The beef with regenerative grazing
When a burger craving hits, conscientious carnivores tend to choose grass-fed and -finished beef. Cattle raised in this way eat nothing but grass and forage for their entire lives. They reach slaughter weight later than grain-finished or feedlot cattle, living around 4 months longer on average. In addition, they are less likely to be fed the antibiotics, growth hormones, supplements, and other drugs common in crowded feedlots. Proponents of the grass-fed movement say that managed grazing is key to a healthy ecosystem and plays an important role in returning carbon to the soil.
But a recent statement from Impossible Foods, producer of the wildly popular plant-based Impossible Burger, challenged the idea that beef raised entirely on grass is better for the Earth. In its 2019 Impact Report, the company argues that grain-finished feedlot beef is actually more climate-friendly because it’s more efficient. Research shows that because grain-finished cattle reach slaughter weight more quickly than grass-fed cattle, they emit less of the potent greenhouse gas known as methane over their lifetimes. In addition, feedlot cattle require less land than grass-fed cattle; clearing land to graze cattle is a leading cause of deforestation.
“In most cases, industrial feedlot beef actually requires fewer natural resources and generates less greenhouse gas than does grass-fed beef,” Impossible Foods wrote. It added that regenerative grazing, a land management technique that uses grazing animals to improve the health of the soil and environment, is “the clean coal of beef.”
Advocates for regenerative grazing were not happy.
“I find it surprising that they are spending energy attempting to discredit regenerative agriculture,” said Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of the book, Defending the Beef, and a rancher. “It is still, at this point in time, a really small portion of agriculture.” Will Harris, a well-known regenerative rancher, told Civil Eats. “I think there were many mistruths in that attack.”
When asked to respond to whether there was any value or benefits to regenerative grazing as a climate solution, Impossible Foods declined to comment.
So what’s the beef with regenerative grazing? Is it an essential part of a sustainable food system, or not?
The MAN behind regenerative grazing
The man largely responsible for popularizing regenerative grazing is Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist. His 2013 TedTalk on the subject, “How to reverse desertification and fight climate change,” has been viewed more than six million times. Savory explains that managed grazing involves moving bunched herds of cattle, buffalo, or other grazing animals, from one area of forage to another.
As the animals work the soil with their hooves, stomp grass, fertilize it with manure and urine, and create mulch, they stimulate the growth of plants and beneficial soil organisms that draw down carbon dioxide. “Properly managed grazing, if applied on 25 percent of our crop and grasslands, would mitigate the entire carbon footprint of North American agriculture,” said Savory.
Researchers have tried to replicate his findings ever since. The most systematic of the investigations, conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona, closely mimicked his grazing pattern. But it found no evidence that “short-duration grazing” accelerates plant growth. “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity,” concluded the authors.
Savory himself has never tried to reproduce his results, a point shared in a Sierra Club post written two years ago by writer Christopher Ketchum. “I asked for statistical measurements of recovery on land that had been treated with his method,” Ketchum writes. “I wanted to know the metrics of the claimed increases in biodiversity and vegetation density; the number of grazers; the duration of the grazing; the time frame of recovery.” Instead, he received an informational sheet from Savory, which stated that “holistic management does not permit replication.”
Savory isn’t the only one to study the benefits regenerative grazing has for soil health. On a north Texas prairie, researchers found that when compared to conventional ranching operations, ranches making use of regenerative grazing can sequester three tons more carbon per hectare per year and had higher water- and nutrient-holding capacities.
At the University of Georgia, a study determined that converting land used for conventional row agriculture to regeneratively grazed grassland increased soil carbon in the topsoil by roughly 19 percent and water holding capacity by 34 percent. Another study in subtropical pasture in Florida found that microbial biomass carbon in non-grazed pasture land was half that of grazed plots.
Regenerative grazing didn’t hold up as well in a climate impact study by the Food Climate Research Network. In 2017, the group examined whether grazing animals can sequester carbon and, if so, to what extent this might compensate for the “significant” greenhouse gas emissions they emit during their longer lives on the range. The short answer, shared in Grazed and Confused: not much. “The contribution of grazing ruminants to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate,” concluded the authors.
Regenerative expert Tim LaSalle, cofounder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University, is among those who take issue with the conclusion. “Regenerative agriculture can capture all of our emissions when a robust biological approach is taken,” he says, “and includes not just farmed land, but multi-paddock grazing management as done by Earth stewards such as Will Harris.”
In short, it’s complicated.
The problem is our appetite for meat
Instead of considering the impact of regenerative grazing, say environmentalists, maybe we should be asking how sustainable our meat production system is overall. Cattle raised regeneratively supply a tiny percentage of the amount of beef consumed. Given it’s more land- and time-intensive than feedlot farming, it simply cannot meet the current demand for meat. Americans ate a record-breaking 222 pounds of meat per person last year, and international demand for it is growing exponentially.
“We shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking we could produce anywhere near the same amount of beef as we do today on such a system,” says Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat, and CEO of The Better Meat Co. “So, regardless whether you favor any kind of cattle grazing or not, the recommendation to simply eat less meat and more plant-based foods is sage advice."
That’s also the thrust of Impossible Food’s critique of regenerative grazing: there’s simply no way to feed the market with regenerative grazing without reducing our meat consumption—and switching to plant-based alternatives. “Recent research has demonstrated that less than a quarter of US beef demand could be met with grass-fed production,” states the report. “Regenerative grazing may beat industrial bovine strip mining on a couple of fronts, but it’s all still rooted in the same inefficiency of animal metabolism.”
By “inefficiency of animal metabolism,” Impossible Foods means that plant-based foods require many fewer resources to produce the same amount of calories. With the land we use to raise food for cattle and the cattle themselves, we could grow crops and feed many more people with plant-based foods. In fact, by replacing our beef production with a plant-based alternative, we could produce enough additional calories to feed 190 million more people, according to a study in IOPScience.
it’s better than factory farming
Good food advocates counsel against being distracted by discussions over just how sustainable regenerative grazing is. It’s better, they say, than the current factory feeding model, which is filthy, overcrowded, resource-intensive, and a public health hazard. Industrialized agriculture also emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide, methane, and the carbon dioxide.
“We are fans of Impossible Foods and other plant-based meat alternatives—and we’re also fans of farmers who are using improved practices,” Richard Waite, lead researcher with the World Resources Institute’s food program, told Civil Eats. “There is no silver bullet that’s going to allow us to feed lots of people sustainably. It’s going to require lots of changes from farm to fork.”
Making those farm to fork changes away from industrialized meat production could well include regenerative grazers and companies like Impossible Foods. “Plant-based meat innovators and farmers that practice regenerative agriculture would be wise to recognize that far from being enemies, they are natural allies and need one another in this shared fight against factory farming,” says Brian Kateman, cofounder of The Reducetarian Foundation. “Billions of animals and the fate of our planet depend on their cooperation.”
Tia Schwab is a former Stone Pier Press News Fellow from Austin, Texas.