Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Beef Can Save the World

It might sound crazy, but I assure you it's not. Beef can save the world.

Not this beef:

But this beef:

Living grass sequesters carbon from the atmosphere more efficiently than trees do. As grass dies, however, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. Properly pastured cows eat the dying grass, preventing the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and allowing the grass to begin growing and storing carbon again. While grazing, cows naturally fertilize, helping to create healthier, denser soil, which in turn, sequesters even more carbon. If each farm and ranch in the U.S. pastured its cows, enough carbon would be sequestered in 10 years to offset the amount of carbon man has released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That's no small thing.

Does this sound crazy? At first read, it might. But I would implore you to really think about it. Is it really crazy to think that animals living the way they were meant to live would be beneficial to the planet? Cows are ruminants - they're designed to graze. They're not meant to sit on a feedlot eating grain. The grasslands of North America were grazed by buffalo before hunting and development all but destroyed their vast numbers. It only makes sense that when ruminants are allowed to live as nature intended, nature benefits along with them. We benefit, too. Pastured beef is actually healthy. It's full of healthy fats, as opposed to the unhealthy fats abundant in factory-farmed cows. You don't really need to avoid red meat, you just need to avoid factory-farmed, grain-fed red meat.

What about vegetarianism? Isn't it an even better solution than switching to properly raised meat? Unfortunately, it's not. Large-scale, monocultural production of produce is nearly as bad for the environment as factory-farmed animals are. While pastured beef replenishes soil, crops destroy it. Nature does not till, but crop-farming is dependent on extensive tillage, which degrades the soil and leads to erosion. There's no need for large-scale fruit and vegetable farming when we could all turn our lawns into edible gardens. Why transport produce hundreds of miles from farm to supermarket, when it can be grown in your own backyard, or purchased from a small-scale local farmer that practices proper crop rotation, rather than depending on tilling and chemical inputs? Fruits and vegetables picked before they're ripe and transported are also less nutritious than what you can procure locally. So while vegetarianism is a viable alternative to purchasing factory-farmed meat, it does not provide a long-term solution to the environmental degradation caused by modern, industrial agricultural production.

Critics will, no doubt, say that enough beef can't be raised on pasture, because of the greater amount of land required for grazing. When you compare the two pictures above, it certainly appears that pastured cows require more land. What the picture of the feedlot doesn't show, however, are the thousands of acres of corn, soybeans, and other crops that are required to feed factory-farmed cows. It doesn't show the dozens of tractor-trailer loads of food and antibiotics that are shipped into these facilities on a daily basis. Pastured beef doesn't require these inputs. No grains, no antibiotics. Just plain old grass, as nature intended. So not only is pastured beef better for the planet, it's economically feasible for small-scale producers, and its healthier for consumers. It's win-win-win for everyone but Big Food. And that's precisely why its taking longer to catch on than it should. Big Food has the power to influence food regulations to its benefit and to the detriment of small-scale local producers. Wonder why healthier, local food is more expensive? Because that's how Big Food wants it. Every time you go through the drive-through or load up your cart at the supermarket, you're giving Big Food more power to use to try and shut down local, small-scale farmers.

So get to know your local farmers. Visit your farmer's market or join a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Make a point of only buying locally-sourced foods at your supermarket. If there aren't any, ask the manager why. Eat less but eat better. Your body and your conscience will thank you for it.

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