Is the Grass(-fed Beef) Greener on the Other Side?

When you look at the metrics and methane, not really.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Natalie Soler

As our population continues to grow, the state of industrial animal agriculture draws in more criticism. In a system plagued with health, environmental, and ethical violations, concerns have arisen surrounding this issue. Holistic grazing is one of several alternative methods of animal husbandry proposed as a solution.

Holistic grazing is a form of regenerative agriculture that involves moving cattle across different plots of land throughout the year. This system eliminates some of the concerns associated with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as cattle are allowed to consume their natural diet of grass, and pastures can be less disruptive to natural habitats than CAFO facilities.

Consumers often consider grass-fed beef to be of higher quality than conventional grain-fed beef because of grass being a natural source of feed. In addition, many believe that pastures are better for the environment than CAFOs. In CAFOs, livestock are confined indoors in highly crowded and unhygienic conditions in order to minimize production costs. This reality means that it is no surprise grassy hills can conjure up an image of environmental harmony, especially considering that these large livestock warehouses currently contain 70.4 percent of American cattle. But are such assumptions necessarily justified?

Holistic grazing mimics the natural grazing patterns of cattle and allows them to consume a diet their digestive systems are better suited for. When cattle are fed grain, they are at risk of developing liver abscesses (sites of inflammation). These abscesses can form from injuries or, more often, bacterial infections. Thus, antibiotics must be added to cattle grain feed in order to reduce the risk of infection, which in turn contributes to antibiotic resistance. In general, grass-fed cattle live longer and healthier lives than they would if confined to a CAFO.  

While the cattle grow healthier, so does the environment. When cattle graze, they cause forage plants—vegetation grazed by livestock—to release sugars through their root systems. These nutrients from plant roots feed soil microorganisms. The manure produced by cattle also contributes to soil health. Cattle manure may be incorporated into the soil by the movement of cattle hooves, promoting the recycling of important soil nutrients like nitrogen. By increasing the capacity for plants to photosynthesize, this form of raising cattle aids in soil carbon sequestration. This means that more carbon from the atmosphere is captured in the soil, preventing it from contributing to damaging greenhouse effects.

However, holistic grazing has only been implemented on a small scale, and it will likely remain this way. A 2018 study found that U.S. pastureland is only capable of supporting holistic grazing for 27 percent of all the cattle currently raised for beef production. This means that in order to completely shift from a system of windowless buildings to open pastures, more natural habitats in the U.S. and other nations would need to be destroyed for cattle production. Already 80 percent of deforested land in the Amazon Rainforest is used for cattle pastures. 

When compared to grain-fed cattle, grass-fed cattle also produce more methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon. This is because grass is higher in cellulose (a part of plant cell walls) than grain is. Cattle are ruminant animals, meaning that they have four-chambered stomachs with microorganisms capable of digesting cellulose. Part of their digestive process, enteric fermentation, involves the breakdown of cellulose into volatile fatty acids that can be used by the cattle. This digestion results in the formation of hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide, and acetate, which react to create methane and carbon dioxide. These gasses are then expelled by cattle through belching and flatulation, entering our atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse gas effect. In 2018, enteric fermentation comprised 28 percent of U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions.

Though holistic grazing has the potential to benefit biodiversity and soil health, it is unfeasible to implement this alternative system on a scale capable of supporting current U.S. beef demands. Efforts to transition to less intensive forms of animal rearing should still be made, but they need to be accompanied by a significant shift to reduce our appetite for beef. So, while holistic grazing might not be widely implemented anytime soon, we can work on reducing demand by promoting vegetarianism and expanding the plant-based meat industry. If we continue to work toward reducing America’s appetite for beef, a greener future awaits.