One Promising Way Beef Can Be A Climate-Friendly Source Of Protein

Food & Drink

Climate conscious consumers who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their diet are frequently told that they should replace meat protein with plant-based alternatives. They are also often told to specifically avoid beef because cows can generate problematic greenhouse gas emissions in the form of burps containing “enteric methane.” There are two reasons why the answer isn’t that simple. The first is that cows and other ruminants have the unique ability to digest the cellulose in things like grass, hay or even almond hulls and other crop “side-streams”. Without the help of these animals, humans would have no way to access the vast amount of solar energy that plants have stored in those feedstuffs. We also wouldn’t be able to generate human food from the hundreds of millions of acres of prairies and grasslands that aren’t suitable for growing food crops, but which can function as pasture or grazing lands.

The other complexity to consider is that the climate impact of beef or milk production varies greatly based on the details of how the cattle are raised. Emissions of the greenhouse gas, methane from manure generated by dairy operations is increasingly being converted to clean energy using anaerobic digesters. The amount of “enteric methane” released in cow burps can be significantly reduced using certain feed additives.

For example a company called EcoBalance Global has recently completed a proof of concept project for a climate-friendly, “Regenerative” cattle grazing system that can be used to produce “carbon inset” beef. “Inset” in this context means that more carbon is sequestered in the soils of the pastures where the cattle are raised than is released as CO2 throughout the entire process of producing the beef. That amount of carbon removal is then directly associated with the beef itself rather than being sold to an unrelated industry as an “offset.” As announced earlier this year the Dairy Farmers of America coop was able to purchase a new category of “Carbon Inset” credits through a company called Athian. These are based on verifiable methane reductions dairy cattle. The beef cattle grazing-related inset is similar, but there will need to be a mechanism to ensure “permanence” so that some later use of the specific pasture land does not undo the carbon sequestration.

The grazing system they use imitates the natural prairie ecosystem that once supported the native population of wild Bison in North America. The details of this cattle grazing version are based on decades of solid public sector research and could potentially be adopted over a very large land area. Over the past three years, EcoBalance Global has raised over 900 head of cattle in North Dakota using the Soil Carbon Sequestration and Storage Framework. In the process they generated 4,364 carbon credits of the BCarbon registry. This project involved rigorous verification of the carbon storage benefit in order to make a legitimate claim for beef produced in this manner at a commercial scale.

For its initial product and branding launch, EcoBalance CEO Tellan Steffan is excited about partnering with an award winning luxury food and beverage chain in Dubai called Solutions Leisure Group in an arrangement via Hope Gourmet Foodstuff Trading. Solutions Leisure Group Partner and Culinary Director Robert Rathbone anticipates that their customers will feel good about their impact on the environment when ordering a meal that includes the premium EcoSmart beef.

Following a presentation at the COP28 meeting last year, EcoBalance Global connected with a partner and will now be embarking of a 100,000 acre venture implement this kind of beef production in Kazakhstan. Future expansion in other regions that are or were grassland ecosystems.

The Potential Based On Imitating Natural Systems

The reason that this regenerative or double-pass approach is promising is that it represents a grazing system for cows that closely imitates the beneficial function of wild herbivores like bison that were a key part of natural, prairie ecosystems such as those in the upper Midwest of the US.

There are 8.65 billion acres of grassland on the earth and 4.9 billion of those are used to graze livestock – an area 2.6 times as large as the total area of the continental US. Historically much of that land has been degraded because of either over-grazing or allowed to transition into a less desirable form of vegetation because of under-grazing. A natural prairie ecosystem involves a complex interrelationship between the plants, the organisms that live in the soil, and the “herbivores” (animals that can live on grass). For the mixed grass prairie ecosystem of a place like North Dakota the key animal was the American Bison – but beef cattle can fill that role.

The key for the animal management part of this system is to neither over-graze nor under-graze the land. Researchers such as Llewellyn Manske of North Dakota State University has refined a “two pass” protocol in which the cattle are allowed to eat the grass in each pasture or paddock at an interval determined by the growth stage of that vegetation. This is comparable to the way that wild bison grazed as they moved around to seek easier food sources. In an age of land ownership, fences and roads the rancher has to manage the times and places for the cattle to graze in different parcels throughout the season.

A More Detailed Description of This Grazing System

The following list of process elements is intended to describe the complex interactions involved in this process.

  1. The grasses capture solar energy and use that to grow more leaves and roots
  2. The cows eat some of the leaves and that stimulates the grasses to grow more densely by producing “tillers”
  3. The increased grass density helps it to out-compete shrubs and various “weedy” species
  4. The roots of the plants also provide energy for soil organisms
  5. Some of the soil organisms mobilize nutrients (P&K) and some fix nitrogen. These nutrients then support more plant growth
  6. The cattle thrive and ultimately produce food for people. They also cycle some of the nutrients back into the soil via their manure
  7. As the biomass in the soil from roots and microbes increases, some of the plant and microbial biomass is turned into long-term stable forms which help the soil to for “aggregates” so that it is better able to “breath” (aeration), to capture incoming rain or irrigation water, to hold on to some of that water and the mineral nutrients
  8. The stored biomass is thus sequestering carbon for the long-term in the soil as long as it remains undisturbed

This isn’t just something good in terms of net greenhouse gas emissions. This is how NDSU researcher Manske describes the benefits: “Increasing soil organic carbon in grassland soils improves soil health, enhances soil aggregation, increases water holding capacity, improves water availability, increases nutrient availability, improves nutrient cycling, and improves ecosystem resiliency to drought conditions. The increase in grass biomass production, reduces land area per cow/calf pair, increase animal weight gain per acre, and increases the capture of greater wealth per acre.”

The term that EcoBalance Global uses for their version of this system is “regenerative grazing” and their hope a verifiable consumer level label such as “Eco-Smart beef” could be developed to provide a more accurate and meaningful marketing terminology than terms like “grassfed” or “pasture raised.”

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