Plant based diets are all the rage, and for good reason. Livestock is responsible for much of the environmental damage caused by agriculture. They are responsible for an estimated 12 -15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Poor manure management has led to degraded ground and surface water, and grains grown to feed livestock are often grown without regard for the soil health principles.
Plants, being lower on the food chain, take less energy to propagate and grow than animals. I first learned this in the mid 1980’s when personal health issues had me studying my diet. At the time eggs were tabo, red meat was beginning to fall out of favor, and vegetarian diets were getting more popular. A neighbor suggested the book "Diet for a Small Planet" by Francis Moore Lappe, from which I learned that combining plant proteins in your diet increases the body's ability to convert overall protein to energy. I also learned that it takes between four and twenty pounds of vegetable protein to make one pound of animal protein, making a strong argument for a plant based diet. Data pointed to a plant based diet as being best for people and the planet. But no one asked the cow.
Assets or Liabilities to Landscape
It’s true livestock have a disproportionate impact on human and environmental health, and this understanding has guided a large portion of my life, including the Cows for Clean Water project. However, I’ve come to understand that when managed well, livestock work with natural systems to drive ecosystems to an earlier successive stage that is more productive and diverse. Typically this means holding a landscape in a gladed or savanna type system. When managed in this manner livestock are an asset to the landscape.
I’ve also come to believe that animals raised in this manner are better for you than those raised in a system that is degrading. Studies have shown that food, including meat, that is raised from healthy soil is more nutrient dense. Meat, dairy and eggs that are raised this way tend to have higher levels of beneficial protein and fats, and are exposed to fewer chemicals and pesticides. I’ve watched egg yolks from our certified organic fed chickens go from yellow to bright orange within a week of them getting outdoors in the spring and the grass starting to grow. I don’t need a study to tell me animals raised with nature are better for you.
But raising animals this way is challenging. It requires different or additional infrastructure, such as fencing and water systems. They require more labor, and different knowledge and skill sets. Predation is a real concern and farming and ranching in a way that allows for natural predators is a real challenge. These costs need to be borne by the marketplace.
Know Your Farmer
So this all sounds good, you may say, but how does a person know where to source meat raised to regenerate the land? There are many certification programs that typically address one or more of the concerns around livestock production, but my first advice is to find a farmer.
If possible go to a farmers market and meet the farmers. Ask about their operation. What are the long term goals for their farm? How often do they move animals and what does a well managed pasture look like to them? Are they open to tours so you can see the farm yourself? Recognize the challenges they face and consider meeting them where they’re at in their soil health journey. Developing a relationship with a producer can have many benefits, including better understanding and influencing the decisions they make in managing their operation.
One way to find locally sourced meats in our Northern Lakes region is through Up the Creek Meats, a program run by the MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates. This program connects upstream producers that sell direct to the consumers who advocate for clean water. For the Driftless region, Local Harvest has these listings and the Grass-fed Beef Cooperative covers Wisconsin.
If buying directly from the farmer isn’t an option for you, consider buying meat products that have been certified to meet a standard of on farm production that aligns with your values.
Here are links to each of those programs:
These are just a few of the certification programs. There are many others and HDT does not advocate for any specific certification. If products don’t carry a third party certification, what is written on the package may or may not mean much.
If you’d like to learn more, join us for a discussion on Regenerative Protein - The What, Why, and How of Buying Meat at the 2024 Back to Basics event on February 17th. Led by UMN Extension Specialist in Soil Health Anna Cates and HDT Conservation Outreach Specialist, Jim Chamberlin, we will look deeper at these topics and also discuss how to work with a meat processor to have your meat processed to your specifications.