Regenerative agriculture has had some buzz lately. While there is no set definition for this term, it usually refers to a collection of innovative farming practices that replenish our soil with nutrients, prevent soil erosion, sequester carbon from the air to reduce the effects of climate change, and more. The generally agreed upon goal of these farming practices is to improve the health of the soil that grows our food and protect natural resources while feeding the world’s growing population in a healthy, sustainable way.
Many of the practices associated with regenerative agriculture produce measurable, effective results that benefit the environment and our food system. They include no till farming, the reduction and elimination of chemical fertilizers (some of which have been shown to increase one’s risk of cancer), and the planting of cover crops. However, not every method associated with regenerative agriculture is well received. One principle in particular is controversial and perhaps contradictory to the overall sustainability goals of regenerative agriculture—regenerative grazing.
Regenerative grazing is the practice of grazing animals like cattle on a limited, closely-monitored scale in order to better maintain the soil quality. It results in meat products labeled as “grass-fed.”
In contrast to regenerative grazing, when large livestock like cattle are left to graze on the same plot of land for an extended period of time, vegetation like grasses is destroyed. In our modern food system, the dirt patches left behind by that destruction span hundreds if not thousands of acres in areas called Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) or, even larger, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While CAFOs are sometimes found on land that is already dry and infertile due to its topographical region, such as the Midwest of the United States, many CAFOs contribute to the deforestation of lush, biodiverse areas like the Amazon Rainforest. This can happen either 1) because the world’s growing demand for meat requires more space to store and raise cattle, or 2) because this demand requires more land to grow corn and soy for livestock feed. CAFOs can house hundreds to millions of animals and span over hundreds of hectares (football field-sized plots) of land.
Regenerative grazing offers an alternative to CAFOs: farmers aim to rotate a limited number of livestock animals between pastures, and do so frequently enough so that vegetation can be maintained. This allows carbon to be sequestered from the air while also raising livestock for meat or dairy.
While regenerative grazing might yield positive results on a small scale, it continues the inefficient, unsustainable cycle of feeding plants to animals in order to feed those animals to people. The most sustainable and realistic solution to curb climate change via our food system is to switch to a plant-based diet.
Regenerative grazing has its benefits. Ecologically, it is an improvement from industrial factory farms and CAFOs. According to a peer-reviewed life cycle assessment (LCA) in the journal of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, regenerative grazing can sequester carbon from the air. The LCA states, “multi-species pasture rotations sequester enough carbon in soil to create a greenhouse gas footprint that is 66 percent lower than conventional, commodity production of beef.” According to another study, it can also improve soil health. This, in turn, can result in healthier plant food for us to eat.
However, even though it is somewhat better than industrial animal agriculture and CAFOs, regenerative grazing still has a number of drawbacks, some of which are simply unavoidable when raising animals for meat or dairy products.
There are many areas of concern when it comes to regenerative grazing, including:
Although the LCA referred to above claimed that regenerative grazing can help to sequester carbon and remove it from the atmosphere, there is a catch: according to the same assessment, producing a carbon-neutral or carbon-positive effect requires 2.5 times more grazing land than standard animal agriculture. This is not only unrealistic—it is impossible. More than 50% of the planet’s ice-free land is already being used for livestock grazing and for livestock feed production. Even if we continue to use conventional agriculture methods (much less, 2.5 times more land), there will be little to no arable land left if we want to continue producing animal-based foods for the expected population of 9.7 billion in 2050. There would be enough cropland to feed 9 billion people in 2050 if the 40 percent of all crops produced today for feeding animals were instead used for direct human consumption, but not if we continue to feed these crops to animals.
Another option for increasing arable land is deforestation, but the detrimental effects of this are huge. Forested lands are known for being one of the most potent resources to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Cutting them down in order to provide flat, grazable land for cattle and other livestock is not logical, natural, or sustainable. Rather than clear cutting forests for regenerative grazing or animal rearing, we should be protecting them.
Similarly, soil health is considerably depleted in areas that have been deforested or have housed livestock for long periods of time. When hooved animals like cattle tromp on grassy lands and the vegetation dies, the soil beneath becomes vulnerable to accelerated rates of compaction and erosion. Such infertile, arid soil is unable to produce vegetation, including crops that could feed people. Erosion and compaction also render soil incapable of holding rainfall and groundwater, leading to increased flooding. Finally, increased erosion disturbs local waterways. As soil clogs rivers and streams, the populations of fish and other aquatic wildlife are threatened. In theory, regenerative grazing might lessen these negative impacts, but in practice, the growing demand for meat and dairy products undermines the feasibility of small-scale grazing. In other words, in order to meet the global demand, small-scale grazing cannot remain small-scale.
Lastly, regenerative grazing remains an inefficient use of other resources, such as fresh water. Cows raised for meat consume up to 30 gallons of water a day, and lactating mother cows raised for dairy can require twice as much, up to 60 gallons of freshwater a day. There were about 1.5 billion cattle counted worldwide for meat and dairy in 2014, and freshwater is far from ample. Additionally, this figure does not account for the water needed to grow feed for cattle (such as corn and soy), which accounts for about 41% of all agricultural water use. There are far less wasteful alternatives. It requires over 20 times more water to raise 1 kg of beef compared to rice, grains, beans, fruit and vegetables.
Is regenerative grazing and ecologically-minded use of livestock better than industrial animal agriculture, factory farms, and CAFOs? Yes. But is it sustainable and scalable given the world’s current and growing demand for meat and dairy? No. Regenerative grazing can be beneficial to soil health, but whether it produces measurable, effective, and truly sustainable benefits in carbon sequestration is debatable. It depends on what type of life cycle analysis is done. And while regenerative grazing might yield positive results on a small scale, it continues the inefficient, unsustainable cycle of feeding plants to animals in order to feed those animals to people. The most sustainable and realistic solution to curb climate change via our food system is to switch to a plant-based diet—not to mention the health benefits of doing so!
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