taken from the air. The plant doesn't only use the carbon for its own physical growth. Up to 30% is used to synthesise simple sugars, which are then transported below ground and exuded through the roots to feed symbiotic soil micro-organisms, like bacteria and fungi.
The quid pro quo is that, in return, through the soil food web, micro-organisms provide minerals and other nutrients back to the plant to help it grow in what’s called the ‘poop loop’.
What’s all this got to do with guilt-free beef?
Well, as the plant grows, gets bitten down by a cow and grows again, it is repeatedly taking carbon from the air and sequestering it into the ground in the form of root growth and micro-organism growth. As roots and micro-organisms die, the carbon in them is safely stored in the ground, where it helps to build organic matter and feed the soil, along with manure and urine left by the cows. Each time a herd of cattle (wildebeest, buffalo or any other large roaming herbivore) passes through, they are stimulating carbon sequestration, building soil organic matter and regenerating pastures.
Grazing cattle enhance the natural carbon cycle
The grass-feeding process participates in and enhances the natural cycle of carbon and other nutrients. Cattle eating and digesting on pasture, where the consumption and regrowth of grass naturally captures carbon from the environment and returns it to the soil, produces guilt-free beef.
The reason I've italicised periodically and passes through is to emphasise that this process works best when grasses are grazed intensively for a short period of time – a few days – and then left for an extended period – several weeks or months – to re-grow as they would have for thousands of years. Today we can replicate that passing through by practicing mob-grazing.
Hang on a minute – don’t cows produce methane?
Ah yes, I was wondering if you might ask that… Methane, that terrible greenhouse gas, the scourge of cattle farmers around the world! It’s been cited as the reason we should all become vegan to save the planet!
Methane has been an atmospheric gas for billions of years, long before ruminants evolved with their amazing ability to digest fibre through their gut full of methane-producing bacteria. Without the intervention of humans, Nature has always managed to find equilibrium and in this case, it was thanks to methanotrophic bacteria – bacteria that live on methane.
Aerobic methane-oxidising bacteria (methanotrophs) have the unique ability to grow on methane as their sole source of carbon and energy. They are ubiquitous in the environment and play a major role in removal from the biosphere of the greenhouse gas methane before it is released into the atmosphere.
There are many different sorts of methanotrophs. And I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that the grasslands of the world are home to the very sort of methanotrophic bacteria that digest the methane produced by the vast numbers of herbivores that co-evolved with those grasslands.
As a cow has her head down eating, or is laying down chewing the cud (most methane is breathed out), the methane is being oxidised by methanotrophs. Healthy soils sequester methane at rates equal to or greater than methane production by the cattle grazing them. This is neatly explained in this report on a study carried out by Sydney University.
Where things go badly wrong is when we try to improve on Nature by bringing cattle inside to grow faster by being fed grain.
Lorries vs bicycles
Nature’s methane sink solution is, however, sadly overlooked by some scientists searching for solutions to climate change. Cows have been studied in isolation: removed from the fields, placed in sterile labs, fed different sorts of feed and then had their emissions measured. In these conditions the emissions from a cow eating grass might be deemed more deadly than standing in the exhaust of one of London's Black Cabs!
And it is because of the results of emissions tests undertaken in unnatural and sterile labs that some scientists come to the conclusion that feeding grains to ruminants is better for the environment than feeding grass because the emissions are less and cattle fattened on grains live shorter lives.
However, what is not taken into account is the carbon footprint of growing, transporting, processing and, in some parts of the world, irrigating the grains. (Not to mention the clearing of rainforests to grow genetically-engineered soya now fed to almost all UK beef animals.) Nor the long-term environmental impact of ploughing fields with subsequent loss of topsoil, or the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides, including neonicotinoids (those chemicals implicated in the decimation of the world’s bee populations).
When all these environmental impacts are taken into account there is indeed a strong argument not to eat red meat from a conventional grain-fed system. Unfortunately, the media message lumps all beef into the same category, so that the ‘grass-fed beef’ baby is being thrown out with the ‘eating red meat is a major contributor to climate change’ bath water.
I heard recently the ‘wheeled vehicles’ analogy: where 'lorries' (grain-fed beef), 'cars' and 'bicycles' (100% grass-fed beef) are all put into one category, their carbon emissions measured as an average, and the conclusion drawn that all wheeled vehicles, including bicycles, are very damaging!
This may inspire you to only buy 'organic' beef from now on. The thing is, we may still be part of the problem even if we do. ‘Organic’ doesn't necessarily equate to environmentally friendly. 'Organic' beef production can still involve growing, harvesting, transporting and processing mono-culture crops; burning fossil fuels and allowing up to 40% of the diet of 'grass-fed' beef to be grains. It would fit in the ‘cars’ bracket of the above analogy.
100% grass-fed for life
So, far from banishing cattle to American-style feedlots or becoming vegan, what we really need to do to help reverse climate change is put all the cows out to grass, and feed them only grass, no grains. Cattle have evolved an elegant symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in their guts that enables them to turn the cellulose in grass that we can’t digest into highly nutritious meat that we can. At the same time, a beautiful symbiotic relationship with their natural environment means they can help to sequester carbon and build top soil while having their emissions neutralised by the methanotrophic bacteria all around them in the soil.
So if we really want to eat guilt-free beef, it must come from a farm where the cattle are:
- 100% grass-fed for life (no grains)
- grazed on organically managed diverse pastures
- ideally, raised using holistic planned grazing (mob-grazing)
Funnily enough, that’s exactly what we do here at Smiling Tree Farm. As a result, we only sell guilt-free beef that not only tastes great but has all the nutritional benefits of being raised this way.
As Wendell Berry famously said, “Eating inextricably influences agriculture”.
You have three votes (meals) a day. Your food choices directly support the farming methods and the industry that put the food on your plate. They influence not only your own health and wellbeing but that of the farm animals and the planet too.
Why not vote to eat less meat, but when you do, eat guilt-free meat.
NB: there are many inspirational pioneering farmers in the UK that are certified by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. This is the only UK organisation that guarantees meat is 100% grass-fed when labelled with the Pasture for Life logo.