[permaculture] Save the Planet: Eat More Beef* By LISA ABEND Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 Time Magazine

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Mon Jan 18 10:05:18 EST 2010


Save the Planet: Eat More Beef*
By LISA ABEND Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 Time Magazine
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1953692,00.html

Cattle on this Hardwick, Mass., farm grow not on feedlots but in 
pastures, where their grazing helps keep carbon dioxide in the ground.


On a farm in coastal Maine, a barn is going up. Right now it's little 
more than a concrete slab and some wooden beams, but when it's 
finished, the barn will provide winter shelter for up to six cows and 
a few head of sheep. None of this would be remarkable if it weren't 
for the fact that the people building the barn are two of the most 
highly regarded organic-vegetable farmers in the country: Eliot 
Coleman wrote the bible of organic farming, The New Organic Grower, 
and Barbara Damrosch is the Washington Post's gardening columnist. At 
a time when a growing number of environmental activists are calling 
for an end to eating meat, this veggie-centric power couple is 
beginning to raise it. "Why?" asks Coleman, tromping through the mud 
on his way toward a greenhouse bursting with December turnips. 
"Because I care about the fate of the planet."

Ever since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a 2006 
report that attributed 18% of the world's man-made greenhouse-gas 
emissions to livestock - more, the report noted, than what's produced 
by transportation - livestock has taken an increasingly hard rap. At 
first, it was just vegetarian groups that used the U.N.'s findings as 
evidence for the superiority of an all-plant diet. But since then, a 
broader range of environmentalists has taken up the cause. At a 
recent European Parliament hearing titled "Global Warming and Food 
Policy: Less Meat=Less Heat," Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the 
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued that reducing meat 
consumption is a "simple, effective and short-term delivery measure 
in which everybody could contribute" to emissions reductions.

And of all the animals that humans eat, none are held more 
responsible for climate change than the ones that moo. Cows not only 
consume more energy-intensive feed than other livestock; they also 
produce more methane - a powerful greenhouse gas - than other animals 
do. "If your primary concern is to curb emissions, you shouldn't be 
eating beef," says Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist at 
Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., noting that cows produce 13 to 
30 lb. of carbon dioxide per pound of meat.

So how can Coleman and Damrosch believe that adding livestock to 
their farm will help the planet? Cattleman Ridge Shinn has the 
answer. On a wintry Saturday at his farm in Hardwick, Mass., he is 
out in his pastures encouraging a herd of plump Devon cows to move to 
a grassy new paddock. Over the course of a year, his 100 cattle will 
rotate across 175 acres four or five times. "Conventional cattle 
raising is like mining," he says. "It's unsustainable, because you're 
just taking without putting anything back. But when you rotate cattle 
on grass, you change the equation. You put back more than you take."
(See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2009.)t works like this: 
grass is a perennial. Rotate cattle and other ruminants across 
pastures full of it, and the animals' grazing will cut the blades - 
which spurs new growth - while their trampling helps work manure and 
other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich 
humus. The plant's roots also help maintain soil health by retaining 
water and microbes. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground 
and out of the atmosphere.
Compare that with the estimated 99% of U.S. beef cattle that live out 
their last months on feedlots, where they are stuffed with corn and 
soybeans. In the past few decades, the growth of these concentrated 
animal-feeding operations has resulted in millions of acres of 
grassland being abandoned or converted - along with vast swaths of 
forest - into profitable cropland for livestock feed. "Much of the 
carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed the 
animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, 
transportation," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's 
Dilemma. "Grass-fed beef has a much lighter carbon footprint." 
Indeed, although grass-fed cattle may produce more methane than 
conventional ones (high-fiber plants are harder to digest than 
cereals, as anyone who has felt the gastric effects of eating 
broccoli or cabbage can attest), their net emissions are lower 
because they help the soil sequester carbon.

 From Vermont, where veal and dairy farmer Abe Collins is developing 
software designed to help farmers foster carbon-rich topsoil quickly, 
to Denmark, where Thomas Harttung's Aarstiderne farm grazes 150 head 
of cattle, a vanguard of small farmers are trying to get the word out 
about how much more eco-friendly they are than factory farming. "If 
you suspend a cow in the air with buckets of grain, then it's a bad 
guy," Harttung explains. "But if you put it where it belongs - on 
grass - that cow becomes not just carbon-neutral but 
carbon-negative." Collins goes even further. "With proper management, 
pastoralists, ranchers and farmers could achieve a 2% increase in 
soil-carbon levels on existing agricultural, grazing and desert lands 
over the next two decades," he estimates. Some researchers 
hypothesize that just a 1% increase (over, admittedly, vast acreages) 
could be enough to capture the total equivalent of the world's 
greenhouse-gas emissions.

This math works out in part because farmers like Shinn don't use 
fertilizers or pesticides to maintain their pastures and need no 
energy to produce what their animals eat other than what they get 
free from the sun. Furthermore, pasturing frequently uses land that 
would otherwise be unproductive. "I'd like to see someone try to 
raise soybeans here," he says, gesturing toward the rocky, sloping 
fields around him.
By many standards, pastured beef is healthier. That's certainly the 
case for the animals involved; grass feeding obviates the antibiotics 
that feedlots are forced to administer in order to prevent the 
acidosis that occurs when cows are fed grain. But it also appears to 
be true for people who eat cows. Compared with conventional beef, 
grass-fed is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3s, the 
heart-healthy fatty acids found in salmon.

But not everyone is sold on its superiority. In addition to citing 
grass-fed meat's higher price tag - Shinn's ground beef ends up 
retailing for about $7 a pound, more than twice the price of 
conventional beef - feedlot producers say that only through their 
economies of scale can the industry produce enough meat to satisfy 
demand, especially for a growing population. These critics note that 
because grass is less caloric than grain, it takes two to three years 
to get a pastured cow to slaughter weight, whereas a feedlot animal 
requires only 14 months. "Not only does it take fewer animals on a 
feedlot to produce the same amount of meat," says Tamara Thies, chief 
environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association 
(which contests the U.N.'s 18% figure), "but because they grow so 
quickly, they have less chance to produce greenhouse gases."

To Allan Savory, the economies-of-scale mentality ignores the role 
that grass-fed herbivores can play in fighting climate change. A 
former wildlife conservationist in Zimbabwe, Savory once blamed 
overgrazing for desertification. "I was prepared to shoot every 
bloody rancher in the country," he recalls. But through rotational 
grazing of large herds of ruminants, he found he could reverse land 
degradation, turning dead soil into thriving grassland.

Like him, Coleman now scoffs at the environmentalist vogue for 
vilifying meat eating. "The idea that giving up meat is the solution 
for the world's ills is ridiculous," he says at his Maine farm. "A 
vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in 
Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO[subscript 2] than I am." A 
lifetime raising vegetables year-round has taught him to value the 
elegance of natural systems. Once he and Damrosch have brought in 
their livestock, they'll "be able to use the manure to feed the 
plants, and the plant waste to feed the animals," he says. "And even 
though we can't eat the grass, we'll be turning it into something we 
can."
*Grass feeding required Cattle on this Hardwick, Mass., farm grow not 
on feedlots but in pastures, where their grazing helps keep carbon 
dioxide in the ground


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