Nature works in wholes, but the temptation for us humans to just get even more clever with part-centric solutions seems quite irresistible. Beef is no exception. Many smart people have tagged the problems with beef as in need of big fixing . But putting aside questions about calculations, the big mistake most make is focusing on just a part of the problem.
Depending on what part they focus on, they come up with different solutions. Some want to feed cattle seaweed , some want to create synthetic meats , and others think we just need to eat less of it . All such solutions are well intended, and appear to have merit if we only look at the problem in pieces. But when it comes to fixing the real problems with beef, we think it’s helpful to step back and look at whole system fundamentals.
Every calorie in food comes from photosynthesis. Through the magic of biology, photosynthesis uses solar energy to combine CO2and H2O and store that energy in the form of sugars. For alternatives to real beef, this still holds true. Whether coming from plants engineered to taste like meat, or from meat made in a vat without the animal, every calorie had to first come from a plant somewhere. Therefore, if the ingredient plants were grown in a conventional way that sent toxins into a river or carbon into the air, putting a plant in a vat merely slips the pea under another shell that hides in a different hand.
Most people concerned about beef point their finger at methane which is a natural by-product of ruminant digestion. But like unburned fuel from the tailpipe of a car, excess methane is a sign of a poorly tuned digestive engine in the cow. Some propose solutions like reducing animal methane emissions by feeding seaweed to cows. Seaweed works by providing missing nutrients that better tunes the animal’s overall conversion of feed into body mass. However, what they may not know is that growing better quality and more diverse forage in pasture can do much the same thing. Both lead to more energy going into the animal and less escaping as methane back out into the air.
But grazing in a way that leads to better and more diverse forage in pasture has many other benefits at the system scale that feeding seaweed or other part-based solutions can’t begin to touch. A growing body of scientific literature proposes that beef grown in a way that improves soil can be a significant net climate benefit , can reduce flooding and nutrient loss , restore wildlife habitat , and produce more nutritious food . Some recent research suggests that the production of beef cattle can even be done in a way where the carbon captured in soil significantly exceeds the emission of methane . If implemented at scale, this could even possibly turn the production of beef into a net carbon sink.
If you want to fix a part of the problem with beef, go ahead and feed the cows seaweed, or make a ‘burger’ that looks and tastes like beef, or just stop eating beef altogether. But make no mistake, there are still big problems behind that ‘burger’ (or whatever you choose to replace it with).
However, if you want to fix the real problem and the whole problem, make a burger out of real beef that’s produced in a way that regenerates real life. Real food comes from real soil made from real sunshine by real life. Grazing done differently grows more and better grass, more and better cows, more and better soil, more and better rivers, more and better skies, more and better habitat, and more and better lives.
We need to reinvent beef, not by trying to fake it, but by making it real again. Reinventing real beef fixes more than just the parts of the problems with beef, it fixes the whole of it.
 Bill Gates. “Climate change and the 75% problem.” Oct 17, 2018. https://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/My-plan-for-fighting-climate-change
 Judith Mernit. “How Eating Seaweed Can Help Cows to Belch Less Methane.” Yale Environment 360. July 2018.
 Carolyn Mattick, et. al. “Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States.” Environmental Science & Technology. September 2015.
 Marco Springmann, et. al. “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.” Nature. October 2018.
 W.R. Teague, et. al. “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. March/April 2016.
 Jong-Yoon Park, et. al. “Evaluating the ranch and watershed scale impacts of using traditional and adaptive multi-paddock grazing on runoff, sediment and nutrient losses in North Texas, USA.” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. February 2017.
 Max Alleger. “Grazing for conservation.” Missouri Conservationist Magazine, May 2016.
 Cynthia Daley. Et. al. “A review of the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.” Nutrition Journal. March 2010.
 Paige Stanley, et. al. “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.” Agricultural Systems. May 2018.