If you are any sort of environmentally conscious, you’re probably aware that traditionally produced beef is terrible for the environment. The Environmental Working Group conducted a lifecycle assessment in 2011 declaring it to be the second most emission-intensive food behind lamb, and vegans use the sentiment as one of their main arguments for living an animal product free lifestyle. However, not all beef is created equal.
Pasture-raised beef is a method of beef production that, as the name suggests, lets cows graze openly on pasture land. The cows are only fed the grass they graze and occasional supplements. Concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFO’s, are where most beef is produced, and they’re a big, big, BIG producer of greenhouse gases (particularly methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon). These gases are emitted through the cows eating, passing gas, and defecating.
Pasture-raised cows initially emit more gases than those in a CAFO because eating grass causes them to pass more methane rich gas. However, unlike cows in a CAFO, pasture-raised cows have the potential to be greenhouse gas neutral because of a process called soil carbon sequestration. This is when soil pulls carbon from the atmosphere with the help of organic matter like plants and fungi. Pasture-raised cows enable and motivate this process by adding organic matter to the soil in the form of manure and urine, as well as through trampling the grasses. By motivating the process of soil carbon sequestration, cows enable more and more carbon to be pulled from the atmosphere, offsetting the emissions that they produce. Thus, they can emit zero greenhouse gas emissions. (Note: Yes, they are offsetting their predominately methane rich emissions by sequestering carbon, but they are still pulling global warming potential out of the air, which is the important thing to look at when considering emission levels)
Cows in a CAFO don’t enable soil carbon sequestration because of their habitat. They don’t graze, they eat corn and grain that is grown in the Midwest, and their manure and urine isn’t spread on pasture- it is thrown into piles for extended periods of time before being haphazardly thrown onto land.
While pasture-raised cows have to potential to be emissions free, it doesn’t always happen. Some scientists hypothesize that soil has a maximum capacity of how much carbon it can pull from the atmosphere and store. Thus, if a cow is grazed on land that is already at its soil carbon holding limit, they wouldn’t be contributing to any additional soil carbon sequestration, meaning they’re not offsetting any emissions.
Whether or not the pasture-raised system at hand offsets emissions, it is still a more holistically beneficial way of producing beef. Grazing cows has been proven to improve biodiversity, soil fertility, and when used in conjunction with growing crops, increased crop productivity. In addition, many people cite easting pasture-raised beef as being healthier than eating traditionally produced beef.
Overall, if you’re going to eat beef, choose pasture-raised. Unlike traditional beef, it has the potential to offset it’s emissions, and is part of a more holistically beneficial system that improves overall ecosystem health and wellness and provides a great source of fertilizer for crops in the form of manure.