Why some scientists are skeptical of ‘carbon-neutral’ beef


By Sam Schipani, Bangor Daily News (ME)

February 13, 2020


About 25 years ago, Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, decided to change the way he grazed his land. Instead of allowing his cows to continuously graze on a pasture, Harris began moving his animals every day, letting the plants fully recover before the animals return to graze again.


There was a learning curve, increased labor and some cost to the switch, but Harris was committed to this method to improve the quality of his land — six generations of grazing had taken a toll on his pastures, after all. But the change also had a “very pleasant, unintended consequence.”


Now, Harris’ farming operation absorbs more carbon than it emits.


“The [forage] plant acts like a pump, pulling in greenhouse gases and depositing in the soil,” Harris said. “When we impact [the plants] with the animals, those roots die off to some extent, sequestering carbon in the soil.”


Harris and White Oak Pastures are part of a growing movement of “carbon-neutral” or “carbon-negative” beef producers, who aim to take advantage of the natural interplay between large, grazing animals and the pastures where they feed.


“The land won’t efficiently pump greenhouse gases if you just let the plants grow,” Harris said. “Grazing the plant off, pushing it into the soil with those cloven hooves, urinating and defecating … causes the microbial life in the soil to thrive [which] is essential in the process [of carbon sequestration].”


In 2019, an independent environmental engineering group released a study about White Oak Pastures showing that their holistic pasture management sequesters more atmospheric carbon than the animals emit in their lifetimes.


Carbon-neutral beef, to say nothing of carbon-negative beef, sounds like the stuff of fantasy. Beef is widely known as one of the most carbon-heavy foods. Data often show that the beef cattle emit more greenhouse gasses per gram of protein than any other animal or plant-based protein source.


Experts agree that carbon-neutral beef is possible, though — and, in the case of places like White Oak Pastures, happening. But even the possibility of carbon-neutral beef opens up a Pandora’s box of issues about scalability, misinformation and whether the global demand for beef will ever truly be satiated.


Carbon-neutral beef: science fact or science fiction? ...


Sustainability in the U.S. beef industry …


It’s possible, but is it scalable? …


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