What Type Of Diet Is The Most Environmentally-Friendly? (Hint: It’s Not What You Might Think.)
Let’s imagine this fictitious scenario…
You alone are tasked with saving planet Earth from environmental catastrophe! To save the world, you’re given two choices: eat nothing but plant-based Impossible Burgers (or other brand of faux burger patty) or regular beef.
Before you make your decision, make sure you think it over for a few seconds. Choose very carefully. Like a Hollywood thriller, this is a “Hurt Locker” moment, when cutting the wrong wire will trigger an explosion.
You’ve made the choice to save the planet by forgoing meat altogether, right? If everyone decided to give up meat altogether and satisfy their insatiable cravings for animal flesh with plant-based surrogates that taste just like the real thing, Earth will be saved!
Well, not exactly.
On one hand, plant-based diets are associated with “beneficial effects on metabolic measures in health and disease,” as one study concludes. On the other, lab-produced, plant-based meat is not necessarily better for the environment than animal protein that’s raised on a certain type of farm.
Making Cows Less Burpy
Cows belch. A lot. And when they do, methane gas is released into the atmosphere. This byproduct of chewing cud is thought to be one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (CO2).
According to the University of California at Davis, livestock are responsible for nearly 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases, which are believed to contribute to global warming.
But there’s a way to make cows less burpy. And there’s also a way to greatly reduce cattle farming’s carbon footprint.
First, the interesting way to produce less methane emissions in cows is by including seaweed in their diet. (Could the answer to global warming be Miracle Noodle’s Kanten Pasta? One study shows that feeding cows seaweed reduces methane emissions by 67%.
But what if every person on the planet decided to stop eating meat altogether? Wouldn’t that put an end to methane emissions? It’s quite the opposite actually. Take India for instance. In a country where the majority Hindu population eschews beef for religious reasons, all those ruminants live longer and therefore produce more methane gas over their lifetime, says UC Davis writer Amy Quniton, for the university’s Feeding A Growing Population column.
No other country has more cattle than India. And no other country consumes less beef than India. So clearly, letting cows just be cows is not the answer. And it’s merely a vegan’s pipe-dream that the bulk of humanity will stop eating meat and instead eat plant-based burgers.
Without doubt, large-scale farming, aka ‘industrial’ or ‘factory’ farming poses dire consequences for the environmental welfare of the planet, and for the welfare of the animals.
Back To The Future: Is Regenerative Farming The Answer To Reducing Carbon Emissions?
But what if there were a way to make cattle farming not only carbon neutral but actually can reverse climate change. If worldwide abstinence of meat is a vegan’s pipe-dream, is Earth-saving burgers a carnivore’s pipe-dream?
To reiterate, plant-based diets, so long as they consist of unprocessed, real food, contributes greatly to health. However, an agricultural practice called regenerative farming is making greenhouse-gas-reducing burgers a reality.
Regenerative farming is nothing new. In fact, up until a relative blink of an eye ago, regenerative farming was the norm. But because of industrial farming of the last several decades, approximately one-third of the world’s soil is degraded, according to a United Nations report, titled, “Soil Erosion Must Be Stopped To Save Our Future.”
Also called ‘beyond sustainable’, regenerative farming promotes healthier ecosystems “by rebuilding soil organic matter through holistic farming and grazing techniques. In short, regenerative agriculture practitioners let nature do the work,” explains an agricultural news website.
When it comes to regenerative farming, cattle are managed by mimicking how migratory herds behave in nature. This means that the grazing area of cows rotates from one fenced-off paddock to another. By rotating the grazing field, the soil is not greatly disturbed; minerals remain intact.
And all that cow poop? It serves as natural fertilizer. And when the cows move on to an adjacent paddock, that fertilizer further benefits the soil. Plus, the soil and grass gets a rest, allowing for regeneration, hence the name regenerative agriculture, which also incorporates the principles of cover crops (keeping soil covered at all times); crop rotation (the opposite of monoculture soybean farming), and the avoidance of using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and fungicides.
Carbon Sink Burgers
Proponents of this ‘back to the future’ type of beyond sustainable farming believe that this method of agriculture sequesters carbon; instead of all that carbon getting released into the atmosphere, the soil essentially eats it up (acting as a carbon sink). This in turn preserves minerals in the soil, which we humans uptake to improve our own health.
In comparison to beef grown on grass-fed regenerative farms, Impossible Burgers are grown in a lab. And as food writer, Nicole Rasul explains in an article that pits regenerative farming versus Impossible Burgers, Tyson Foods, Purdue Farms and Nestle are also hopping on the fake-meat revolution. When a company such as Impossible Foods is valued at $2 billion, food giants take notice.
Food trends and lofty valuations aside, when it comes to environmental stewardship, what’s better for the planet: genetically modified soybeans or regenerative-farmed beef?
According to reporting in Rasul’s article, soybeans have a footprint of 2 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food produced. In other words, not nearly as bad as the 33 kilos of carbon for every kilo of factory-farmed beef produced. But not as good as the -3.5 kilos of carbon for every kilo of beef produced on one of the largest regenerative farm operations in the country, White Oak Pastures.
This implies that White Oak Pasture’s regenerative farming methods function as a carbon sink. Rather than contributing to global warming, White Oak Pasture farms help to reverse it.
There has been a lot of behavior judging going on between various factions of dieters. We should remember that like all things in life, a balanced approach is always the best. Certainly, the debate between lab-produced meat and regenerative farming will rage on.
What is crystal clear, however, is that going back to the basics of farming is certainly better for the environment than modern, factory-farming practices. That’s something that even the most militant vegan would likely agree on.