It has become a fairly common fun-fact that emissions from cows contribute heavily to global warming. Unfortunately, when you consider that the livestock industry is about as polluting as the natural gas industry, cow belches are no joke. Under the right circumstances, however, cows may be a sustainable force. Cue regenerative farming.
What is Regenerative Farming?
Regenerative agriculture aims to restore the natural resources used in agriculture. By improving soil and water health, regenerative agriculture can improve resource efficiency and make food production more sustainable. Regenerative farming essentially creates sustainable long-term agricultural ecosystems.
All sustainable agriculture starts with soil. Unfortunately, the decline of arable soil is a huge problem in the U.S. Over the next decade, food production could drop over 30% due to degraded soil. Healthy soil also plays a big role in capturing carbon to reduce climate change.
That’s where regenerative farming brings in cows to save the day.
Cows Can Play a Role In Regenerative Farming
By placing livestock in more natural grazing environments, regenerative agriculture practices allow cows to help restore the soil. As they graze, cows trample over vegetation and push nutrients into the soil. Cow manure also acts as a natural fertilizer. Thus, cows can actually reduce the need for unsustainable tilling practices and dangerous synthetic fertilizers.
Other animals including chickens and pigs can have similar effects on the soil. However, 80% of all meat is raised in cramped feedlots rather than open grazing fields. That’s why some studies suggest meat consumption must be reduced by around 90% to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
Regenerative Farming is No Silver Bullet
While moving livestock to more open pastures may negate some of their environmental impacts, it’s inconclusive whether large populations of livestock will ever be carbon neutral. There may simply be too much livestock for regenerative farming to be effective. After all, there are diminishing marginal returns to having hundreds of cows trampling a single pasture.
Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence supporting the benefits of regenerative grazing. Some studies argue that, by over-grazing on plants and roots, cows can actually reduce soil health. After all, plants and plant roots are essential for preventing erosion and helping soil capture carbon. While there are some environmental benefits to regenerative grazing, a study by the Food Climate Research Network finds that regenerative grazing won’t make livestock carbon neutral.
Moderation is Crucial
In all likelihood, regenerative farming, as with most things, is best used in moderation. Reducing meat consumption and livestock populations will likely slow climate change. As wonderful as cows may be, having too many of them will almost certainly be a burden on the environment.
Movements towards vegetarianism and meat substitute products may help reduce livestock populations to a sustainable level. The advent of regenerative farming may then allow small populations of livestock to be powerful forces in improving soil health.