Brian Kateman Contributor
The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2. A 2018 study published in Nature concluded that Americans need to eat 90% less beef and 60% less milk to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
But as awareness spreads around the benefits of a plant-based diet on the environment, a growing regenerative agriculture (RA) movement says livestock is actually integral to shaping farming practices that will save the planet.
The world’s soil has been degraded by humans via their management of animals—ploughing, intense grazing and clear-cutting—and according to the United Nations, it will be completely degraded in the next 60 years. This is bad news for the quality of crops, and for carbon emissions, since soil captures carbon and prevents it from going into the environment.
In a separate report from 2017, also published in Nature, scientists note that increasing the carbon content of the world’s soils by just a few parts per thousand each year could remove from the atmosphere the same amount of CO2 of the EU.
RA uses holistic farming and grazing techniques to improve soil health in order to rebuild and restore degraded soil, allowing it to sequester carbon and maintain biodiversity. For many, livestock is seen as integral to RA—helping with carbon sequestration, soil biodiversity, nutrient distribution and weed control. After all, there’s a lot of land on earth that is grassland, which is not suitable for growing fruits or vegetables on it. Crucially, many believe animals should be allowed to graze in ways that mimic nature. Most of its proponents aren’t opposed to slaughter, so long as the animal has a good life.
While there is growing awareness of RA, it has some way to go before it becomes mainstream. But, beginning this year, food made from RA practices will have its own food label.
The Regenerative Organic certification will be applicable to foods made of organic agricultural ingredients, sourced from farms that practice pasture-based animal welfare and prioritize soil health, biodiversity, land management and carbon sequestration.
However, there are some doubts around the effectiveness of RA and whether it really can rebuild soil and help it store more carbon. There is evidence that RA can sequester significant amounts of carbon, however, some experts argue that to achieve anything close to the levels required to help mitigate climate change, we’d need to see uptake across the entire agricultural sector. For small, family farmers, such a transition can be costly.
One significant barrier to mainstream uptake of RA is the growing appetite for eradicating animal agriculture altogether. Many vegans take issue with the idea that one can farm animals in a moral manner, without causing suffering, since slaughter is usually involved.
But as the RA movement grows, it’s becoming clear that it has more of a shared goal with plant-based proponents than meets the eye.
There is some crossover with RA and those who argue that soil quality can be maintained—and carbon loss minimized—without animal input. A growing group of farmers, for example, want to make farming vegan and organic; rather than depending on by-products such as cow manure or synthetic chemical fertilizers, they use naturally occurring plant matter as compost.
Also, not all vegan products are grown using RA practices. While they may be morally sound in the traditional sense, the practices used to grow them may be exacerbating the degradation of soil.
Some companies are working to combat this by combining veganism and agricultural practices that support soil. Plant-based drinks company milkadamia, for example, supplies the soil beneficial organic matter in the form of its own compost. From these soils comes more nutrient dense food, loaded with phytonutrients, nature’s own protective compounds, eliminating the need for chemical sprays. Milkadamia also keeps the soil protected with cover growth between their macadamia trees, and encourages the growth of native shrubs and trees around the property to ensure biodiversity. And biodynamic food company White Leaf Provisions’ ingredients are also regeneratively farmed, which means farmers use methods that maximize the health and vitality of their soil. So too are the plant-based hemp extracts found in RE Botanicals products, a company founded by John Roulac, a 20-year veteran in the superfood industry and founder of the organic brand NUTIVA.
However, some are skeptical that the same gains can be achieved without animal input, including manure and foraging. The UK’s Soil Association argued in a report that grass-fed livestock has a “critical” role to play in minimizing agriculture’s carbon emissions. Grassland for grazing livestock, it states, are important soil carbon stores.
On the other hand, a report citing 300 sources found that grazing doesn’t cause a net reduction in greenhouse gases. Journalist George Monbiot argues in response to this report that farm land would be best used for rewilding—the practice of reintroducing species back into the wild.
Even if animals were required on farms for optimum carbon sequestration, this doesn’t mean practices need to involve any animal slaughter. Some farms are using animals to mimic the herds that used to roam across the US to graze.
Scientists list ensuring crops are planted all year round, adding crop residues such as mulch, straw or compost, and minimizing tillage practices such as ploughing, as proven techniques. None of the above require the slaughter of animals. RA is in fact a broad term that includes many practices, such as tree planting, reducing fertilizers and increasing biodiversity.
It could be argued that allowing animals to roam isn’t practical or easily scalable—and giving land over to rewilding certainly isn’t. But you could argue that farmers must find a way to do it, in the face of the planet heating up, and growing demand for the vegan diet.
Regardless, there’s huge potential for proponents of RA and those against animal agriculture to come together and work out solutions. Yes, some vegans view any animal use as evil, that there is no gradation. And some farmers balk at vegans who want to end their way of life and live unnaturally. Ultimately, though, both agree that factory farming—the way over 99% of animals are farmed—must end.
At the moment, RA is loosely defined and would benefit from having more clarity around its practices, especially as it’s exposed to consumers. But rather than staying divided for the sake of ideological differences, there’s room to take the best of both worlds and work together to end factory farming while rebuilding soil. Our ability to grow food for vegans and non-vegans may very well depend on it. After all, there is no life without healthy soil, regardless of how animals are treated.