Dr Tara Garnett adds: "When thinking about different livestock production systems there are many important aspects to consider: people's livelihoods and jobs, animal welfare, biodiversity, nutrition and food security and more.
Livestock production in a changing climate: adaptation and mitigation research in Australia
Grazing systems and grass-fed beef may offer benefits in these respects, benefits that will vary by context. But when it comes to climate change, people shouldn't assume that their grass-fed steak is a climate change-free lunch. It isn't. By now, most people are aware that our consumption and production of meat and dairy is a major contributor to climate change. The livestock sector as a whole is responsible for However, both consumers and policymakers have a much looser grasp on the differences in climate impact between different types of livestock.
A major source of confusion and debate is about the impact of "grass-fed" beef relative to other types of meat. Is grass-fed beef a climate villain or could it in fact, as some argue, be a climate saviour? While scientific studies generally find that cattle and other ruminants are a source of many of our environmental and climate woes, and that grass-fed livestock are worst in terms of meat or milk output per unit of GHG emitted, an increasingly vocal opposition to this view can be heard. These stakeholders argue that the while ruminants emit GHGs, the lands these animals graze on also contain large stores of carbon; and crucially, that animals' grazing actions help reduce carbon dioxide emissions through 'soil carbon sequestration'.
Inspired by ideas about 'holistic grazing management' put forward by among others, Allan Savory, some advocates of grass-fed systems even argue that if you graze cattle right, this carbon sequestration can offset all other emissions from ruminants, and in doing so solve our climate problems.
The potential contribution of grazing ruminants to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate. The ambitious claims made by advocates of grass-fed livestock about grazing as a significant mitigation opportunity are thus unfounded. While grazing livestock have a beneficial role to play in some contexts, and better management of grazing is a worthwhile objective, when it comes to climate mitigation, its potential contribution is minor.
Rising animal production and consumption -- of all kinds and in all systems -- risks driving damaging changes in land use and associated GHG release. Grazing livestock produce only a fraction of global protein supply.
Even if exaggerated claims about carbon sequestration were true, it is simply not possible to carry on eating as much meat and dairy as trends indicate and obtain it through grass-fed systems alone even with the additional feeding of agricultural by-products and food waste -- without incurring devastating land use change. Increasing grass-fed ruminant numbers is therefore a self-defeating climate strategy, as any sequestration is offset by emissions.
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So, if grass-fed livestock are not a solution to ruminant emissions -- could switching global meat consumption from ruminants to other species, such as chickens and pigs, be? It turns out this is not a cost-free strategy either. Rapidly growing increases in primarily intensively produced pork, poultry meat and eggs, together with intensively produced beef and milk, is driving demand for new cropland to grow feed crops.
This places pressure on existing land and drives the clearance of ecosystems for new farmland. Importantly, intensive animal production systems are associated with other concerns, such antibiotic resistance and animal welfare, not explored in this report.
The overall impact of grazing livestock on climate change depends on the net balance of all emissions and all removals. Efforts to sequester carbon, and also to reduce methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions may not always align. There will be trade-offs, often highly context specific. Leaving aside any scope for sequestration from grazing, we need to halt the ongoing degradation and conversion of grasslands to croplands, to avoid losing the huge carbon stocks already stored in grasslands worldwide.
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The feedlot system also has social consequences. As commodity prices for beef and dairy products are driven down, small family-owned ranches are often driven out of business. Those that do manage to stay afloat generally work on contract with a few large corporations, greatly limiting their autonomy, financial security, and opportunities for growth. Keeping cattle on open rangeland or pasture from birth until death is an alternative to the feedlot system.
Research is showing that there are also significant health advantages to eating dairy products or beef from pasture-raised animals. The types of fats found in grass-fed meat are more healthful than those in grain-fed meat. Finally, a movement towards pasture-based cattle ranching can have significant social benefits as well.
Grass based systems work best based on a diversified model where many small-scale family-owned ranchers maintain their own herd from birth to death.
Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) | Knowledge for better food systems
Skip to main content. You are here Home. Search form Search. Pasture-Based Cattle. When they are on pasture, they belch up the gas without any difficulty.