If you are a carnivore, and you happen to have a principled vegetarian friend, you are likely to have been reproached as you prepare to cut into a juicy steak about the nasty carbon footprint you’re leaving by choosing to eat beef. Everything from cow flatulence (high in methane, a toxic greenhouse gas) to bovine overconsumption of water is cited as proof that the only virtuous thing to do is to switch to a vegetarian (or even vegan!) lifestyle.Turns out, however, that the facts aren’t quite so clear-cut:
Research by the Soil Association in the U.K. shows that if cattle are raised primarily on grass and if good farming practices are followed, enough carbon could be sequestered to offset the methane emissions of all U.K. beef cattle and half its dairy herd. Similarly, in the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 2% of all greenhouse gases (slightly less than what’s attributed to cattle) could be eliminated by sequestering carbon in the soils of grazing operations.Grass is also one of the best ways to generate and safeguard soil and to protect water. Grass blades shield soil from erosive wind and water, while its roots form a mat that holds soil and water in place. Soil experts have found that erosion rates from conventionally tilled agricultural fields average one to two orders of magnitude greater than erosion under native vegetation, such as what’s typically found on well-managed grazing lands.
Here’s yet one more bit of evidence that even if climate scientists are getting some good big picture insights into climate change, their grasp on important details is so fuzzy that policy proposals based on them are as likely to do harm as to help.