Ok yes, I did promise that this post would cover how to empower more farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture, however that post will have to wait a bit longer. In my last post, “The solution to climate change is in our soil,” I covered the incredible potential of regenerative agriculture. In that piece I touched briefly upon the important role that livestock play in regenerative agriculture. I have since realized that this is a topic that remains wildly misunderstood by most of the general public. Incorporating “ruminants” or cows into farming is a key part of regenerative agriculture and thus it merits covering it in detail.
Cows have been unjustly vilified:
The vegan movement has done a fantastic job illustrating the many things wrong with the beef industry in America today. Unfortunately, however they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You see vegans are 100% correct that the majority of meat produced in America today is raised and processed in an unhealthy way, however that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to do it in a humane and healthy way. And it doesn’t mean that we should completely abandon the art of raising livestock for human consumption.
Red meat is bad for your health? As Americans we should be better practiced at believing what the “medical experts” tell us about our food. For the better part of 40 years the sugar lobby unscrupulously convinced us that “fats” were what was causing us to become fat. We have since learned that that was all just a gimmick to get us to buy more processed foods and consume more sugar, corn and grain products i.e. “processed foods”. Well congratulations US consumer you’ve been duped again. If you’re anything like me you’ve probably bought several pounds of Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat and patted yourself on the back for how you are saving the planet and improving your health… not so fast. As we will cover shortly, “plant-based” meat is not the environmental and health wonder we have been led to believe it is.
Cow farts… there is a pernicious rumor out there you’ve probably heard which is that cow farts are causing global warming. Critics of cows point to the vast amounts of methane that cows produce. Well, first of all, it doesn’t come via farts. The majority of cow-based methane emissions actually come via burps. And in some ways these critics are not wrong. Cows do belch a lot of methane. However, in a regenerative agriculture system where those cows drive additional soil carbon sequestration and higher water infiltration, the positive impact of the cows more than nets out the negative impact of the methane burps. After-all, the 30-60 million bison that used to roam the prairie likely did their fair share of belching and yet were effectively exterminated in the late 1800s long before climate change started to take off. If you’re going to be concerned about rising methane emissions, you may want to look more closely at the out of control methane leaks from fracking which are causing global methane emissions to hockey-stick. Meanwhile the size of the US cattle herd has actually decreased over the last 50 years.
Some important facts about cows and ruminants in general
Cows are members of a special animal family called “ruminants.” A ruminant is an animal with multiple chambers in its stomach. The rumen is the chamber that allows grass-like material to be regurgitated and digested again. It just means that the animal has a multi staged digestion process. In addition to cattle, ruminants include buffalo, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
Ruminants are key to soil health. When it comes to rich soils there is a saying that: all deep soils on the planet developed under herbivores. Look no further than the rich soils of the American Midwest where 30-60 million bison used to roam to see the impact of herbivores on soil health. And in fact academic research abounds on the role that ruminants play in building soil health.
Why are ruminants key to soil health? They:
Act as a natural fertilizer: When grazing, cows defecate and leave behind rich manure which helps to enrich the soil and increase its biodiversity;
Combat soil compaction: In the process of grazing the hooves of a cow break apart hard compacted soils allowing water and nutrients to enter;
Prevent erosion: soils covered in grazing residue and cow waste are less vulnerable to run-off and more likely to absorb water;
Prune the weeds: cows, unlike humans are not overly picky about what they eat and thus can do a great job preventing weed populations from getting out of control and in doing so it reduces the competition from non-native plants so that the native species can regenerate and coexist;
Prevent fire: without natural disturbance grasslands accumulate large amounts of dead, dried out plant material (thatch) which is highly susceptible to burning and over time will convert to shrubland. Regular rotational grazing by cows prevents the accumulation of thatch and helps to prevent wildfires;
Build stronger root systems and sequester more carbon: When they graze a plant down to several inches the plant can then start to grow quickly again and in doing so develop even deeper and stronger roots which leads to increased absorption of carbon in the soil.
So what is the gold standard for producing sustainable beef and regenerating soil?
Meet Allan Savory, the 85-year old Zimbabwe based farmer who pioneered a system for restoring the health of local ecosystems and raising cattle sustainably. Check out any of his Youtube videos where he strolls around the savanna barefoot and scoops up animal droppings to analyze their contents and you’ll know he’s authentic. Allan Savory has been restoring drought stricken lands in Zimbabwe to productive grazing grasslands for over 40 years. See below for a summary of his holistic planned grazing (also popularly referred to these days as “mob grazing”). What is so positively wonderful and simple about “mob grazing” is that it mimics natural systems that have worked for thousands of years. In the wild, herbivores typically cluster together in “mobs” in order to be less vulnerable to predators and when predators arrive they typically run away. That creates a grazing pattern where an area of grass is typically grazed aggressively for several hours to a day before a predator shows up and the herd relocates to somewhere else. The herd typically does not return to the site of the predator interaction for months or even years, which allows the land sufficient time to rest and the grass to regrow.
How come not cattle is raised this way?
Scientific Reductionism and the assembly line model of food production: As I covered in my most recent post, industrial agriculture seeks to produce food like a car or a computer: via a factory line. By such a logic it is far more efficient and cheap to line cows up in a feedlot which is directly adjacent to either the slaughterhouse or a train, to ensure they are slaughtered before they lose too much of their body weight and thus their value. Constantly monitoring the cows across large acreage and moving them multiple times a day requires additional labor and complexity that does not fit the factory model.
Meat packing oligopsony: As of 2019, 92% of the 33.1 million total cattle slaughtered in federally inspected plants were slaughtered in only 40 plants. To put that into further context those 33.1 million cattle came from 883,000 farms and ranches. 71% or 26.1 million of those cattle were fed steers and heifers of which 85% were purchased by just 4 firms! In other words the four largest meatpacking firms slaughter 85% of the nation’s fed steers and heifers and control 67% of all cattle in federally inspected plants. What this level of concentration means is that these meatpackers have complete and total control over the US cattle industry, which has allowed them to force a race to the bottom on price with little to no regard for negative externalities like human health, animal health or environmental health. (credit to Bill Bullard of R-CALF whose research on this subject I am referencing heavily) (note: the term “fed” above refers to an animal that is fed in a feedlot prior to slaughter - we will discuss this further later on in this post)
‘Plant-based’ meat is not the environmental and health wonder you have been led to think it is.
I had an elaborate plan of how to articulate this but honestly Mark Sisson just summed it up perfectly. Yes, when you eat vegan, you do not directly contribute to the death of animals, however indirectly you most certainly do, and on a massive scale. And the problems inherent in a vegan diet are much the same as when consuming plant-based meat.
“Whole grain” and “organic” are terms which are increasingly being co-opted by big agribusiness. If you’re like me you're a total sucker for terms like these when buying at the grocery store. Heck I still buy “organic”, despite knowing what I’m about to tell you. 10+ years ago these labels meant what you thought they meant - that the food came from the kind of small, sustainable farm that didn’t use artificial pesticides and herbicides to make the food and didn’t crowd animals in like low-income housing. Unfortunately over the last 10 years big agribusiness has corrupted the “organic” movement to the point where The Organic Materials Review Institute has admitted that there are over 900 genetic substances including over two dozen synthetic ones which have been approved for use in foods labeled “organic”.
In the US today, a vegan diet and “plant-based” meat today both rely upon industrial agriculture. A quick visit to the ingredient websites for BeyondMeat and Impossible Foods shows that amongst other things they rely upon peas, canola oil, soy products and potato. None of which do they claim to source from regenerative growing operations. What this means is that the ingredients in the below image are likely in their foods. And these ingredients are not only bad for your health but are also used to kill off small animals and insects which could interfere with the productivity of these row crops. When raising grass-fed beef there is no need to kill small animals and insects; the cows are not threatened by them. Furthermore, when harvesting row crops with a combine just ask a farmer how many small animals perish.
The way most beef is produced in the US today is flawed.
The majority of cows in the US spend the last 6 months of their lives in a crowded feedlot where they have very little room to move and are fed a cocktail of steroids, antibiotics and GMO grown corn and soybeans. This is nothing like how cows are naturally supposed to exist:
Wrong diet: cows are called ruminants because they literally evolved over millions of years to have four stomachs. The first stomach is called a “rumen” from which they regurgitate cud and chew it again. Cows are meant to chew on grass, not corn and soy. Unfortunately over the last 100 years big agribusiness has seen that cows can also eat mass produced hay, corn and soy or “feed” and that when they do they become fatter and tastier to the US consumer.
Antibiotic dependent: naturally cows are supposed to roam around and chew on grass, however when packed in closely to their neighbors and their feces they develop a higher propensity to get sick and contract diseases. Furthermore the over-reliance on corn concentrated feed can lead to issues like gut acidosis. In order to combat their lack of diversity in diet and pasture the cows must be fed antibiotics to ward off disease.
Hormone fed: In order to fatten up the cow before slaughter they are often injected with a dose of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This is done to increase the weight of the cow and thus increase the revenue per animal.
Why should you care? You are what you eat. When you consume animals that have been raised with antibiotics and hormones you inevitably will consume small trace amounts of those antibiotics and hormones. In other words you are micro-dosing yourself with those same drugs.
How did we get here?
For a longer version I highly recommend reading Mark Bitman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal or watching the great documentary Sacred Cow, however the TLDR version of why beef is raised this way is due to the aforementioned oligopoly of the meat processing companies. “Meat processing” (AKA slaughtering to harvest meat) is a very labor intensive and costly process. It is also a highly regulated process (and rightly so to make sure that we don’t get sick from the meat that is processed). In a desire to drive down costs, because US consumers have been conditioned to paying very little for food, over time we have found that it is cheapest to co-locate the feeding of the animals with where they are slaughtered. Why is this? Because a cow in transit from a ranch to a “locker” (another name for a slaughterhouse) loses on average 1% of its body weight per hour. What that means is that for every hour spent in transit to a slaughterhouse the potential revenue to be earned from that cow drops by 1%. The easiest solution to this: feed the cows in the same place where they are slaughtered (or at least as close as possible).
The quick solution? Stop making new stuff up
Feedlot finished beef = bad. Mass producing row crops to create “plant-based meat” = bad. The easy answer: go back to how we used to do it hundreds of years ago. Grass-fed beef using mob grazing - or exactly what would happen in nature if humans were not dictating the rules.
The more detailed solutions:
Eat local: we need to return to a mode of eating where more people know where their food came from. While I am not telling you to never eat meat from a foreign country or a far off state, I want to encourage you to eat more meat from the farms nearby or at least in this country. In doing so you support small local farms and exercise more control over how your beef is produced. That’s one of the many reasons I support organizations like R-CALF which are pushing for the re-introduction of Country of Origin Labeling. Did you know that 75% of grass-fed beef consumed in America today is imported?
Restore competition to the beef markets: as discussed earlier, the excess market share of the four largest beef processing companies is distorting these markets. However there is good news on this front. There is bipartisan, yes I said it, bipartisan support for legislation to improve the price transparency in the beef markets. Several weeks ago Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced a bipartisan bill which would require a minimum of 50 percent of a meat packer’s weekly volume of beef slaughter to be purchased on the open (spot) market. This would allow for a true competitive market which would ensure cattle ranchers are paid a more competitive (higher) price and allow smaller meat processing companies to compete with the big four.
Buy direct-to-consumer grass-fed beef: Companies like Butcher’s Box or individual producers like Stemple Creek Ranch allow you to buy direct from ranchers who practice mob grazing and raise only grass-fed beef. In purchasing from companies like these you are directing a higher percent of your dollar to the person who actually raised the cow and in doing so enable them to raise their cattle in a way that regenerates the land instead of relying upon the feedlot model.
Support the creation of more small local meat processing facilities: the single biggest challenge that smaller ranches raising grass-fed beef face is access to local meat processing centers. The hyper concentration of the meat processing market means that small producers have to drive upwards of 4 hours on average to slaughter their animals and can often not obtain slots at the large processing facilities because they do not have enough volume to compete with the big players. Organizations like the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network are doing terrific work to support small, local meat processors.
What role does technology play in all this?
The hard part about figuring out how (and if) scalable technology fits into this ecosystem is that some might say that it is technology that got us here in the first place, not only in terms of producing unhealthy food and environmental degradation but also by forcing a lot of small farms out of business. As a technologist at heart, I remain convinced that there must be a way to support farmers who wish to create 'pure' food without harming the ecosystem. If you know someone who is doing something today, I'd love to hear from them! Or if you have an idea for how technology might help, rather than exacerbate the current challenges I've outlined in this post, get in touch. We can change the world, one conversation at a time.
A more complicated and nuanced solution: support black and indigenous farmers
This is admittedly an area I am only just starting to appreciate. It warrants a post in its own right, but it feels wrong not to at least mention it as part of this discussion. From all my research to date, it is pretty clear that the story of agricultural concentration in America is one of black and indigenous farmers being forced off their land over the last several hundred years. The “regenerative” agriculture practices that I am advocating for here are not new. They were developed and practiced for thousands of years by indigenous peoples who remain some of the most knowledgeable and capable stewards of sustainable land management we have.
The more I learn about the challenges we face in moving away from conventional agriculture to regenerative agriculture, the more I am coming to appreciate the wise words of the great American writer Wendell Berry, who wrote “our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, so neither can be better than the other."
Berry’s brilliant insight here is that the way we treat our land is a reflection of our culture and vice versa. For more on this topic I’d highly encourage you to follow the writing of Chris Newman who has really opened my eyes.