Whilst managing the social media accounts of The Ethical Butcher, we've lost track of the number of times vegans have quoted a report at us titled 'Grazed and Confused', making claims that no system of animal agriculture can ever be truly sustainable.
Grazed and Confused is a report, not a study it is worth noting, published by a University of Oxford think tank, the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN)
The problem with the report is that it is an interpretation of other studies and it fails to suitably differentiate different types of cattle farming. However, as stated on the A Green World website, it is worth noting, that contrary to the clickbait the authors state, the report does not answer the “enormous and difficult question” of whether farmed animals fit in a sustainable food system, nor “which systems and species are to be preferred.” Indeed, the authors specifically state this was not their intended purpose. The authors also acknowledge they have only considered greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the report and not sustainability “in its proper and widest sense,” and do not consider the wider health, socio-economic, environmental and animal welfare benefits of grass-fed and pasture-based livestock systems.
So with this in mind, you might think that Grazed and Confused would come to realise that there are vast differences in the GHG emissions of different methods of farming animals, let's consider two very different ways of producing beef...
This image is of a 10,000-cow confined animal feedlot operation (CAFO) Harris Ranch on Interstate 5 in Central California.
The image above is truly disturbing, it offers very poor animal welfare, very high emissions and no beneficial nutrient feedback loop with the land, it is disconnected, industrial farming and everything we stand against.
As a reminder, CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation. The term equally applies to poultry and pork operations as it does to beef, and whilst considered only common in America is growing in the UK as well, with over 700 farms now considered to be CAFOs, mostly pork and chicken.
As the name suggests, a concentrated feedlot requires concentrated feed and this comes from industrial agriculture as well as waste products from food processing Much of this feed is low grade, GMO (especially in USA) and has been produced using intensive chemical inputs.
This production of food is inefficient and uses huge resources, including artificial chemicals and a lot of fossil fuels to grow, harvest and transport the feed. When shocking figures for the global impact of beef are produced, this is why.
The animals produce methane and CO2 from enteric fermentation with no sequestration mechanism meaning this is not a cyclical emission, there is no interaction with soil biology and water is often polluted with an over concentration of animal waste, it also obviously offers a very poor quality of life for the animals.
Pasture fed and regenerative
The image below is from one of our producer's farms.
Neil Harley's Tidsbury farm, certified regenerative by regenagri, a clear difference from the CAFO above.
In a pure pasture fed and regenerative system cows graze on pasture made up from a variety of plants that support a rich and diverse ecosystem. They are moved frequently to allow the land to recover. The vigorous plant growth stimulated by their action removes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into the soil as organic matter that is then stored below ground level.
Soil becomes more fertile and more able to hold moisture making it drought and flood resistant as well as increasing all life within the system. Very little to no inputs are required and any greenhouse gas emissions from the animals are a part of a closed loop system that does not cause a net gain in the atmosphere, the animals are free from fear, free from pain and eating a species appropriate natural diet, quite different from the CAFO system in just about every way.
It's clear to see that the CAFO system is input heavy. These inputs support substantial other business interests from fertiliser and pest control production, GMO seeds and farming equipment, all of which is not required in the pasture system. There is one company that provides lots of these inputs globally, it is Monsanto.
Conflicts of interest in the report?
In researching this article we came across John W Roulac's investigation on the report.
It seems that Monsanto has deep and enduring connection to the University of Oxford (UO). Monsanto has paid out to UO through various business ventures more than £50M.
Also, Oxford University Press has published a flattering book, written by Robert Paarlberg, full of Monsanto puffery: Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
In 2006 The Guardian reported that UO professor and Oxford resident Dr. Richard Droll wrote and testified that Monsanto chemicals did not cause cancer, while “ . . . was receiving a consultancy fee of £1,500 a day in the mid-1980s from Monsanto, then a major chemical company and now better known for its GM crops business.”
Grazed and Confused fails to count the climatic and ecological damage done by the Monsanto and DuPont GMO mono-crop corn and soy supplied to CAFOs.
Oxford Study Attacks Regenerative Agriculture — Monsanto Ally?
The authors did not bother to compile a full life-cycle analysis comparing climate impacts of industrial meat to grass pasture meat. They skipped over a paper published Feb. 2, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe which reported that 18.9 billion pounds (8.6 billion kilograms) of glyphosate were used globally. It takes 454 MJ of energy to manufacture 1 Kg of glyphosate, one of the most energy intensive pesticides. Significantly it requires 5.8 times as much energy to produce a kilo of glyphosate as it takes to produce a kilo of Nitrogen. The largest global users of glyphosate is GMO corn and soy grown primarily for cows.
During the entire 127 page report the terms “soil health”, “soil ecosystem”, soil microbes” and “topsoil loss” aren’t mentioned at all. And they failed to mention the vast amounts of synthetic nitrogen from fracked, methane-belching wells applied to grow the GMO corn — 300 times more damaging to our climate than carbon.
The distinguished and well-respected U.K. Sustainable Food Trust was also critical of the report, stating:
The report focuses exclusively on greenhouse gas emissions, and while it does accept that grassland can sequester carbon, it fails to understand the vital necessity of returning degraded cropland to rotations that include grass and grazing animals, in order to rebuild carbon and organic matter levels, and the potential of integrating grazing livestock production with crop production in genuine mixed farming systems, to address a wide range of the food system problems currently faced…The only sustainable way to obtain food from grassland is to graze it with ruminants. With the growing global population it would be irresponsible not to do that.
In one conclusion, the FCRN report states: “Grain-fed intensive livestock systems use less land and so cause less damaging land use change.” Yet the destruction of forest and savannah lands in South America for soybean farms to feed CAFO animals is in the millions of hectares. GMO corn and soy is one of the most damaging systems for land and habitat that the world has ever seen.
The countries that supply much of the GMO soy used by industrial cattle feedlots in the United States and European Union are Brazil and Argentina. Meanwhile, Monsanto’s GMO corn and soy crops in North America are losing market share as the company faces massive lawsuits in the US due to RoundUp’s link to cancer.
Clearly the rising tide of pasture meat replacing CAFO meat is bad for Monsanto’s bottom line. Sales of pasture beef have about doubled every year since 2012, as reported in the 2017 report “Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef”:
Fake news doesn’t happen just in politics. After the “Grazed and Confused” report came out, it began spreading virally across the web. One headline in the New York Post read: “Your Grass-Fed Burger Is Making Climate Change Worse.”
The bottom line: No matter what the authors’ motives were, they’re working to convince people that one’s choice of meat doesn’t matter, pasture soil health doesn’t matter, less RoundUp doesn’t matter, reduction in NOX-exuding fertilizer doesn’t matter, and better nutrition doesn’t matter. The end result is that Oxford University is protecting Monsanto’s market share while helping to destroy vast ecosystems and while also boosting cancer levels.
So what can we conclude?
Grazed and confused is not a report about sustainability, just emissions, not all systems are equal and there is a potential bias to the report from industry funding.