Raising livestock on grass has been extolled for producing leaner, more flavorful meat and liberating animals from unnatural, filthy feedlots. A perk that’s gotten less play is that pasture-raised livestock has the potential to combat climate change, especially if the approach is adopted widely.
The math is deliciously simple, according to environmentalist Richard Manning writing in Utne Reader’s big-sister publication Mother Earth News (April-May 2009). Take cattle. On healthy grassland, farmers can finish two steers per acre. That’s precisely the acreage it takes to grow grain to finish a pair of steers in a lot. When those acres are planted with annual crops like corn or soybeans, however, they suck water and energy. Tilling adds oxygen to the soil, causing organic matter to decay (and release carbon). The result is about 1,000 pounds of carbon emissions per acre.
Restoring acres of permanent pasture, on the other hand, sinks carbon into the soil at about the same rate, thanks in large part to perennials’ deep root systems. There’s evidence that “grasslands are, under certain conditions, even better at sequestering carbon than forests,” Manning writes. He estimates that converting just half of U.S. corn and soy fields to pasture could cut annual carbon emissions by 144 trillion pounds. And establishing pasture on formerly monocropped lands also would help restore their fertility and promote biodiversity.