In the rolling hills along a rural stretch of the California coastline south of San Francisco, researchers plunged small probes into the soil last year, took samples, and sent them to a lab to measure the carbon stored in the dirt. Three years earlier, they’d done the same thing. Over time, they found, the amount of carbon in the soil had grown. The hypothesis: A herd of cattle grazing on the land may be fighting climate change by helping sequester extra carbon from the air into the ground.
Is it possible for a burger to be carbon-neutral? It’s well known that cattle—and by extension, beef and milk and cheese and ice cream—have a large carbon footprint. A 2018 study found that Americans need to eat 90% less beef and 60% less milk to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. But another recent study suggests that if farmers manage grazing using specific techniques called regenerative agriculture, the final stage of beef production could actually sequester more carbon than it produces.
Regenerative agriculture practices could store carbon on farms growing other crops, and if it happened across the industry, some experts predict that the impact could be substantial. If the quantity of carbon in soils on farms increases 0.4% each year, says the European “4 Per 1000” initiative, it could offset the 4.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere annually. Another study from the National Academy of Sciences put the figure at 3 billion tons.
The possibilities are especially intriguing to food companies that are trying to lower the emissions that are required to grow their products. “We’ve come around to the understanding that our biggest opportunity to make an impact not just on reducing emissions but potentially trying to turn agriculture into a solution for a climate change rather than a part of the problem really lies in improving soil health,” says Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm.
For companies with cows in their supply chain, the potential to alter the emissions calculus for animal agriculture is especially interesting, as plant-based dairy and meat startups are growing quickly, in part because of their environmental claims. But it’s not that simple: Behind the eye-popping numbers from pro-regenerative agriculture studies, there’s some deep scientific controversy about exactly how much carbon it will actually cut—and if it’s just a way for a polluting industry to argue that it can continue to expand at a time when emissions need to radically fall.
The carbon hoofprint
Cows are an issue for the climate in a few ways. When they eat, the microbes in their stomachs also produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which cattle belch at a rate that’s almost as polluting as the natural gas industry in the United States. Their manure is another source of emissions. But the cows themselves are just one piece of their total carbon use: In the last stage of life, before cattle go to slaughterhouses, they’re often sent to feedlots and fed grains to fatten them up, and the fertilizer used to grow the grains is also a large source of emissions. And in countries like Brazil, huge swaths of rainforest continue to be cut down to make room for cattle or to grow crops to feed them. Deforestation is one of the largest causes of climate change.
Overgrazing—when too many animals are on the same pasture for too long, eating plants down to the ground and exposing bare soil—is yet another source of emissions. But the argument of regenerative agriculture is that when grazing is well managed, animals can actually help with carbon sequestration. Soils are a natural carbon sink, since plants suck in CO2 as they grow and then push extra carbon into the earth through their roots. The world’s soils currently contain an estimated 2,500 billion tons of carbon. Typical farming techniques, including plowing land and leaving soil bare between crops, releases that carbon. Overgrazing does the same thing. Farmed soils around the world have lost 50-70% of the carbon they once contained.
But when cattle graze just enough, the regenerative argument goes, they can help plants grow faster, pushing more carbon back into the ground. Other techniques, like planting trees and shrubs or spreading compost on pasture, can also help farms and ranches absorb more carbon.
Is any grazing good?
The techniques employed by regenerative agriculture are mostly just older ones that have been supplanted by modern industrial farming, and the hard science supporting their efficacy—particularly relating to cows and other animals—is in the early stages. A 2018 study, for example, found that grass-fed beef, produced from cows that grazed in a regenerative way, could be carbon-neutral or carbon negative for the last stage of the animal’s life (from the point after a calf is weaned from its mother until it’s “harvested”), but it followed other studies showing that this isn’t the case. The studies didn’t examine the whole life cycle of the animal and focused on one particular region. It’s not clear what may happen differently in different areas, or how carbon sequestration happens over time. More research is needed. “The science is completely unsettled,” lead author Paige Stanley wrote in an email. “There’s some very interesting results set to come out in the next year or two that will add a lot more to the conversation, but we definitely need more research. There [certainly] seems to be enough evidence to suggest that [well-managed grazing] can sequester a lot of carbon, but we need to understand exactly how much, under what management, with what soil types, and over what time frames.”
There are other challenges. Carbon that’s captured in the soil can later be lost if something changes on a farm, and after a few decades, when there’s an equilibrium between carbon entering and leaving the soil, it will also stop sequestering extra carbon from the air entirely (while animals continue creating new emissions.) Finishing cattle on pasture is also less productive than feedlots—less meat per acre—which can mean more emissions as production spreads to more farms. A large new report on the future of food from the nonprofit World Resources Institute concluded that the potential for carbon sequestration in soil was limited. Princeton researcher Tim Searchinger, who authored that report, argues that better management techniques can be helpful but not as much as many think, and that the term “regenerative” is so vague that it risks becoming greenwashing. Another study, from the Food Climate Research Network in the U.K., found that better management of livestock only sequesters carbon under some conditions and even then may be temporary and not necessarily large enough to offset the negative impact of raising the animals.
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Meat consumption is rising globally, and a UN report estimated that it will grow 76% by 2050, the same point in time that global emissions need to approach net zero for the world to limit the worst impacts of climate change. To meet growing demand, farmers continue to cut down forests to expand pastures; if a rancher in Brazil cuts down an acre of rainforest, it won’t matter if the cattle on it graze in a responsible way, because the loss of the trees is significantly worse. “In most of the world, ‘grass-fed’ beef means they cleared the forest to produce the beef,” says Searchinger.
On many existing ranches and dairy farms, the land would still be better off replanted with trees—with the caveat that some regions, like the California ranch near the park, are naturally covered in grassland rather than forest and might make sense for grazing. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the meat industry to meet demand if they only use native grassland. Grass-fed cattle take longer to fatten, so it takes more land to produce the same amount of meat as cattle eating feed. One study found that current pasture in the U.S. could only support 27% of the cattle that are raised now. Searchinger argues that even as farms shift to more responsible methods, consumers will need to eat less beef. “If your diet needs one acre less land, that’s one acre more forest that can be preserved, right? And that counts as a lot of carbon.”
Big food digs in
Despite this debate, some food companies are beginning to ask the farmers that supply their ingredients to shift practices, buoyed by the prospect that it could potentially make a meaningful difference in their carbon footprint. In 2018, General Mills released a limited edition Annie’s macaroni and cheese to highlight the work of one farmer, who uses a set of regenerative practices to grow the wheat and peas used in the pasta, including planting diverse crops on the field, letting animals graze in rotation and fertilize the soil, and planting cover crops. This year, the company announced that it planned to implement regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland. Patagonia is making beer from regeneratively grown kernza, a crop that is particularly good at sequestering carbon.
For Stonyfield, as a yogurt maker, the focus is dairy farms. The company, along with others, is actively working to help build tools that can quickly and cheaply measure changes to the carbon levels in farms’ soil, so that it and other companies can truly understand the potential climate benefits across their supply chains. The company already works with organic farmers, many of whom already have some good management practices in place. But it’s now developing tools to help farmers easily monitor soil health and learn how to sequester more carbon. The company wants to make the tools widely available. “It’s an effort that’s really designed to be applicable to any kind of supply chain anywhere in the world,” says Stonyfield’s Lundgren.
Danone North America, also known for its yogurt, committed $6 million last year to research soil health and regenerative agriculture. “Regenerative agriculture is at a critical juncture—it’s really just gotten off the ground but is what we see as the way food should be grown going forward,” says Tina Owens, the company’s senior director of agriculture. The company has long-term contracts with its dairy farmers that cover the cost of production plus an additional amount; this relationship makes it easier for the company to ask farmers to make changes. “We’re working on providing the tools that they need, the technical assistance on the ground, and in many cases, even the financing or grants that they would need in order to adopt these practices on a multiyear basis,” she says.
Farmers can take other steps to shrink the carbon footprint of raising cattle. At Straus Family Farm in Northern California, manure—typically a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas—goes into equipment that converts the cow poop into power for the dairy, including an electric truck and other farm vehicles. At the University of California-Davis, researchers have tested feeding cows seaweed, which can cut methane emissions from cow belches in half. (In a year, a single cow can burp 380 pounds of the gas.) But regenerative farming methods could go further.
At the Cloverdale Coastal Ranches near Pescadero, California, on open parkland leased to ranchers, the ranchers carefully control when and where the animals graze, never letting the plants be eaten down to the point that they die. Done right, it encourages the plants to grow more, absorbing more carbon. “These grasslands evolved with large herds of grazers—elk, and pronghorn,” says rancher Doniga Markegard from Markegard Family Grass-Fed. “So since those have been removed, the grasslands need some sort of disturbance to stay vibrant and to do what they do best, which is sequester carbon and provide habitat.”
At White Oak Pastures in Georgia, a 152-year-old farm, the farmers have shifted from what they say was a “conventionally-run commodity cattle farm” to regenerative techniques, rotating different animals through pastures to fertilize grass for cattle. A recent third-party life-cycle assessment found that the farm stores more carbon in its soil than its animals emit during their lifetimes. The farm is a key supplier for Epic Provisions, a General Mills-acquired startup that makes snacks like beef jerky.
Cooks Venture, a company launched earlier this year by one of the cofounders of Blue Apron, uses regenerative techniques to raise heirloom chickens on pastures and partners with farms that grow chicken feed using regenerative agriculture. It plans to produce 10 million chickens a year. Still, that’s a small fraction of the 8.5 billion chickens produced across the poultry industry in the United States, and it raises one of the questions about regenerative agriculture: how difficult will it be for this to scale?
The green shoots of a new kind of farming
For the meat and dairy being produced today—and for plant crops—very few farmers have adopted “regenerative” techniques. “I see us in a situation where the demand is there but supply is not,” says Larry Kopald, founder and president of the Carbon Underground, an organization that works with companies and researchers on regenerative agriculture. Some companies, like Danone, can directly work with suppliers and ask for changes. For other crops, it’s more difficult. Kopald shares the example of a large company that wanted to buy regeneratively grown soybeans and could only find around 2% of what it needed. Some new efforts could help accelerate production, like Indigo Carbon, a marketplace that now pays farmers for carbon sequestered.
Scaling up is a “tall order,” says Stonyfield’s Lundgren. “But it’s a big challenge that we have to solve if we’re going to be successful at feeding the next generation. We have no choice but to try to make it happen.”
Despite the questions about its full potential, the recent life-cycle analysis at White Oak Pastures, along with measurements of soil carbon at other ranches and farms, help make the case that regenerative agriculture can help at least in the short-term. Unless the whole world shifts to plant-based or lab-grown meat and dairy, anything that can be done to improve animal agriculture is a good thing. Food companies and farmers, increasingly, also recognize that these techniques—both for animal agriculture and crops—are necessary to make soil healthy enough to keep producing food. “If you’re a food company, our first question is always, ‘How’s your supply chain? How’s the front end of the agricultural system doing?'” says Kopald. “And what everybody will tell you is ‘Well, it’s stressed, it’s collapsing, I can’t predict the yields the way I used to, I can’t predict the pricing the way I used to.’ And that’s because the soil is dying and washing away and we don’t have the same confidence in the system anymore.” Change, he says, needs to happen quickly for farmers, the security of the food system, and the climate.
Danone, which plans to become carbon neutral by 2050, sees regenerative agriculture as a key part of its work for multiple reasons. “We believe that regenerative agriculture, still at a very early stage of development, is critically important for the future of agriculture, as it encompasses farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, may reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity—resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle,” says Owens. “We want to explore and actively participate in this evolving space across our portfolio.”
This story is part of Fast Company‘s special coverage of “The New Business of Food,” in which we explore how changes in culture, technology, and the environment are altering the food industry’s entire metabolism. Click here to read the whole series.