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Holy Manure!

How Cows May Save the World: The Carbon Footprint of Local, Grass-Fed Livestock

“The culprit is not meat eating but rather the excesses of the corporate/industrial agriculture.… If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2. A vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO2 than I am.”

— Eliot Coleman, author The New Organic Grower

In 2006 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a now well-publicized report stating that 18% of the world’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to livestock production.(1) Shockingly, that amount of greenhouse gas emissions is more than the sum total of what’s produced by all forms of transportation combined.

Dr. Margaret Mellon, the Director of the Food and Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, seems to disagree, “Buying grass-fed meat and milk is like driving a hybrid car. Not only is it good for you, it’s better for your neighbors and better for the country. We encourage families to seek out pasture-raised meat and milk.”(2)

This difference is explained by understanding the implications of that one word “grass-fed.” The figures in the UN report were compiled by quantifying the effects of large-scale, confinement factory farm operations and did not include the environmental impact of pasture-raised livestock.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, clarifies, “Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed animals which requires fossil fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, and transportation.”(3)

Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower and icon of the organic farming and gardening movement for twenty years, hits the ball squarely back at the petrochemical industry. “The culprit is not meat eating but rather the excesses of the corporate/industrial agriculture. The UN report shows either great ignorance or possibly the influence of the fossil fuel lobby with the intent of confusing the public.” And he adds, “If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2.(4)

Joel Salatin, farmer/rancher for five decades and author of six books on sustainable pasture practices and animal husbandry, goes a step further. He points out that first of all, herbivores eating as nature designed (grass) produce much less methane than those being force-fed an unnatural diet (grains).

He also argues that livestock living on pasture actually reduce carbon emissions by enhancing soil quality with their manure. Improved soil fertility increases the amount of greenhouse gases the grass is able to pull out of the atmosphere and fix into the soil.

Thomas Harttung, founder of the Green Carbon Initiative and farmer who grazes 150 head of cattle, agrees, “With proper management, pastoralists, ranchers and farmers could achieve a 2% increase in soil-carbon levels on existing agricultural, grazing and desert lands over the next two decades.” Some experts estimate that only a 1% increase in soil-carbon is necessary in order to capture the total equivalent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.(3)

If so, then it means that the consumption of locally produced, pastured meat, dairy and eggs is not just carbon neutral, but actually improves our environment by fixing more carbon into the soil than is emitted in the process of producing these foods. Small, diversified farming and .properly managed livestock grazing are, in fact, powerful tools for reducing emissions globally.

The more people purchase locally produced, 100% pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products, the more our global footprint shrinks.

For comments, the author may be reached at [email protected] See for a more in-depth version of this article.


1. UN Report

2. Report: Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating

3. “How Cows (Grass-Fed Only) Could Save the Planet” by Lisa Abend,9171,1953692,00.html#ixzz0dZA255U6

4. Eliot Coleman, blog response