Organic cows: better for the planet
Organic meat and milk provide us with 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than equivalent conventionally produced products. Those are findings of a recent study done at Newcastle University. All very well, you may think, but aren’t we all supposed to go vegetarian to save the planet? The problem is that not all meat and dairy is created equal. If the meat you eat and the dairy products you consume come from grass fed cattle you actually help save the planet. That’s because grazing cattle play an important role for environmental stewardship and the mitigation of climate change. Let me explain.
I want to be very clear: I am talking about grazing animals, cattle and sheep, which spend all year (or at least the larger part of it) foraging on grassland. And my apologies if this will get a bit technical, but understanding the importance of grass fed beef and dairy cattle means looking at the whole cycle: from soil to grass to cattle to climate and back to the soil. One of the three greenhouse gases (GHG) that causes climate change is CO2. We produce most of it through burning fossil fuels for energy. Agriculture, too, causes CO2 emissions by releasing carbon from the soil through practices like ploughing. But agriculture, in particular organic agriculture, can also offset CO2 emissions by sequestering carbon, which means fixing it in the soil. A 2009 Soil Association report* found ‘a soil carbon sequestration rate of about 560kgC/year for each hectare of cultivated land converted to organic farming in the UK, for at least the next twenty years.’
Grassland has the largest potential to sequester carbon and the great news is that the process continues indefinitely: as the plants interact through their roots with soil organisms, the layer of top soil very slowly increases, fixing carbon on a continuous basis.
But why do we need cattle, you may ask, and aren’t they contributing to climate change by belching and farting a lot?** ‘The plants and microorganisms of grassland vegetation co-evolved with animals not just to tolerate, but to actually need grazing’, says Nicolette Hahn Niman in her book ‘Defending Beef’. And here is why: ‘Livestock will nibble plants just enough to stimulate plant and root growth, trample the ground in a way that breaks apart caked earth to allow dormant seeds to germinate and water to seep in, and leave dung and urine to fertilize the soil with organic matter (aka carbon). The result is a wide variety of grasses and other deep-rooted plants and rich, aerated soil that acts like a great big sponge so as to minimize runoff and erosion’, says Judith D. Schwartz***.
Or put another way: Are you listening to The Archers? Remember those herbal leys Adam has been banging on about? He introduced them as part of a rotational system on a field that had very poor topsoil after last year’s flood. Because herbal leys can be grazed they are not just an environmental measure, they also make some money for the farm. Herbal leys have such a beneficial impact on soil quality that even Brian Aldrige and the BL board are convinced it’s a good idea ...
‘But how will we feed nine billion people?’ is another argument that comes up in every debate about meat. Cattle are part of the solution. Only ruminants are able to transform grass into food for us – dairy and meat. (Yes, meat, only the females, i.e. cows give milk. Not eating the boys once they are big enough and had a good life on a pasture to me is food waste.) The point here is that there are lots of ‘marginal grasslands’ which cannot be used for anything but grazing cattle. From Wales via Cumbria to the Scottish Highlands, there are many upland areas in Britain unsuitable for growing crops - but with good management (that is grazed by the right number of cattle for the right amount of time) grasslands will thrive. The soil will be able to hold huge amounts of water and provide flood protection for lower lying areas. And when farmers are able to make a living by selling milk and meat from their grass-fed animals, you’ve got a perfect cycle of sustainability: good for the soil, good for the environment, cattle with a good life, producing healthy food for us.
* Soil Carbon and Organic Farming: http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=SSnOCMoqrXs%3D&tabid=387
** Yes, they do produce methane, but with minor dietary changes the amount can be reduced by a factor of six. See page 15: Nicolette Hahn Niman: Defending Beef. The case for sustainable meat production. The manifesto of an environmental lawyer and vegetarian turned cattle rancher. Chelsea Green Publishing 2014
*** Judith D. Schwartz: Cows save the planet. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013