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Is Regenerative Agriculture the Answer to the Guilt-Free Burger?

In sustainability circles familiar with programs such as Meatless Monday and author Michael Pollan’s often quoted words — “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — the message to eat less meat is a known adage. The recent update on dietary guidelines from medical journal Lancet reinforces this message and stresses that agriculture accounts for roughly a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most produced by raising of cattle and lamb.

In early April, the Grassfed Exchange conference provided a different message, that restorative or regenerative agriculture — which includes grass-fed, pasture-raised beef — is part of the solution to climate change. I must confess that my body craves a good hamburger every once in a while, and when I indulge this craving, I often feel a twinge of guilt. Last weekend, when I ordered a Marin Sun Farms grass-fed, pasture-raised burger, here are three reasons why I didn’t feel guilty:

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Grassland Ecology 101 for Vegans and Synthetic Meat Marketers

First, congratulations on your commitment to making the world a better place. It’s not always popular (or safe) to take a stand on principle when the rest of the world is unaware or insensitive to matters you find extremely important.

However (you knew that was coming), many of your arguments and statements about global ecology have been clouded by a misunderstanding perpetuated by biotech and global corporate agricultural interests. Briefly, let’s look at the two big Red Herrings. Afterwards, I will suggest a path forward to bring strength and resilience to the plant-based movement. [Read Part 2 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/grassfed-ecology-101-vegans-calling-change-makes-sense-alan-lewis]

Grassland ecology is quite simple.

  1. Grass puts green leaves upward and roots downward during the growing season. The leaves use air, water and sunlight to make sugars. The carbon and water are stored in the roots as carbohydrates: carbon + water.
  2. If the plant is a food crop, we can often eat the leaves, stem and roots and derive lots of nourishment from them. If the plants are mainly cellulose, our stomachs have no way to digest them.
  3. Grasses (and other plants) evolved with ruminant animals. Ruminants have extra stomachs and sturdy mouths to break down, ferment and digest the cellulose in grasses so the nutrients in them can be absorbed and converted to meat, fat and energy for the animal. What’s left is piss and poop, burps and farts.
  4. Grass must be eaten down by ruminants to survive. Without grazing, grasses grow high, desiccate and oxidize. They slough off their roots and after a few years stop growing altogether. By grazing most of the plant leaves and moving on to new pastures,ruminants revitalize grasslands. Without grazing, the land dies.
  5. Grass is not just what you see above ground. Perennial grasses put down deep roots during the growing season; around the roots a universe of biological activity occurs. The roots exude sugars to attract the previously unconnected microbes and fungi underground. These organisms network themselves and begin to breakdown bedrock into minerals the plant’s roots can absorb. The plant can signal for nutrients and water, or tell the underground miners it is under attack and to create substances to help the plant fight insects and diseases
  6. After a grazing animal eats its leaves, the plant lets most of its root system go dormant. Later it begins growing new roots to reestablish its nutrient and immune support system underground. Here is the magic: the old roots, made of carbon and water, serve as the foundation of new topsoil. Carbon rich soil continues to generate biological activity underground. It forms a sponge that can absorb huge amounts of water from rainfall or flooding, which it slowly releases over time: drought tolerance and flood resilience. This process is critical to carbon sequestration. Health grasslands take carbon from the atmosphere and place it safely underground.
  7. Grasslands without ruminant herds moving from place to place are called deserts. The grass cannot survive. Herds that are left to roam and graze at will don’t hack it. Grasslands need animals to trample the soil crust, digest the leafy matter, deposit poop and pee, and then move on so it can resurrect itself and the soil below: managed grazing.

So where does that leave us? The Big Lie you have been told over and over is that plant-based foods will save the environment. Don’t eat meat! But notice that Mother Earth disagrees. She needs those animals, whether humans eat them or not. The Big Lie depends on you dismissing the natural laws of grassland ecology and focusing solely on industrial livestock practices. You know this one, so I’ll summarize.

Most meat animals are fed by growing GMO corn and soybeans in vast chemical-intensive monocultures that devastate the land (and farmers and rural communities, but I’ve covered that elsewhere). The animals are kept in concentrated feeding areas, served rations that are inappropriate to their digestive systems, fed antibiotics and hormones to make them grow faster, given medications to keep them somewhat healthy in horrible circumstances, then led off to slaughter without ever having set hoof on vegetation or having grazed fresh grass. Their contaminated manure is collected in fetid lagoons until it floods into waterways or is sprayed on fields. Yeah, that’s all horrible and it rightfully has led many folks, including not a few ranchers, to swear off meat. Agreed.

The problem is, many vegans and vegetarians have become convinced that concentrated animal feeding operations described above are the only standard by which to judge plant-based foods and synthetic meat. Nope. We need to judge what we eat based on the best practices of livestock husbandry as it is done in concert with natural systems that we as a species on this planet are fundamentally dependent on. We must have managed ruminant grazing to stop and reverse desertification. We must integrate livestock into agriculture to place atmospheric carbon back underground and provide protection against floods and droughts brought on by climate change. A plant-based diet, and anti-livestock advocacy, fails to take this ecological science into account.

After considering this article, take another look at the marketing messages used by synthetic meat companies like Impossible Burger. They state their product is fundamentally better than beef, but their measures are all based on bad industrial livestock practices. Let’s be blunt: if we all ate Impossible Burgers and abandoned livestock husbandry, the planet would die within a few years. Impossible Burger depends on your ignorance of Grassland Ecology 101. Comparing lab-grown meat only to industrial beef is the Red Herring that keeps the plant-based food movement from being taken seriously by real farmers and ranchers. When you repeat the claims of the makers of synthetic food, especially meat, you are repeating nonsense created by marketing teams and tested on people just like you.

Synthetic meat (and “heme”) is grown by organisms that have been genetically modified, and which are fed steeps derived from genetically modified crops. These are things the human species has never eaten or digested before. They are unregulated, unlabeled and undisclosed. It’s not normal, which is why the global biotech lobby is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on influence campaigns to make it seem normal.

Here’s what’s normal: ruminant animals grazing in a herd and moving along when the grass is sufficiently low. Happy health animals with no need for medicines or grain. Healthy soil with no need of fertilizers or herbicides. So, sure, go plant-based. But don’t fail to respect the plants.

It makes sense to advocate against the terrible practices of the livestock industry. It also makes sense to advocate for regenerative humane practices that global ecology depends on. And it’s not a bad idea to reduce consumption of good meat, too. The Earth can support a finite number of grassland animals.

Last word, to head off some comments. It’s true that there is no such thing as “humane” slaughter. I get that. I’ve seen cattle “put down” (shot through the head with a .357 magnum, in case the euphemism is offensive). You don’t get used to it. However (you knew that was coming), animals are going to die one way or another. It’s not “humane” either when an old cow or young calf is left to be attacked by predators, or when disease takes hold and an animal suffers at the edge of the pasture. If we are not going to kill and eat the animals, but we want to save our planet, we must accept their deaths either way. And if ranchers can’t harvest animals to pay the cost of managing herds and improving the soil, eating vegan will require a hefty tax to keep those farmers on the land and providing those services.

Otherwise, we better get used to a dry, sandy planet.

Reposted with permission from Alan Lewis

Regenerative Grazing: A Way Forward for Land and Reef

Dozens of fence line images were presented at the Reef Catchments Sustainable Grazing forum in Mackay on March 28, showing, on one side, strong dense pastures consistently out-performing neighbouring properties using traditional approaches. Some of the most compelling images came from properties in drought regions, where the vastly improved water-holding capacity created by lively soils and strong, deep root structures of regenerative grazing pastures meant there was still coverage on those paddocks.

The forum featured speakers covering a range of topics around grazing, including a compelling big-picture presentation on philosophy and the broader implications of regenerative grazing around climate and land management from special guest, grazier and author Dr Charles Massy.

David McKean from Resource Consulting Services (RCS) gave a highly practical outline of key considerations and techniques in regenerative grazing, including a range of case studies from various climate and landscape types.

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Dispatch From the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands

[ English | Español ]

Author: Judith D. Schwartz | Posted on: August 19, 2015

A drive through Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert grasslands offers vast, near-boundless vistas—and a glimpse of a landscape in the balance. Passing the ejidos, communal farmland given to people as part of land reforms after the Mexican Revolution, one sees land with sparse annuals and brush and the occasional flaca vaca: a skinny cow, often barely alive. Then there are the huge tracts of brown, bare ground, where Mennonite farmers employ intensive agriculture.

My guide, rancher Alejandro Carrillo, has watched this landscape degrade, nearly in real time. “When I was growing up this was the best land in the area, with grama grass up to that wire,” he tells me, gesturing to an indifferent brownish weedy plot lined with waist-high fencing and dotted with random brush, a far cry from the lush pasture he remembers. The consequences of land deterioration throughout Mexico’s largest state have been devastating to local communities as well as to wildlife—particularly to migratory grassland birds that winter in the region and whose populations have plummeted, among some species more than 80 percent. And yet Carrillo’s ranch, Las Damas Ranch, is an oasis of bird life. Carrillo, who has holistically managed Las Damas Ranch since 2006 after leaving a successful career in IT, now works with bird conservation groups to create habitat for the endangered birds. He and several other ranchers who practice Holistic Planned Grazing have established research and conservation partnerships with organizations including the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, the American Bird Conservatory and Mexico’s Pronatura.

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Revolutions Start From The Bottom

Our food choices are deeply connected to climate change. Unbroken Ground, a compelling new Patagonia Provisions film directed by Chris Malloy, explains the critical role food will play in the next frontier of our efforts to solve the environmental crisis.

This film explores four areas of agriculture that aim to change our relationship to the land and oceans. Most of our food is produced using methods that reduce biodiversity, decimate soil and contribute to climate change. We believe our food can and should be a part of the solution to the environmental crisis – grown, harvested and produced in ways that restore our land, water and wildlife. The film tells the story of four groups that are pioneers in the fields of regenerative agriculture, regenerative grazing, diversified crop development and restorative fishing.

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Solving Climate Change with Holistic Management

Author: Blain Hjertaas

Fact 1

Carbon is becoming recognized as one of the most significant factors facing mankind. The Keeling observatory in Hawaii began measuring C02 in 1958. At that time the C02 level was 312 PPM. Today we have passed 400 PPM. Significant effort has been expended in talking about limiting future C02 emissions, but to this date no one has talked about reversing the process. The world will continue to warm unless the process is reversed.

Fact 2

Carbon is held in vegetation, soil, oceans and the atmosphere. We know the atmosphere can hold more but we are learning the consequences of this. The oceans hold the most but they are becoming more acidic as their load increases, causing alarm for coral ecosystems. The safe place to store carbon is to increase the organic content of the soil. Agricultural soils on the eastern prairies averaged 12% organic matter at settlement. Today these same soils are between 4-6%.

Fact 3

There is an increasing awareness in the world that something needs to be done about this issue. To date, there has been much discussion about how to limit the problem but nothing on how to solve it. This proposal is a solution.
Fact 4

The Soil Carbon Coalition has been measuring carbon change over time across North America. There are close to 300 sites being monitored with 30 in Western Canada. Some of the early indications are that increasing carbon content in soil is more rapid than originally thought. The first tests were done in 2011 and retested in 2014. All farms are located in South East Saskatchewan. The results ranged from a high of 48.85 tonnes per hectare per year of C02 sequestered to a low of 1.17 tonnes of C02 per hectare per year. This are a very small data set; however these types of findings are being observed world wide as regenerative farmers begin to learn about the benefits of farming in such a way as to return carbon to the soil.

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