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Can regenerative grazing allow for a low-emissions future for meat?

Globally, cattle, sheep and goats account for around half of all emissions from agricultural production.

Beef cows and calfs grazing on grass

Photo by William Edge/Shutterstock

A new meat brand had its official launch this week. Wholesome Meats isn’t big, yet. But it’s coming out swinging. 

The first thing you’ll learn on the Wholesome website is that it sells the "only beef that heals the planet." Perhaps you’re thinking that Impossible Foods or another purveyor of plant-based meats should be making that claim? Nope, says Wholesome — those companies produce highly processed "fake meat" in chemical laboratories using a process built on biodiversity-wrecking monocultures, chemical inputs and heavy farm equipment. 

A few weeks back, I wrote about how continuous improvements in plant-based and other alternative proteins could undermine the market for animal meat, slashing agricultural greenhouse gases in the process. (Globally, cattle, sheep and goats account for around half of all emissions from agricultural production.) What Wholesome is proposing is another possible future — one in which emissions tumble, but your carne asada burrito continues to be made of cow.

At the heart of this have-your-carne-and-eat-it claim is regenerative grazing, a practice that mimics the symbiosis that used to exist between grazing animals and grasslands. Most cattle are fattened in feedlots, large-scale facilities where animals eat corn and other grains. On regenerative ranches, animals move frequently between plots of vegetation. The animals’ manure enriches the soil and their foraging prompts plants to put down deeper root systems. 

According to some estimates, the additional carbon stored by regenerative grazing has the potential to more than offset all the other emissions from beef production. If you’re a meat lover, you’ve probably figured out what that means: carbon-negative steaks and burgers.

What Wholesome is proposing is another possible future — one in which emissions tumble, but your carne asada burrito continues to be made of cow.

This brings us back to Impossible Foods. What Wholesome is doing on its site could be seen as returning fire, because last year Impossible branded regenerative grazing the "clean coal" of beef — an unsubtle dig, sustainability-wise. According to Impossible, the technique can’t scale to meet demand for beef and actually produces more emissions than conventional methods. The "debunked" ideas behind regenerative, as the company called them, are no more than "a mystical alignment of soil and hoof."

So who’s to be believed in this beef about beef? It’s true that the excitement around regenerative grazing is based in part on anecdotal evidence from ranchers. Still, there’s a small but useful body of studies on the technique’s benefits, which Impossible ignored in its report. As that literature grows, it will help us better understand these key issues:

  • Which ranches see the carbon-sequestration benefits and how long do those benefits last? An independent life-cycle analysis of a ranch in Georgia showed that the beef produced there is carbon-negative. Is the same true for regenerative ranches with other soil types? And will those soils continue to store carbon or reach some saturation point?
  • Can regenerative beef approach the price of regular meat? If not, conventional will continue to dominate. Right now, the answer is no: Wholesome’s ground beef is $9.99 per pound by mail order, a little under twice the price of regular ground beef at my local Safeway. The price of regenerative meat likely will fall as the sector grows, but we don’t yet know by how much.
  • Does regenerative grazing require more land? Conventional cattle farming is already a primary driver of deforestation, raising serious questions about any alternative that requires more land to produce the same amount of meat.

When I look at the data we have so far, I see exciting evidence that regenerative grazing brings real benefits to soils and ecosystems at many ranches where it’s used. What’s less clear to me is whether the practice can reach the scale needed to make a noticeable dent in agricultural emissions at a national or international level. 

I’m looking forward to seeing the results of one major study that should help clarify these issues. It’s led by Peter Byck, a filmmaker and professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, and funded in part by McDonald’s. Byck says that the study will produce over a dozen research papers, the first of which are almost ready for submission to journals.

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

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