Stewart Lundy and Natalie McGill think Americans should eat less meat. That’s in part why they, somewhat counterintuitively, started a livestock farm.
Globally, meat and dairy account for between 14.5% and 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a study by the advocacy group GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, the five largest livestock-based producers combined emitted more in 2017 than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP — and emissions have since risen.
President Biden plans to cut U.S. emissions in half, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030. Doing so will require reductions in the agricultural sector but questions remain about how to make it happen.
Lundy and McGill started Perennial Roots in 2010 by converting 50 acres of conventional farmland in Accomack County, Virginia, into a diverse ecosystem-inspired farm where they grow fruits and vegetables and raise chickens, goats, pigs and cattle.
“There’s kind of this movement of people around our age, that they’re first-generation farmers. They read a lot, they research a lot, they’re actually quite political. And they care about the climate,” McGill says.
They say to reduce emissions, Americans can cut back, not eliminate, meat and dairy consumption and — this is the key — farmers can adopt more sustainable practices, particularly when raising cattle, the leading source of agricultural emissions.
“It’s not the cow, it’s the how,” Lundy says. “The cow isn't the problem. It’s where it is. It’s its environment, its situation and how it intersects with the world around it.”
The carbon footprint of beef and dairy herds is roughly three times higher than the next-biggest agricultural emitter, lamb and mutton, according to one estimate. The analysis included land use, feed production, product distribution and direct emissions.
There are two major methods of limiting emissions on the farm, says Daniela Cusack, who co-authored a study last month in the journal Global Change Biology that compared climate impacts of conventional and sustainable farming practices.
“One is addressing cow biology and trying to make cows grow more efficiently while producing less greenhouse gas,” says Cusack, an assistant professor of ecosystem science and sustainability at Colorado State University. “The other is a carbon offset strategy” of sequestering the emissions cattle inevitably produce, she says.
Lundy and McGill have embraced both methods for their small herd of 11 Pineywoods cattle, a rare ruminant breed related to Texas Longhorns.
Cattle produce the majority of their emissions through a digestive process called enteric fermentation, which then results in mostly silent cow burps. A single cow belches an annual average of 200 pounds of methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (The latter, however, lingers in the atmosphere far longer.)
The herd at Perennial Roots feed on a mixture of nutrient-rich grasses, legumes, hay, weeds and pine, which may lower the methane output. Cusack’s study found an average reduction of 7% for improved versus standard pasture feed, such as grass-only.
Offsetting cattle emissions requires using the land and soil as a carbon sink. One of the simplest ways of sequestering carbon is to keep soil unexposed by using cover crops, vegetation planted to cover the earth rather than for harvesting. The roots feed bacteria, fungi and other organisms that trap increasing levels of carbon over time.
“We have a rule here on our farm that a bed, once it’s done and we turn it over, the soil needs to be covered in some way. It cannot remain just bare,” McGill says. Their current cover-crop plots contain ryegrass and clover.
They also foster permanent beds, forest and an orchard, all of which serve to sequester carbon.
According to Cusack, this type of field management was the only beef production practice she studied with promise for net‐zero or negative emissions.
Though not as successful, another reducer was “intensive rotational grazing” — moving cattle from plot to plot every few days or even hours — which could cut emissions by 37%. “By moving the cows together around the landscape, you give grasses and soil time to recover,” she says.
Lundy and McGill practice rotational grazing along with a litany of other techniques: avoiding nitrogen fertilizers, covering manure, fostering soil fungi and adding biochar to the soil. Cusack says all can be helpful in addressing climate change.
But other scientists are less optimistic.
“This small tinkering with technologies doesn’t address the overall problem,” says Marco Springmann, a senior researcher at Oxford University. “There is no technological way that can change meat and dairy production such that it would be aligned with global environmental targets.”
Springmann says that unless sustainable livestock practices are adopted on a massive scale, farms like Lundy and McGill’s are a Band-Aid. Most U.S. livestock farms are conventional — the two largest employers in Accomack County, for instance, are Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms— and asking farmers to change without providing incentives is a fool’s errand.
Some have called for moving federal subsidies away from cash crops like corn and instead backing more sustainable practices. Others have suggested taxing meat, which could decrease demand though not without raising questions about how to do that equitably.
Studies show reducing global meat and dairy consumption by 75% and cutting red meat to one meal a week could slice off 5.13 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions a year — slightly less than net U.S. emissions in 2019.
Lundy and McGill already eat less meat, relying mostly on vegetables grown on their farm.
“If we choose to do what good we can to fight climate change here, on our little piece of land,” McGill says, “I feel like it will, in the long run, make things better.”
This segment aired on April 26, 2021.