A New Study on Regenerative Grazing Complicates Climate Optimism

A new, peer-reviewed paper on White Oak Pastures’ practices advances our understanding of the climate impact of beef and the potential for regenerative grazing to store carbon in the soil.


By Virginia Gewin, Civil Eats

January 6, 2021


 At White Oak Pastures, an eastern Georgia-based sixth-generation farm, Will Harris “went rogue” and began to transition away from industrial cattle ranching 25 years ago. Since then, Harris has been rotating organic cattle, chickens, and pigs on 3,000 acres of pasture in an effort to improve land degraded by years of conventional cotton and peanut production.


Comparing his black soil to the red soil only yards beyond the fence he shares with his neighbor, Harris said in a recent phone call: “They look like they came from two different planets.”


Now, White Oak Pastures is at the center of a larger conversation about the climate impact of beef and the power of regenerative grazing to store carbon in the soil.


In 2019, White Oak and General Mills, which buys the ranch’s beef for its Epic jerky line, published a life-cycle analysis by Quantis, a sustainability consulting group, which claimed the farm “offsets at least 100 percent of [its] grass-fed beef carbon emissions and as much as 85 percent of the farm’s total carbon emissions.”


Beef production is a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and is responsible for 14.5 percent of human-caused emissions globally, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). So, the promise of a practice that offsets that methane by storing carbon in the soil is tantalizing to many consumers and industry insiders.


White Oak Pastures promoted its “carbon negative footprint” in the wake of press reports questioning the validity of carbon neutral beef amid the regenerative agriculture boom. In recent years, awareness of regenerative practices have been picking up as several groups rush to create labels and certification schemes for farms that claim to be improving the soil and working to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. With so few quantitative studies yet conducted, however, the Quantis claims yielded a fair bit of criticism. But it hadn’t been peer reviewed—until now.


In November, a group of eight scientists published a comprehensive, peer-reviewed life cycle analysis on the research done at White Oak Pastures. The findings confirm that multi-species pasture rotations sequester enough carbon in soil to create a greenhouse gas footprint that is 66 percent lower than conventional, commodity production of beef. The catch is that the regenerative approach requires 2.5 times more land.


The difference, says study co-author Paige Stanley, occurred because the Quantis analysts applied the rate of carbon sequestration solely to beef, while this paper included nutrient inputs and emissions from all the animals in the system.


“It’s a hell of a lot of carbon,” says study co-author Jason Rowntree, a researcher at Michigan State University. “But when you combine all of the different proteins, the emission footprint is considerably lower, with a land tradeoff that must be addressed.”


Rowntree hopes to see the approaches used on operations like White Oak scaled up to improve more land, along with simultaneous work to reduce the overall footprint of beef production.


The Study Results ...


Beyond Carbon ...


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