Can Meat Be a Sustainable Food Source?

Can Meat Be a Sustainable Food Source?

After a 2006 report found livestock to be a major climate change contributor, there’s been a global movement promoting vegetarian and vegan diets. When it comes to sustainability and health a lot of people are advocating fully plant-based diets as the best ticket to good health and one of the best ways to reduce your personal environmental impact. 

If you use industrialised farming as the yardstick a vegan diet is the best environmental choice to make, but I don’t feel that is the best option overall – here’s why. Terrible practices exist in the entire food production chain, not just with meat. Industrial farming is damaging to us and the overall health of our global ecosystem. 

Yes, most people are eating way too much meat and should focus on getting more than their 5 a day for good health rather than grabbing steak for dinner, but cutting meat out completely may not be the only sustainable food solution. Listening to nature and observing how ecosystems function is the starting point. We live in a world where everything is connected, nature is an ecosystem and grazing animals form part of that ecosystem.

The real issue with farming is the industrialised production process itself, not necessarily the meat or the vegetables. Mass farming is a process that is laced with chemicals, antibiotics and destructive processes, which can’t be sustainable for our health or the planet. 

Sustainable-Meat

As with most things, the solution is often so simple and economical that people struggle to accept it. There is a growing amount of research suggesting that meat can be produced sustainably through a process called regenerative organic farming. Yes, it will likely raise the price of meat, but following simple economics, it will force consumption down (which we desperately need) and if we concentrate on stopping food waste there will still be enough to go round.

How Can Livestock Help to Regenerate Soil and Reduce Carbon?

Regenerative farming is taking a conservation and regenerative approach to sustainable food production. It places emphasis on soil health and water management. Farmers work with nature to produce food sustainably, they don’t fight against it. 

With livestock it allows animals to graze on natural pastures which include not only grass but other plants and whatever grew in an area in the first place as, during the regeneration process, you’ll often see dormant seeds germinating when the land starts to rebuild with proper management. The animals are then rotated more frequently to graze the land, just like migrating herds would’ve done historically. Rotating animals often include chickens, pigs and other livestock to encourage foraging which reduces pests and promotes a healthy ecosystem. The land is then rested for a considerable amount of time before it is grazed again.

In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental-lawyer-turned-cattle-rancher, outlines in scientific detail how livestock has the potential to positively impact or even reverse some of the effects of climate change.

The principles outlined in the book are part of regenerative agriculture and could be a solution to mitigating climate change as cutting emissions alone is not enough, we need to minimise excess carbon in the atmosphere. It means moving livestock away from feedlots back to pastured grasslands.

Grazing animals help to pull excess carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil through a process called carbon sequestration. When plants are bitten off by grazing or browsing animals it accelerates photosynthesis within the plant. Every time this happens, carbon sequestration is increased.

A study done in 2019 found that pastured livestock offsets at least 100% of the farm’s grass-fed beef carbon emissions, which means that they sequestered more greenhouse gasses – including methane – than they produced. Regenerative grazing also means that cattle, chickens, pigs, goats and sheep all graze the same land while playing a different role in the ecosystem. This type of farming is also good support for pollinating insects, especially bees who are in massive trouble at the moment.

Regenerative farming holds other potentially important stories including the reduction of pesticides and nutrient run-off. It stops soil erosion, improves the water holding capacity of the soil, protects the purity of groundwater and sets up the conditions for crops to become more disease and pest resilient.

Success Stories from the Farmers Themselves

If you’d like to hear the stories from some of America’s pasture-based farmers you can watch the recent documentary series Soil Carbon Cowboys, which gives you a first-hand account of the benefits of regenerative farming. You can visit them at carboncowboys.org, I’ve also embedded their latest series playlist below.

Why is Regenerative Farming not Widely Adopted?

Traditional intensive farming consists of an extensive supply chain which involves animal feeds, medicine, pesticides etc. Regenerative farming will disrupt a very lucrative business model, which means there are corporations with financial assets to protect.

A regenerative model eliminates the need for fertilisers, pesticides and massively increases the animal’s resistance to disease, which will basically wipe out large parts of this overall supply chain. 

What is the Possible Down Side?

Even though regenerative farming is a possible answer, it should never replace existing wildlife or encroach on rain forests, that can not be a solution just like cutting down the forest to produce palm oil, coffee beans or cocoa beans etc, is not an acceptable practice.

Wild animals like the wild horses in the US and our natural rain forests should always be protected, so know where your food comes from. Yes, this could be easier said than done, but knowing your local area and actively working to protect wildlife is a starting point.

What Does This Mean for us as Consumers?

To live sustainably we don’t necessarily have to stop eating meat, we can definitely do with eating less meat especially beef as mentioned, but it’s not paramount to cut it out completely. I’m still an advocate of a real food diet made up of mainly plants as it provides essential vitamins and nutrients that help our bodies function better in the long run. 

While avoiding intensively farmed meat is a good thing, please remember meat substitutes can carry a big carbon footprint as well. The genetically modified soy used in many vegan meat substitute products is made from the exact same industrial monoculture crop grown for animal feed which is laced with pesticides and chemicals. Avoiding processed foods as a whole is a good idea no matter which dietary philosophy you follow.

We have put too much trust in big corporations and should pay more attention to supporting small operations. Cutting out supermarkets and going directly to the farmers who produce sustainable food is the best option we have at the moment, as many pasture-raised operations are now selling direct. It’s also the most sustainable option long term as it reduces the travel time of food to our plates, thereby cutting emissions. This could be easier said than done in a country like the UK and Ireland, which is small and often plagued with bad weather, so some imports from other countries will still be needed on occasion.

If you are interested in finding pasture-raised organic meat options. I’d suggest seeking out smaller farming operations that are more local, who produce foods sustainably. Many of these farms are completely transparent and welcome visitors who would like to see operations first hand. It’s important to know where our meat comes from, and there is no better way than buying local if this is possible. 

In the UK there is an increasing number of farmers that offer pasture-raised and organic options. I’ve never seen this in a supermarket personally, but a quick search online will point you in contact with a relatively local farm. You can look out for the pasture for life certification mark or visit www.pastureforlife.org for more information. 

In the USA and Canada please visit www.eatwild.com/products, who can help you locate pasture farms in your state or local area.

I believe regenerative farming is quite popular in Australia and a quick google search should point you in the right direction of finding a suitable producer.

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