By Dr. Mercola
Raising cows on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to produce beef is one of the most environmentally destructive practices on the planet. Unfortunately, while far healthier and environmentally friendly grass fed beef has the potential to solve many of the problems that CAFO meats have caused, CAFOs remain the primary method of livestock agriculture in the U.S. Rather than quickly phasing out their use to stave off environmental and public health decline, their use is actually growing.
From 2002 to 2012, the total number of livestock on the largest U.S. factory farms rose by 20 percent, according to data released by advocacy group Food & Water Watch, producing 369 million tons of manure —13 times the amount produced by the entire U.S. population.1 Further, livestock production contributes close to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions to the environment, which is more than the transportation industry.2
In a revealing investigation by The Guardian, using methodology created by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it’s noted, “The top 20 meat and dairy companies emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than all of Germany, Europe’s biggest climate polluter by far.
If these companies were a country, they would be the world’s seventh largest greenhouse gas emitter.”3 In stark contrast, switching to grass fed beef not only can cut greenhouse gas emissions but also offset them completely by helping to sequester carbon into the soil.
Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) Grazing Is Good for the Environment
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive. This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil’s fertility.
Adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing is a certain type of rotational grazing that allows cattle to graze in one paddock at a time, while other paddocks have a chance to grow and regenerate at an accelerated pace. It focuses on short periods of grazing in one area, then moving on to the next. According to Standard Soil, which is aiming to reinvent agriculture by growing better soil, “AMP grazing works because it actively regenerates soil by capturing more sunlight”:4
“Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing uses high livestock densities for short durations between long periods of forage rest to catalyze accelerated grass growth. The system is not scheduled or prescriptive, but moves the animals in response to how land and life respond. AMP grazing is thus highly observant and adaptive. The system mimics the natural pattern of dense herds of wild ruminants moved frequently by the forces of predation and food availability.
Scientific studies have documented the potential for AMP grazing methods to capture and hold material volumes of both carbon and water in improved soil, and thus simultaneously improve both quantity and quality of forage. We thus maximize sunlight capture throughout the year in reliable quantities of high quality plant biomass, and then monetize that forage via antibiotic and hormone-free beef raised on eating nothing but grass in open pastures.”
AMP Grazing Cuts Pollution
Grass fed beef produced using AMP grazing show great promise to cut pollution. Researchers from Michigan State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a life cycle analysis to compare AMP grazing with standard CAFO, or feedlot, systems in the upper Midwest. On-farm beef production and emissions data were combined with a four-year soil carbon analysis to reveal that AMP can sequester large amounts of soil carbon (C).
In fact, after including soil organic carbon and greenhouse gas emission (GHG) footprint estimates, emissions from the AMP system were reduced to a negative amount whereas feedlot emissions increased due to soil erosion. “This indicates that AMP grazing has the potential to offset GHG emissions through soil C sequestration, and therefore the finishing phase could be a net C sink,” the researchers wrote, adding, “Emissions from the grazing system were offset completely by soil C sequestration.”5
It makes perfect sense that Standard Soil states AMP grazing is so effective because it regenerates soil, as soil is an incredibly efficient carbon sink.
Elizabeth Candelario, managing director for Demeter, a global biodynamic farming certification agency, explained a French initiative called the 4 per 1,000 Initiative,6 which found that if we were to increase the carbon (the organic matter) in all agricultural land around the world by a mere 0.4 percent per year, the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere would be halted, because so much carbon would be drawn from the atmosphere. Sequestering carbon in the soil can help:
Regenerate the soil
Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
Increase crop yields7
Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time
Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
Why CAFOs Aren’t Necessary to Feed the World
Industrial agriculture is touted as the most efficient way to feed the world’s growing population, but this is a deceptive myth. More than half of the world’s calories (close to 60 percent) come from wheat, rice and corn, which is not only unhealthy but unsustainable.8 As noted by bioGraphic:9
“The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s introduced higher-yielding wheat and rice, hybrid maize, fertilizers and novel pesticides to farmers. The changes brought life-saving jumps in crop productivity, most profoundly in Asia. But globally, they drastically reduced the types of crops being grown.
Hundreds of edible species were marginalized in favor of a few calorie-rich grains. And within a few decades, agriculture had been transformed from a complex, diverse, regional enterprise to evermore simplified, industrial production.”
Unfortunately, as farmers increasingly plant mostly wheat, rice and corn (including for animal feed), more than 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has disappeared since the 1900s, “And that relentless march toward monoculture,” bioGraphic noted, “leaves the homogenous fields more vulnerable to devastation by drought, pests and disease.”10 Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), noted that ending the practice of grain-feeding animals could actually feed another 4 billion people.
He pointed to the U.N.’s FAO data, which found the crops harvested in 2014 could have fed more than 15 billion people, calorie-wise, which is double the world’s current population, had it not been largely wasted and funneled into animal feed.11 Writing for The Guardian, Juliette Majot, executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), and nonprofit organization Grain researcher Devlin Kuyek further asserted:12
“[T]he world’s largest meat and dairy companies … explain that their production is necessary for world food security, and that they should therefore be let off the hook, or better yet, get incentives for tinkering with their greenhouse gas emissions. This is not true. These companies produce a vast amount of highly subsidized meat and dairy in a handful of countries where these products are already overconsumed.
They then export their surpluses to the rest of the world, undercutting the millions of small farmers who actually do ensure food security and bombarding consumers with unhealthy processed foods …
They will say that the only way to effectively reduce emissions is by squeezing out ever more milk from each dairy cow or by bringing beef cattle to slaughter ever more quickly. Such ‘solutions’ would only compound the industry’s horrific treatment of workers and animals and exacerbate the environmental and health crises caused by the industry.”
Regenerative Practices Provide Economic Benefits for Entire Community
CAFOs are known to destroy communities, polluting waterways, creating toxic air pollution and sickening area residents. Property values plummet when CAFOs are built, as does the local economy. While CAFOs often tout increased tax revenue when trying to venture into new regions, the reality is that they drain resources from the community, while purchasing supplies from outside the area and paying workers low wages, thus providing little to no economic stimulation and, in return, devastating environmental damage.13
In stark contrast to industrial agriculture, organic agriculture benefits local economies, according to research published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.14 The study found that clusters of counties with high numbers of organic operations (organic hot spots) had a lower county-level poverty rate and a higher median household income compared to general agriculture hotspots.
The findings were so strong the researchers described hotspots of organic production as “local economic development tools” and said policymakers could focus on organic development as a way to promote economic growth in rural areas.
There is hope that change is near, as even restaurant giant McDonald’s is dabbling in regenerative farming, helping to fund a study on the impacts of AMP grazing on U.S. farms and ranches.15 Perhaps favorable findings could significantly alter the way that all of McDonald’s ranchers raise their cattle, which would be a game-changer in the industry.
More Benefits of Grass Fed Farming
Grass fed animal products are not only better for the environment, they’re better for the animals and public health. Levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) increase by two- to threefold when cattle are grass finished as opposed to grain finished, for instance.16
This is a significant benefit, as CLA is associated with a lower risk of cancer and heart disease and optimized cholesterol levels. The ratio of dietary fats is also healthier in grass fed beef. According to Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef, a report produced by a collaboration between sustainable agriculture and ecological farming firms:17
“Although the exact physiologic mechanisms behind these benefits are not completely understood, grassfed beef (and dairy) can provide a steady dietary source of CLAs. The optimal ratio of dietary omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is believed to be between 1-to-1 and 4-to-1. Seven studies that compared the overall fat content of different beef types found that grassfed beef had an average ratio of 1.53, while grain-fed beef had a less healthy average ratio of 7.6.”
Grass fed meat is also higher in antioxidants like vitamins E and A, the report noted, along with the enzymes superoxide dismutase and catalase, which mop up free radicals that could otherwise hasten oxidation and spoilage. Grain feeding cows also encourages the growth of E. coli in the animals’ gut, as it leads to a more acidic environment. Grain-fed cows live in a state of chronic inflammation, which increases their risk of infection and disease, and necessitates low doses of antibiotics in feed for disease-prevention purposes.18
This isn’t the case with grass fed cattle, which stay naturally healthy as they’re allowed access to pasture, sunshine and the outdoors. In a Consumer Reports study of 300 raw ground beef samples, grass fed beef raised without antibiotics was three times less likely to be contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria compared to conventional (CAFO) samples.19
The grass fed beef was also less likely to be contaminated with E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus than the CAFO meat. So while giving you more nutrition, you’re also less likely to be exposed to drug-resistant pathogens when eating grass fed food.
How to Find High-Quality Grass Fed Products
The majority of animal foods sold in the U.S. are raised on CAFOs, not grass fed farms. You can make a significant difference in your health and that of the environment and local community by seeking out foods from small farmers using AMP grazing and other regenerative agriculture practices.
Toward that end, I encourage you to look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo on meat and dairy, as it ensures the animals were born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, and raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots.20 By buying grass fed or pastured animal products, including beef, bison, chicken, milk and eggs, it means you are making a solid choice toward protecting, not polluting, the planet.