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If done the right way, raising beef could be good for the environment

Cattle grazing in a field.
F Delventhal
Rowntree said it's possible to raise cattle in ways that positively influence the environment – ways that sequester carbon and improve water retention, for instance.";

The Next Idea

Everyone from author Michael Pollan to climate change experts have suggested raising cattle for beef is hard on the environment.

The amount of resources that go into producing a pound of beef are a lot greater than what it takes to produce a pound of chicken, for instance. Plus, in some cases, transporting beef further adds to its carbon footprint.

We saw a story recently in Traverse Magazine that caught our attention. It’s called “Can Meat Save the World? Scientist at Lake City Research Center Hopes So.”

That scientist joined Stateside today to explain how meat grown the right way could be good for the environment. His name is Jason Rowntree, and he’s a researcher in animal science at Michigan State University.

We usually raise grain-fed beef in big feedlots.

That way of producing beef is “a less efficient model” compared to pork or poultry, Rowntree said.

“It requires more energy per unit of red meat that enters into the system,” he said. “So that’s number one. Number two is the grain it takes to produce the beef coming from the feedlots has to come from somewhere.”

“Eutrophication” is also a problem, he said. That’s when more sediment and minerals, like phosphorus, enter our water bodies and create “hypoxic zones.” He said that’s what we’re seeing happen in Lake Erie today.

So what’s the Next idea?

“We are really approaching our research from a standpoint of an ecological worldview,” he said.

The goal is to establish a profitable model, yes, but also one that doesn't harm the land used to grow food, but improves it.

“And then finally, we would like the food we produce to be socially just in the fact that nobody is getting the short end of the stick in terms of food production,” he said, “that we can have a model that will not harm our Earth or harm Michigan in terms of water quality and other things.”

To do this, Rowntree said the Lake City Research Center looks at “potentially old, but now regenerated ways of producing food."

Those include, grass-feeding cattle, using cattle to "harvest sunlight" and taking advantage of cows' "really neat, specific attributes of being able to digest, forage and making protein." The models likewise do not use nitrogen fertilizer.

"After six years of monitoring, we're seeing big gains in our soil carbon," he said. "It also lets us know that we can produce this food, but likewise we're bringing CO2 out of the atmosphere and we're putting it back where it belongs in the soil."

Listen below for the full interview. It includes Rowntree's response to those who say grass-fed models aren't a solution, because there's not enough land in the U.S. to produce the amount of cattle we consume.

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