Like us, you've probably seen the range of articles in the media and online about how eating meat is destroying the planet because of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the grazing animals (particularly cattle and sheep).
And while we cannot deny that the current industrialised meat production system (with its feed lots, high inputs, extractive farming, and externalise any environmental impact mentality) is having a serious negative impact on our planet, that doesn't go to say that all meat production systems are the same.
In fact, we believe that eating meat that is produced in the right way can actively contribute to the reversal of climate change, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. And the "right way" means producing animals that are grazed on dense perennial pastures rather than those fed on industrially cropped grain or annual pastures.
The equation is simple:
a) we need to stop pumping carbon from the earth's crust into the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses, and
b) we need to actively remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
The first part of that equation means implementing management practices that remove the need to spray, plough, sow, and fertilise - thereby reducing the use of fossil fuels. The implication of managing towards a dense perennial pasture is that there is no need to undertake those mechanised activities, as perennial plants live for many years and do not require the annual resowing cycle. And whilst ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats) do produce methane as part of the process of digestion, that is part of a shorter carbon cycle, and much of that methane can be absorbed back into the soil if it is generated as part of grazing in a dense pasture (see: A bum steer about Methane!).
There is no other tool that can both restore and sustain healthy grasslands...Allan Savory - talking about the use of livestock impact
The second part of that equation means implementing management practices that actively promote the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into carbon in the soil. The farmers who are managing for a dense perennial pasture are doing this through the skilled use of grazing animals, where animal movement is timed to maximise plant growth (leading to storage of CO2 in the soil). The cattle chomp and crush the pasture during grazing, which creates the ideal paddock scale composting conditions. The plants are then allowed full time to recover before they are grazed again, leading to the continual ground cover and an increase in the diversity of the pastures over time (all without mechanical intervention).
Management towards a dense perennial pasture system also has signficant benefits in terms of the utilisation of water and the creation of a cooler local climate. Perennial grasslands, with their higher levels of soil organic carbon (SOC), have a much higher capacity to store water. That means that when it rains, more water is stored in the soil which can then be used to extend the growing cycle of the grasses without requiring more rain. Further, the stored moisture contributes to the small water cycle which then influences the local climate (see: Cam Wilson - Earth Integral: great summary of the small water cycle)
It is important to understand that not all grass-fed management systems are the same. Grazing management systems based on annual pastures lack many of the environmental outcomes that we describe above. Here's our view of the comparison.
Soil processes, including acidification, erosion, and loss of soil carbon, will increasingly affect Australia's agriculture unless they are carefully managed.The Australian State of the Environment Report, 2011
So why run animals at all (why not just turn vegetarian and leave the landscape to regenerate on its own)? The problem is one of time - we have an urgent need to reverse the impacts of climate change, and leaving nature to perform that recovery will not do the job quick enough to avert the disaster for future generations. We cannot escape the fact that the impact of industrialised farming on the landscape has been significant, and as such needs active management to reverse the decades of extractive farming.
And if we don't eat meat, then we need to supply those calories elsewhere. Sourcing the calories from non-animal based sources then applies further pressure to other forms of agriculture, many of which have poor environmental outcomes due to their impact on the landscape or their dependence on industrialised (fossil fuel) heavy processes.
So it all comes down to a question of balance. At My Farm Shop, we advocate for suitable land use, with animals being grazed on land that is not suitable for growing crops or other human food products. And we should use those animals to actively restore the landscape as a carbon sink to help with the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.