Behind The ‘Graze Craze’: The Environmental Impacts Of Grazing Ruminants
The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) has released a new report on the relationship between grazing cows used for food and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This report was crafted to be a response to several arguments regarding ruminants and their negative impact on the environment.
What is a ruminant? A mammal that derives his or her nutrients through the cycle of chewing on plants, swallowing them, allowing them to ferment in the stomach, regurgitating, chewing again, and so on. We all probably know the cliché of the cow chewing on her cud, but ruminants also include sheep, llamas, and camels. The FCRN report primarily focuses on the GHG emissions – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – that are released by cows who graze in grass pastures. These cows – who are ultimately used for food – are part of what’s referred to as a “grazing system.”
Early on, the authors specifically call out that their report will not address any issues regarding animal welfare; regardless, the information in this report is useful for animal advocates because it helps us make more informed, data-driven decisions. After all, many of us have probably heard about the “wonders” of cows used for food that are exclusively fed a diet of grass in advertising and at our grocery stores; “grass-fed” has become a popular way to market meat.
Additionally, this study focuses on an environmental perspective, a cause that has massive overlap with the animal rights cause. Finally, while the authors do not explicitly discuss animal welfare, the data presented has implications for our food industry. Let’s delve into this “graze craze” and learn more about what it means for the environment, specifically in terms of GHG emissions.
We can start by considering the actual data of GHG emissions from ruminants. One data point used by the authors measures protein supply in grams of protein per person per day. Of the entire world’s meat industry, grazing ruminants account for only a fraction of this protein supply. While all terrestrial animals used for food produce about 27g of protein/person/day, ruminants in grazing systems produce 1g of protein/person/day.
Ruminants used for food account for about 80% of carbon dioxide emissions produced by animal agriculture, which is about 14.5% of the total human-made carbon dioxide emissions. Ruminants used for food who exclusively graze make up about 20% of all animal agriculture carbon dioxide emissions. If these grazing ruminants are supplying 1g of protein/person/day, it means they are producing a disproportionately intense amount of carbon dioxide.
While there is a potential that grazing systems could actually help to sequester the amount of carbon in our soil and help “balance out” the emissions through careful management of grasslands, we would only be able to expect about a 1.6% decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions in a best case scenario.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only factor to think about, as methane and nitrous oxide have crucial effects on climate change too. Ruminants generate about 33% of all human-made methane emissions, and these emissions tend to be found in higher concentrations when sourced from grazing systems. Methane has a strong greenhouse effect on our atmosphere that will, according to the authors, never be remedied as long as humans continue to farm ruminants. Scaling up these grazing systems so that more people can eat the “better” alternative of “grass-fed beef” will actually make this environmental problem worse.
The third GHG emission of concern is nitrous oxide. Like methane, it is significantly more intense than carbon. Even more, nitrous oxide has a long “lifespan,” and stays present in our atmosphere for a long time. While nitrogen is necessary for plant growth and can help sequester carbon in our soil, the atmospheric warming effects of nitrous oxide outweigh these benefits for the most part. It’s also worth noting that nitrogen is a contributor to water pollution.
All in all, when we look at the nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon generated by grazing systems, it’s not quite an improvement over the “traditional” method of raising cows used for food.
One last consideration should be made to the amount of land grazing systems require. Creating space for grazing ruminants is the primary reason for human-driven deforestation and the associated release of carbon dioxide. There is a risk that we will continue losing grasslands as a consequence of seeking greater “efficiencies” in grazing systems (in addition to plowing these lands and using them for crops). As the demand for meat from ruminants increases due to an ever-growing population, more of our land resources will be lost.
This report makes it clear that the current industry of farming ruminants used for food is not sustainable without major, irreversible damage to the environment. The amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide released, even in “ideal” grazing systems, are alarming, not to mention the land that is being used and destroyed to allow for these systems to exist. The authors’ closing remarks involve several ponderings: While consumer demand for meat continues to rise, is it necessary that production meet it? How can we use land in a way that is least damaging to the environment and climate? How do the answers to these questions change as location changes? Even considering all of the data in this report, there are no easy answers.
Finally, we are left with one big, central question proposed by the authors that any animal advocate should put serious thought towards: What role do animals used for food play in a sustainable food system – if any role at all?