While BBQ Season Sizzles, a Case for Healthy Farms and Better Beef

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photo credit: omnivore

Author: Marcia DeLonge

Friends and acquaintances often ask me about what to eat (or not eat) if they are concerned about the impacts of their food choices on the world around them. One of the foods that comes up most frequently in this regard is beef, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

It is appropriate for thoughtful people to ask questions about beef production, because it is implicated in climate change, pollution, and deforestation. But it’s also true that well-managed grazing lands offer a lot of benefits for the environment and biodiversity. These include the opportunity for farmers to grow cattle feed as a part of healthy soil-building crop rotations, as well as the possibility that manure—rather than becoming a waste product to be managed—can be productively used on farms to recycle nutrients and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. With these factors in mind, if you choose to eat beef, it’s important to look at how and where it’s produced.

Better beef requires better farming systems, from the ground up

Let’s start by looking at some of the land management practices that are responsible for unsustainable beef production.

  • Deforested areas. Millions of beef cattle are produced in the deforested tropics, and my colleagues have identified this as a key driver of deforestation, with devastating implications for climate change, biodiversity, and more. However, it’s also important to note that the factors causing deforestation are complex, and that most beef is consumed in the country where it is produced. This means that reducing beef consumption in the US may help alleviate deforestation by making a small dent in global demand, but directly confronting responsible companies is likely to be more effective.
  • Degraded grasslands. It’s common to hear about grasslands destroyed by overgrazing. The exact meaning and utility of this term is often debated (read this interesting blog for one perspective, or this paper for an academic review), and there’s still uncertainty about what level of stocking rate is too high in any given ecosystem and management system. However, there is agreement that grazing mismanagement can be very destructive to ecosystems, leading to degraded landscapes. At the same time, good land management (including grazing management) has been shown to improve degraded areas, and there are many degraded lands with significant potential for improvement.
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