A resilient food system must include well-managed livestock. Here’s why
There’s been a big push lately to move towards a plant-based diet based on the belief that livestock are the biggest culprit behind climate change. As a real food dietician, this didn’t sit right with me so I teamed up with Robb Wolf to write a book and produce a film about why well-managed ruminants are a critical part of creating a more resilient food system. If you’re a fan of Force of Nature, chances are you already understand why meat is an important part of an appropriate diet and how claims vilifying meat often miss one important distinction: it’s not the cow, it’s the how.
Our upcoming book, Sacred Cow: the nutritional, environmental, and ethical case for (better) meat addresses so many of the ongoing arguments against meat production.
Pre-order your copy now and if you send us your receipt, we’ll send you a free cookbook, some bonus interviews from the film, exclusive discounts, and a sneak peek preview link to the film Sacred Cow! Click here to learn how!
In the meantime, here are 6 reasons why ruminants are the real heroes of regenerative agriculture.
Meat and seafood contain more protein per serving than plants, and this protein is much more bioavailable, meaning your body can use it better. Getting adequate protein while moderating energy from carbs and fat is critical to satiety, optimizing body composition, and avoiding metabolic syndrome. Unless you are eating a LOT of vegan protein powders, a “plant-based” diet sourced from industrial agriculture is a sure way to ensure you are always hungry and will consume a lot more energy to get the nutrients you need, including protein.
Animal foods also provide many nutrients that are not available in plants. Meat provides B12, highly absorbable heme iron, preformed vitamin, all the essential amino acids, zinc, EPA, DHA, vitamin D, and vitamin K2. Even though chicken and beef are both quality sources of protein, beef simply blows chicken away in the nutrient department. It has significantly more B12, zinc, choline, iron, and potassium. In terms of micronutrients, chicken only has more B3 than beef.
It may be possible to survive on a plant-based diet, but would it help humans thrive? A plant-based protein system would increase our calorie supply by one-third, according to a recent study, but the average diet would suffer from an excess of energy and greater nutrient deficiencies. We already have a problem with excess calories and ultra-processed carbohydrates in our food system and a lack of proper nutrients. Other sources have demonstrated that a plant-based diet would lead to lower protein intake and reduced satiety, which often causes us to consume excess empty calories.
Some of the negative claims against livestock have more to do with how they are managed than the animals themselves. Well-managed ruminants, animals who eat grass and other forages, are actually one of the most important tools we have to rehabilitate ecosystems and improve food production’s relationship with nature.
In a continuous grazing system, cattle are allowed to graze wherever they please. This leads to overgrazing, selective foraging, and too much animal pressure. In a managed grazing system, however, cattle’s access to pasture is limited. The animals are moved to fresh pasture on a regular basis, which allows the recently grazed pasture time to rest and regrow. This allows for healthier plants with deeper root systems leading to optimum soil health. Healthy soils and healthy plants create more vibrant ecosystems for wildlife, too.
Limiting access to pasture also encourages livestock to eat some plants that they may usually avoid, creating a more diverse variety of forage in the pasture. As a result, well-managed ruminants are as much as 45% more efficient graziers than livestock in a continuous grazing system. This means that farmers and ranchers who use managed grazing can often produce more beef on the same number of acres.
Infographics claiming that beef production uses an excessive amount of water fails to distinguish the different sources of water, resulting in misleading information. There are three types of water: green, blue, and grey. Green is natural rainfall while blue is fresh surface groundwater. Grey water is water that has been used during some manufacturing or processing activity. The type of water measured for a food item can affect whether it looks like a water hog. When it comes to typical cattle production, the amount of green water used is about 94% of the total water input.
This means that the overwhelming majority of water attributed to beef production is rain that would have fallen regardless of whether cattle were being produced or grazing on the pasture where the water fell.
Nutritional and environmental aspects aside, some consumers struggle with the notion that it’s unethical to raise animals for food because of welfare concerns. A new wave of meat producers are adopting high welfare standards as part of the effort to create an alternative to conventional meat. The well-managed grazing systems we discussed contribute to welfare in a number of ways. Healthier soils mean healthier, more abundant forage, which improves cattle’s access to their natural diet. Animals in these managed grazing systems also have an opportunity to behave as they would in nature. Rotating to fresh pasture emulates the way herds of bison used to travel throughout the plains and is a more natural behavior than simply staying in one place indefinitely.
Many regenerative farmers and ranchers also use low-stress handling techniques to keep animals calm. In most cases, however, cattle are so excited to move to a new paddock that they need little convincing to follow the farmer or rancher. As for butchering, producers who direct market to consumers often use small-scale slaughter facilities that process far fewer head per day compared to large-scale packing plants. This usually means that the animals travel a shorter distance to the facility and spend less time in a feedlot or holding pen before processing.
When you add up the many products that source ingredients from cattle alone including tallow for beauty products, cartilage for osteoarthritis medications, and gelatin for foods as a few examples, it paints a much different picture of cattle’s contribution to our society. With the rise of synthetic textiles to replace leather and wool, cattle hides and fleeces are tragically winding up in landfills. Now, some companies are catching on to the environmental harms associated with synthetic textiles and reinvesting in long-lasting, durable leather.
It’s pretty magic - grazing animals can produce high quality food and other usable products eating food humans can’t digest (grasses) on land we can’t use for crop agriculture.
Diana Rodgers, RD, is a "real food" nutritionist living on a working organic farm near Boston, Massachusetts. She's an author, runs a clinical nutrition practice, hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast, and is an advisory board member of Animal Welfare Approved and Savory Institute. She speaks internationally about the intersection of optimal human nutrition and regenerative agriculture. Her new documentary film and book project, Sacred Cow: The Case For Better Meat, will launch this summer of 2020. She can be found at www.sustainabledish.com and www.sacredcow.info
The Sacred Cow book is out now! Check it out here.