Could this new way of grazing help avoid a culture clash over burgers?

adaptive multi-paddock grazing
Stijn te Strake
Adaptive multi-paddock grazing allows grasses to recover, put down stronger root systems and store more carbon in soils.

Earlier this year, right-wing provocateur Sebastian Gorka issued a much-publicized warning about the environmental ideas being promoted by some Democrats: "They want to take away your hamburgers," he said.  

No one in Congress was proposing to remove burgers from restaurant menus, but Gorka had spotted a potential cultural flashpoint in plans to dramatically reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The average American consumes around 57 pounds of beef a year — equivalent to more than four Quarter Pounders every week.

Beef provides just 3 percent of calories in U.S. diets, yet accounts for roughly half the land use and emissions (PDF) associated with the nation's food. With agriculture as a whole generating 9 percent of U.S. emissions, many environmental organizations have argued that the country’s consumption of red meat should be reduced.

A growing amount of data, however, suggests that this culture clash may not be as severe as it sounds. The solution lies in reforms to the way cattle are handled, which could result in dramatic reductions in emissions from beef production.

In some cases, producers have even managed to go carbon-negative, transforming ranches into operations that remove more carbon than they emit. That kind of potential has attracted the attention of industry heavyweights such as General Mills and McDonald's.

The turnaround in emissions comes from a technique known as adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP), in which cattle are stocked at relatively high density but graze on a plot of land for a shorter period. This practice allows grasses to recover, put down stronger root systems and store more carbon in soils. Along with other reforms, such as the use of cover crops, AMP is a component of regenerative agriculture, a movement that aims to boost soil fertility and transform farms from carbon sources to carbon sinks.

In a 2018 study, researchers from Michigan State University carried out a life-cycle analysis of emissions from cattle at two of the university’s agricultural research centers. Paige Stanley and her colleagues found that the carbon stored by pastures that were AMP-grazed more than canceled out emissions from fertilizers and the methane produced by the cattle. The results are in line with a more recent analysis of White Oak Pastures (PDF) (WOP), a ranch in Bluffton, Georgia, where regenerative grazing was found to be drawing down 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilo of fresh meat produced.

"Within our margin of error, there is a potential that the WOP beef production is climate-positive," wrote the authors of the analysis. "This would be very rare, and it is unusual that there is more benefit to producing something than to simply not produce."

The results of the analysis were a boost for EPIC, a producer of animal-based protein bars that counts White Oak Pastures as a supplier, as well as EPIC’s parent company, General Mills, which has committed to transitioning a million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture by 2030. The potential of AMP also has attracted interest from McDonald's, which has invested $4.5 million in a three-year study of AMP.

These results seem to suggest that Americans may be able to have their cake — or burger — and eat it, too. It is, unsurprisingly, more complex than that. For starters, the results are exciting but preliminary. Stanley points out that big questions remain around the extent to which her study, which looked at cattle in the Upper Midwest, can be replicated in other areas, particularly in more arid soils, which may have less capacity to store carbon. It is also unclear how long the benefits will persist because the carbon content of soils inevitably will saturate at some point.

In addition, the AMP system used in Stanley’s study required twice as much land as the more conventional method that she used as a comparator. That’s a critical issue in the United States given the amount of land already devoted to beef production. It’s also a global challenge, because clearing of land for cattle is the primary cause of global deforestation, accounting for more than the twice the clearing caused by soy, palm oil and wood products.

For Stanley, these factors suggest that regenerative agriculture is likely not a silver bullet that can allow us to maintain current consumption levels while also reducing emissions from beef production. Rather than thinking about emissions from consumption and reduction as an "either/or" problem, she says, we simultaneously should be trying to reduce emissions from both. 

From that point of view, AMP and other regenerative methods have huge potential, and not just when it comes to greenhouse gases.

AMP is not expensive to implement if the land is available, and it leads to better water retention and lower fertilizer run-off. As such, it offers a rare opportunity: a relatively quick, low-cost opportunity to switch to a more sustainable way of farming while also producing the same product.

It might not be enough to avoid a cultural fight over one of America’s iconic menu items, but it could take some of the heat out of the battle.