Is it possible to have carbon neutral — or even carbon negative — beef?

Photo by Gabor Degre

About 25 years ago, Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, decided to change the way he grazed his land. Instead of allowing his cows to continuously graze on a pasture, Harris began moving his animals every day, letting the plants fully recover before the animals return to graze again. 

There was a learning curve, increased labor and some cost to the switch, but Harris was committed to this method to improve the quality of his land — six generations of grazing had taken a toll on his pastures, after all. But the change also had a “very pleasant, unintended consequence.” 

Now, Harris’ farming operation absorbs more carbon than it emits. 

“The [forage] plant acts like a pump, pulling in greenhouse gases and depositing in the soil,” Harris said. “When we impact [the plants] with the animals, those roots die off to some extent, sequestering carbon in the soil.”

Harris and White Oak Pastures are part of a growing movement of “carbon-neutral” or “carbon-negative” beef producers, who aim to take advantage of the natural interplay between large, grazing animals and the pastures where they feed. 

“The land won’t efficiently pump greenhouse gases if you just let the plants grow,” Harris said. “Grazing the plant off, pushing it into the soil with those cloven hooves, urinating and defecating … causes the microbial life in the soil to thrive [which] is essential in the process [of carbon sequestration].”

In 2019, an independent environmental engineering group released a study about White Oak Pastures showing that their holistic pasture management sequesters more atmospheric carbon than the animals emit in their lifetimes. 

Carbon-neutral beef, to say nothing of carbon-negative beef, sounds like the stuff of fantasy. Beef is widely known as one of the most carbon-heavy foods. Data often show that the beef cattle emit more greenhouse gasses per gram of protein than any other animal or plant-based protein source.

Experts agree that carbon-neutral beef is possible, though — and, in the case of places like White Oak Pastures, happening. But even the possibility of carbon-neutral beef opens up a Pandora’s box of issues about scalability, misinformation and whether the global demand for beef will ever truly be satiated.

Carbon-neutral beef: science fact or science fiction?

Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is wary of trendy, buzzy phrases like “carbon-neutral beef” because of their potential for exploitation.

“Certain words have a legal definition,” he said. “Certified organic has a definition, all-natural has a definition. Not all words have a definition [but] they sound like words that have a definition, so you have to watch out for that. Most labels for meat are marketing schemes and don’t have anything to do with safety or quality of product. That really gets confusing.”

Knight said that while carbon-neutral beef is possible, the science is not solid yet.

“There is not a wealth of knowledge on this topic yet, but it’s something being explored,” Knight said. “Scientific data on this seems to indicate that we very well might be able to [produce carbon-neutral beef], depending on what type of grass they’re grazed on, where they’re grazed [and] soil types.” 

There have been some scientific studies conducted with respect to carbon-neutral beef, including a 2018 study from Michigan State University. However, even good research comes with limitations in application.

“There’s real promise, but that’s far from settled science,” he explained. “That’s just one study done in one location. Chicken and pigs are raised in barns, so you can raise them anywhere with the same results. Beef cattle have different environments, different topographies, different feed sources, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.”

Sustainability in the U.S. beef industry

Even aside from carbon-neutral beef, Knight also noted that the U.S. beef production industry has made significant strides in sustainability over the past few decades that often go ignored. 

“That production system — with how we feed them and everything — decreases water uses and increases feed efficiency gain more weight per unit of feed, which makes it more sustainable,” Knight said. “We essentially produce the same amount of beef with as many cows, which is amazing.”

Though Knight said that it is certainly possible to reduce carbon emissions through improved grazing methods, he worries that haphazard changes for the sake of “sustainability” — the definition of which, he said, changes depending on whom you ask — will set the industry back (as an example, he points to the fact that grass-fed cows emit more greenhouse gases than grain-fed counterparts because of the way cows’ digestive systems work).

“Some people just think sustainability [means] all-natural or doing things the old way,” Knight said. “The reason we quit doing things the old way is because we got more efficient. We can definitely make improvements, and we’re doing that, and we have been doing that for the last 100 years.”

It’s possible, but is it scalable? 

For some, though, improving the sustainability of beef production isn’t enough. Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve biodiversity through activism and legal action, said that when new methods and buzzwords like “carbon neutral” come into the conversation, what she sees as the true solution to reducing carbon in our food systems: eating less meat entirely.

“You simply can’t supply the American appetite for beef with those methods,” Molidor said. “I think a lot of things that are possible are great ideals, but they’re not possible given our current rates of production.”

Molidor also worries about whether carbon-neutral beef, with its focus on pasture grazing, is scalable. She points to the lack of availability of land for the constantly-rotating pasture-grazing system, such as the one that Harris uses.

“We cannot simply switch over to a grass-fed system because we don’t have the land,” she said. “If we tried to switch over to a grass-fed system we would need another landmass the size of Texas.”

Ultimately, whether carbon-neutral beef is scalable depends on consumer demand. 

“It is possible to feed the country with [carbon-neutral] beef,” Harris said. “The beef is going to cost a little bit more, so people will naturally eat a little less. Nothing will move the country to carbon-neutral or carbon-negative farming except for consumer demand. If the consumer does not demand it, it will not happen.”

Harris is optimistic that, given the recent trendiness of eating local and sustainably, the market might shift in favor of carbon-neutral production methods. However, Knight believes that, realistically and in following with food systems data, global demand for beef is more likely to increase than it is to decrease.

“By 2025, consumption of beef would probably go up by about 3 percent,” Knight said. “The demand for beef is going up. Beef isn’t going anywhere.”

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